Few spectacles were as glorious and psychedelic as the Grateful Dead’s New Years Eve shows. Usually taking place in their home base of San Francisco, the Dead would stage mammoth concerts featuring deep cuts, special guests, and even elaborate stage props as the band would jam well into the morning hours. The Dead always knew how to through a party; when the year came to an end, they saw it out in style.
Because the band have been so carefully preserved and catalogued, you can experience many of these concerts for yourself. The band’s first few New Year’s Eve shows weren’t recorded. However, things would change with their 1969 show in Boston, when they ushered in the New Year with a loose setlist and a famous open stage policy.
The New Years Eve shows account for several band milestones and some of the goofier and most joyous moments in the band’s history. The show ushering in 1972 would be the first to feature new members Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux, while David Crosby was the special guest for the following year’s show.
Concert impresario Bill Graham was often involved in the planning of the shows. His appearances wearing his famous Father Time costume often saw him ride in during the countdown to midnight on various apparatuses, including a mini replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, a motorcycle, a magic mushroom, and of course, a joint.
The Dead’s New Year’s Eve show in 1970 was one for the record books, with a massive three-set, 32 song concert. It included the band’s best-loved songs like ‘Althea’, with a classic transition of ‘China > Rider’ and ‘Scarlet > Fire’, obscure pulls like ‘The Monkey & the Engineer’, and even rarely played classics like ‘Ripple’. The third set started with ‘Sugar Magnolia’, with the band proceeding to jam through seven different songs before circling back to the ‘Sunshine Daydream’ coda.
What’s even more remarkable is that the Dead played a full show the night before with almost no repeated songs, with only ‘Althea’, ‘Deal’, and their cover of ‘Around and Around’ making reappearances. That’s 50 songs between two nights and only three repeats. It was part of their five-night residency at the Oakland Auditorium, with the band closing out the first year of the ’80s with panache.
One of the concert’s highlights on December 30th was an early set rendition of ‘Beat It On Down the Line’, an old country tune that went all the way back to the band’s pre-Dead days as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. The song was given a garage rock charge on their first album, and it was one of the few songs that the band continued to play throughout their entire career. ‘Beat It On Down the Line’ was only performed six times in 1980, but the version used to close out the year, with its ridiculous 30-beat intro, is special.
The ’80s would see a major upheaval for the Dead. The Godchaux’s would depart, the band would welcome new keyboardist Brent Mydland, and transitioned into one of the world’s biggest touring acts. The decade would also see an increase in the band’s commercial fortunes, but it would also harbour increased health problems for Jerry Garcia and a reduced frequency of studio material. The decade would prove to be the band’s most turbulent time, but they entered it with guns blazing, as seen in the clip below.