By 1989, the Grateful Dead had been a touring band for over 20 years, hitting arenas and stadiums all across the world on a pretty regular basis. Sure, they well over a decade from the early 70s heyday, but that year they were on a nice run of their own and riding high on the success of “Touch of Grey.” Indeed, the span of 1989-1990 is arguably their last great stretch before drugs, constant touring, and a general malaise took their toll on the Dead.
The new release RFK Stadium 1989 captures the Dead at Washington DC’s RFK Stadium over two days in July, shows where the elements were rough (lots of rain and humidity) and the crowds were rowdy: “It was hot that day and the hash was potent,” wrote one eyewitness. It’s a great snapshot of the band during this late peak, and presents two lengthy shows in their entirety.
But this is a period that’s admittedly been covered before with several other releases. It raises a lingering question: what makes this set stand out from the others?
There are a few reasons why. For one, the first show here has an interesting set list, mixing covers among Grateful Dead favourites. More interestingly, all the Dead’s lead singers take a turn behind the mic, something which rarely happened at any one show. Secondly, there’s a guest cameo from Bruce Hornsby on both concerts; in particular, his accordion adds a nice element to “Sugaree” on the first night. And thirdly, there’s availability: the other releases from this period are out of print.
But really, the biggest selling point is the one most obvious to any committed Deadhead:
the magic the band was able to work from night to night. Either in the jams between songs, in the freeform madness that’s the “Drums > Space” section or even in tried-and-tested songs like “Cold Rain and Snow,” “Black Peter,” or “He’s Gone,” there’s moments where everything comes together for the band.
The first set of the first show admittedly starts off a little slow, with the band taking some time to find a solid footing through songs like “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and a set-opening “Touch of Grey” that comes off like a throwaway for the people there only to hear the Grateful Dead’s big hit. Things eventually start to come together for them by the set’s end with a spirited reading of the Chuck Berry classic “Promised Land.”
But things really get going in the second set, which kicks off with a lengthy “Sugaree” and has some tasty guitar playing by Garcia and segues directly into the chugging rhythms of “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” and builds into a nice jam. A little later, there’s a nice sandwich of “Estimated Prophet” and “Eyes of the World,” which is played at a much quicker tempo than was usual for this period (compare it to the version a few months later on Wake Up to Find Out).
It makes a song that’s usually a long, meandering journey into a focused trip, with some spirited playing by Garcia, pushed along by the twin drumming of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, and Brent Mydland’s keyboards. It finishes with a nice cover of “Dear Mr Fantasy” and an energetic “Turn On Your Lovelight.”
The second night has the band focused right from the get-go:
“Hell In a Bucket” starts the evening off on an energetic foot, and Hornsby shows up again for a couple of songs. Meanwhile ‘To Lay Me Down” is played at a glacial pace, but doesn’t ruin the show’s momentum, but rather gives Garcia a chance to play slow, bluesy licks against Mydland’s shimmering keyboards. The set closes with a fun, stretched-out version of “Let It Grow,” where the band extends into a nice jam before Garcia brings it all back after about nine minutes.
The final set on this release opens up with a slow “He’s Gone,” but only really gets into gear on “Looks Like Rain,” around which it began to pour rain in RFK stadium! Still, the band soldiers on with an energetic version of “Terrapin Station,” and some free-form madness not only on the “Drums > Space” sequence, but on a spacey “The Other One” only a couple of songs later. It closes out with a version of “Good Lovin’” which climaxes in some shredding and a burst of feedback, like they used to back in the old days.
Not everything clicks on this set, however. For one, Phil Lesh’s singing voice doesn’t sound quite up to par when he takes the mic.
And there’s a cringing moment where Mydland adlibs during “Far From Me” and starts cussing and swearing, making a complete fool out of himself. And there’s a few moments where the band drags and seems aimless on stage, particularly on the first disc of the set.
But overall, there’s a lot to chew on here for Grateful Dead fans. And even though 1989 is a well-documented year, it seems these shows are somewhat overlooked when choosing highlights from that summer and fall. It might be a little much for casual fans, but then again it’s only the converted who’ll be interested in a limited-edition box set. Still, I enjoyed it a lot and the Deadhead in your life probably will, too. Recommended.