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Music

How the Grateful Dead blew their set at Woodstock

@TylerGolsen

The Grateful Dead were notorious when it came to “big time” gigs. When they were in their preferred environment, the Dead could come alive with some of the most exciting live music that had ever been performed on stage. Other times, the group could be flat, languid, and just off. When the spotlight was on them, like at some of the major 1960s music festivals, the group just couldn’t get their jams going. Specifically, when it came to their once in a lifetime set at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, the Dead literally blew their chance at a great set.

Literally, as in they blew out their amps. Whether it was because the group was too high to properly set up their electronics or because of the damp and highly-charged post-storm atmosphere, or maybe just because amps are fickle tools, the Dead only got partway through their set when a few amp overloads caused the band to go radio silent for nearly 30 minutes.

“It was raining toads when we played. The rain was part of our nightmare,” Bob Weir later recalled to Rolling Stone. “The other part was our sound man [Owsley ‘Bear’ Stanley], who decided that the ground situation on the stage was all wrong. It took him about two hours to change it, which held up the show. He finally got it set the way he wanted it, but every time I touched my instrument, I got a shock. The stage was wet, and the electricity was coming through me. I was conducting! Touching my guitar and the microphone was nearly fatal. There was a great big blue spark about the size of a baseball, and I got lifted off my feet and sent back eight or 10 feet to my amplifier.”

That allegedly occurred during ‘St. Stephen’, although surviving footage doesn’t appear to show Weir’s violent shock. In any case, the group only managed to run through five songs during their nearly 80-minute set. Three of those were notorious jam excursions: the aforementioned ‘St. Stephen’, the nebulous and experimental ‘Dark Star’, and the R&B rave-up ‘Turn on Your Love Light’. In between, the group flopped their way through a limp ‘Mama Tried’ and stumbled through the as-of-yet unreleased ‘High Time’.

‘Love Light’ was where the band made their last stand. Having taken prolonged breaks between each song, the Dead decided to just buckle down and burn through one long jam. ‘Love Light’ was infamous for being one of the band’s longest tunes, and it was a rare extended jam that Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan could properly contribute to. As the Dead began to move out of their “primal” era, Pigpen’s garage rock keyboard skills and penchant for classic blues numbers no longer fit in as well, but he could rap and improvise vocally on ‘Love Light’ for seemingly hours.

Indeed, the Woodstock version of ‘Love Light’ was one of the longest and most epic versions of the track, topping out at nearly 40 minutes. Having haphazardly stumbled their way through their setlist so far, the Dead were finally starting to find their groove when the amps finally burned out for good. With nothing left to salvage, the Dead departed the stage for good, and were swiftly followed by Creedence Clearwater Revival during the early hours of the morning.

A bummer of a performance like this could have sunk any other band’s spirits, but the Dead seemed undeterred by what was largely seen as a failure. Just a few days after the Woodstock debacle, the band were back on the stage. For many loyal Deadheads, 1969 represents one of the band’s golden years, with the group coming off the psychedelic experimentation at the end of the “primal” era and leaning towards the folky conciseness of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

Check out surviving footage of the Grateful Dead at Woodstock down below.