From the first public Mime Troupe events in 1965 to his untimely death in 1991, Bill Graham set the standard for excellence in concert presentations and in doing so, redefined the art of communication for an entire generation. To honor Bill Graham, Steve Kahn and Melissa Gold, the BGP staff organized a free concert in Golden Gate Park for Sunday, November 3. Mother Nature cooperated and provided a comfortable and cloudless day as 300,000 people gathered in the Polo Field of Golden Gate Park.
Although the Grateful Dead were expected to make an appearance, the list of performers was kept well under wraps and few had any idea who exactly would be performing. It didn't seem to matter though, as the feeling that permeated the crowd was one of quiet reflection. This concert marked the end of an era, but also memorialized Bill Graham in a manner that was fitting - a free concert in the heart of where it all started. The sad circumstances aside, this was truly a celebration of Graham's life and as the poster for this event noted, it was to be a day filled with Laughter, Love and Music.
The death of Bill Graham was an emotional blow to many Bay Area musicians and the Grateful Dead were affected more than most, having had a close relationship with the man that spanned three decades. This was readily apparent in the Oakland run of shows they had just completed, where the intensity level was a notch above the usual 1991 fare. In a show of local solidarity, the Oakland shows also featured several guests joining the band onstage, including Carlos Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist, Gary Duncan and Ken Kesey, who eulogized Graham during an improvisational sequence on the final night of the run.
Prior to the Grateful Dead set commencing this day, Jerry Pompili introduced Bill's son David to the stage. David proceeded to read a condolence telegram sent by Mick Jagger. Among other things, he summed up what many were feeling that day when he read the words "I feel great sadness in his passing, but great joy in his memory." He then introduces the Grateful Dead.
It had been quite some time, 16 years in fact, since the Dead had performed in Golden Gate Park, so when the band took the stage, expectations were high for something special to occur.
The set kicked off with Bob Weir's "Hell in a Bucket," to warm things up. An unusual choice to open, but the crowd embraced it and were up dancing right away. This reaction inspired the band and they followed this with one of their all-time psychedelic crowd pleasers, "China Cat Sunflower" which segued into "I Know You Rider." The transitional jam between the two was filled with fire and featured focused interplay between the front line of Garcia, Lesh, and Weir.
Blues Traveler's extraordinarily gifted harmonica player and frontman, John Popper, was the first special guest to join in, with his bluesy harp adding considerably to a strong rendition of "Wang Dang Doodle."
After a special showcase fronted by John Fogerty (which can be heard elsewhere on this site), the band gets back to business and it's here that they give it their all. Beginning with a strong rendition of "Truckin," they begin to truly hit their stride. A nice up-tempo jam ensues following the verses and they take off into a nice improvisation. At approximately the eight minute mark, the band begins rhythmically hinting at "The Other One" which they tear into a few minutes later. Although not as exploratory as this piece could be, there is some fine jamming nonetheless and this eventually eases into a remarkably strong version of "Wharf Rat." This song was often very slow during the past decade, but here they take it at a similar tempo as the memorable released take from 20 years prior. It's a fine performance with beautiful guitar work from Garcia, packed with emotion. This sequence is the pinnacle of their performance this day.
At the close of "Wharf Rat," the band fumbles a bit as Weir leads them into the coda of "Sugar Magnolia," AKA "Sunshine Daydream" to end the set. This unusual segue actually had a unique purpose, as the debut show of the Oakland run that proceeded this performance opened with "Sugar Magnolia," but did not include the "Sunshine Daydream" coda, thus its inclusion here served to sandwich the entire previous week between the two parts of this song.
When the band returns for an encore, Neil Young is among them. He says to the audience, "We got a letter here from Bob. It's too big to read so we're gonna have to play and sing it for you." He then leads the group through Dylan's "Forever Young," with Graham Nash and Kris Kristofferson lending a hand on background vocals. It's a poignant performance that was a brilliant choice to feature near the end of the day's festivities. The Dead close things off with their own anthem of survival, "Touch of Grey," with its message of "we will get by."