Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a four-part series profiling popular music concerts at Dartmouth over the last four decades.
Improvisation and unity in sound and energy that was what the Grateful Dead brought to Dartmouth for one Green Key weekend over 30 years ago.
The Dead descended on campus on May 5, 1978, bringing with them a legion of hardcore fans who camped outside of Thompson Arena. Half the fun lay in watching the small village of Deadheads set up, according to Vincent Marriott III ’79.
“They were this big happening, and they had a scene that followed them,” Marriott said. “This whole entourage came to Hanover, and people were camping in trailers.”
Fans packed into Thompson Arena for the three-hour show that emphasized the band’s “hard-edged, rocking side a side of them that is not as prominent on their albums,” according to an article in The Dartmouth at the time, written by 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist Nick Carr ’81.
The first set opened with “Promised Land” and set a leisurely pace, passing from blues rock and ballads to rock and roll. The band played tightly and powerfully and moved the crowd, according to Carr.
Several songs started slowly and, driven by Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar and Bob Weir’s rhythm, picked up intensity to reach a stormy climax.
“Bob Weir’s and Jerry Garcia’s guitars, the mainstays of the band, interacted brilliantly: Weir pounding out the rhythm and Garcia, standing almost motionless, his brown t-shirt stretched over his sagging body, providing the lead,” Carr wrote.
By the end of the first set, the band was at full volume, full rock. The second act, after a 40-minute intermission, opened with the same intensity, according to Carr. Weir launched himself across the stage and played furiously with “windmill strokes,” he said. At the end of “Good Lovin’,” the band had the “crowd clapping and dancing in the aisles” and recieved a “full standing ovation,” according to Carr.
“It was different from any concert I had ever seen at Dartmouth,” John Scott ’81, a Deadhead who had not seen the band live before that day, said. “We were trapped right in front of the stage, and it was much more impressive than hearing their live tapes.”
Environmental studies professor Ross Virginia, a self-proclaimed Deadhead, said that the magic of the band lay in bringing their fans together.
“We were bonded by the Grateful Dead experience,” Virginia said. “They gave the music away for free people taped shows and traded them, and that began to create shared experience. The music belonged to us we were Deadheads, we were part of the community.”
The concert was long, and the band spent a lot of time tuning their instruments, Marriott remembered.
“It could bring the energy of a show to a screeching halt, but I suppose [it didn’t matter to] Deadheads like that,” he said. “The acoustics in Thompson were OK. It was a big concrete space, but it was fun.”
Scott, who has since seen numerous Dead shows, said that he most enjoyed “Passenger” and “Eyes of the World.”
“It was a decent show, but it doesn’t stand out as exceptional in retrospect,” Scott said.
Virginia, who did not attend the concert but has listened to the recording, said that his favorite songs were “El Paso,” “Estimated Prophet,” “Not Fade Away” and “Stella Blue.” The Dead had a sustained energy in their songs, he said.
“Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia wrote some great songs,” Virginia said. “One reason people keep going back to them is the power of their songs.”
Scott is highly influential in the Dead community for publishing DeadBase, a series of reference books on all of the Grateful Dead’s set lists. Scott returned to the College after graduation to take computer science courses and designed a set list database for the final project. His work eventually turned into DeadBase, and 17 editions have since been published.
With his Dead connections in the industry established, Scott later opened Dharma Rose, an online store that sells Dead clothing and merchandise.
Scott said that the band always gave fresh and varied performances and helped give him an appreciation for a lighter scope of music.
“They never play the same show twice,” he said. “In a typical year they play 120 different songs, with lots of improvisations. It keeps the music very fresh, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Virginia, who began listening to the Grateful Dead in the early 1970s, said that the question for fans is always about their favorite show, not their favorite song.
“It’s about the venue, the crowd, the set list, and the Grateful Dead realized that,” he said. “They were the very first to do jam bands or improvisation, where they linked one song into the next. There was a pent-up wondering of where the music was going and what would be next.”
The Dead didn’t play many songs at the College that a casual fan would know. The set list, which included “Dire Wolf,” “Candyman,” “Lazy Lightnin'” and “Bertha,” did not feature any songs from their most mainstream album at the time, “American Beauty.” But it was the overall air of the show, like a “carnival come to town,” that defined the concert, Marriott said.
“You went to a Grateful Dead concert with a very different expectation than you would to a normal music act you were going for whole experience,” Marriott said. “In that way they delivered. It wasn’t just the music but the energy and sights and crowds.”
The parting surprise for the crowd was a dynamic rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” which was only played 12 times in concert, according to Virginia. Deadheads always refer back to “Werewolves of London” when discussing the 1978 Dartmouth concert because it was so rarely performed, Virginia said.
Carr wrote that the “smiling and howling” Dead seemed to have enjoyed the concert as much as the Dartmouth fans did.
Ultimately, what brings fans together is the power of having gone through the show together, Virginia said.
“It’s synchronicity when a lot of people have this intense and special experience that draws them all together,” Virginia, who listens to their music every day, said. “I hear a few notes, and it’s like magic released. Most Deadheads would describe it like that a core experience.”