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Months of Garcia #1: January 1978

Welcome to my recurring monthly feature, the cleverly titled "Months of Garcia." In each installment, I'll pick a month of Jerry Garcia's career at random and listen to all the shows, across all his various bands, and write up my thoughts about the various highlights, lowlights, etc. At the end of each entry, I'll reveal the month randomly selected for the next edition. You get the idea. This first entry's randomly chosen month is January 1978, an impressively busy month for Garcia, with 13 Grateful Dead shows over the span of 26 days, most of which are well above average in enjoy-ability, if not in creativity.

The Itinerary

1/6/78 Swing Auditorium, San Bernardino, CA
1/7/78 Golden Hall - San Diego Community Concourse, San Diego, CA
1/8/78 Golden Hall - San Diego Community Concourse, San Diego, CA
1/10/78 Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA
1/11/78 Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA
1/13/78 Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA
1/14/78 Bakersfield Civic Auditorium, Bakersfield, CA
1/15/78 Selland Arena, Fresno, CA
1/17/78 Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, Sacramento, CA
1/18/78 Stockton Civic Auditorium, Stockton, CA
1/22/78 McArthur Court - University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
1/30/78 Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
1/31/78 Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
The Context
January of 1978 is one of the rare Januaries of Garcia's career that contains a sizable number of Dead shows. Most Januaries were off-the-road months for the Dead (of course Garcia would then often fill his calendar with side project shows). The Dead were just coming off a very successful 1977, and, no doubt looking to continue the positive momentum, proceeded to embark on a January tour of the California, including some rarely-played towns in the interior.
I'll say a word here about my own biases: I know that the late 70s period, especially the calendar year 1977, is often held in high esteem by Deadheads. My own opinion is less positive; as eras of the Dead go, the late 70s period has never especially impressed me, at least not to the heights regarded by others. Why? First and foremost, because I think there's a very noticeable dropoff in creativity from the 1968-74 Golden Age. After 1974, the Dead are no longer launching into deeply psychedelic explorations on a nightly basis on stage. In their songwriting and studio output, they're no longer really mixing psychedelic space jazz with American roots musics so much as they are trying to craft feelgood danceable rock songs (save for the overproduced progadelic anthem Terrapin Station). Phil Lesh and others have written about this dip in artistic creativity, mostly as caused by an accumulation of mileage and an increase in addictions. Now, obviously it's not reasonable to expect the insane creative flourishing of their Golden Age to continue indefinitely, and this isn't to say that nothing post-74 approaches their 68-74 work--in fact many post-74 shows are worthy of that level. But just as a general rule, I find the later 70s a bit of a downer. It tends to sound to me like the Dead have made a conscious decision to bring themselves back to Earth, so to speak, to be maybe 50% more experimental than your average touring rock band instead of the 95% more experimental days of 1974 and prior. (For the record, I like 80s Dead a lot, probably more than most critically-minded Deadheads. I think Brent Mydland brought a lot of energy and versatility that had left the band when Keith declined. To me, the 80s Dead sound is a band ramping up towards the best kind of arena rock band possible, which culminated in the '89-'92 renaissance, while late 70s Dead is the sound of a smaller band downshifting from a period of creative risk.)
Having said all this, I can pleasantly say that these January 78 shows exceeded my expectations, sometimes greatly. Most of the shows were played with high levels of energy, including two shows (1/7 and 1/8) containing no Garcia vocals due to laryngitis. Many of the January 78 shows, while not especially creative in their setlists, contained moments of surprise and unpredictability, sometimes buried late in the second set. It’s a truism that a good setlist doesn't mean a good show and vice versa, but let's take a closer look at the setlists before we get into the highlights.
The Setlists
By and large, the setlists in January 1978 are not especially creative. The baseball metaphor here is solid contact, not swinging for the fences. A total of 55 different songs are played, not counting Drums, Space, or Jam.  Many songs are played in consecutive shows (Bertha, Big River, Candyman, Estimated Prophet, Good Lovin', It Must Have Been the Roses, The Music Never Stopped, New Minglewood Blues, The Other One, Passenger, Playing in the Band, The Promised Land, Samson & Delilah, Ship of Fools, Terrapin Station), several are played three shows in a row (Brown-Eyed Women, Dire Wolf, Jack Straw, Looks Like Rain, Peggy-O, Row Jimmy), Around & Around is played four shows in a row, and Sunrise is played at five (!) shows in a row. Some of this is due to the laryngitis shows limiting the song options, but there’s also an unexplained lack of certain jam songs that were relatively common in 1977. Eyes of the World is only played twice, and the Scarlet Begonias/Fire on the Mountain partnership only appears in the final show of the month. In their place, the bulk of the jamming comes from the old warhorses Playing in the Band, The Other One, and Truckin', each of which are played at five shows, as is the newer Terrapin Station. The jam song MVP for the month, however, is probably Estimated Prophet, played seven times and each time with panache. Despite making a triumphant return at the end of 1977, China Cat is unplayed and would remain so until 1979. Sugaree, a song with major impact in '77, is also unplayed this month. Morning Dew is similarly unplayed, and would only be played once all year. There are also no versions of Uncle John's Band or The Wheel. Saint Stephen makes two appearances, as does Dancing in the Street; the 1/7 performance of the latter is particularly strong.
The Shows
Before discussing the shows, I want to clarify my own research. Jesse Jarnow is one of my favorite writers on the Dead, and really a must-read for any intelligent Deadhead. He reviewed each of these shows himself on Twitter earlier this year as part of his ongoing review-every-show-on-its-40th-anniversary project. I probably read most of his reviews of these shows in January of this year when they were posted. I have not gone back to read them since embarking on this project; I did not want his opinions to influence mine so directly. On the other hand, I own the full three volume Deadhead's Taping Compendium. I did go back to read the Compendium's reviews of these shows; I do not hold their reviews in as high esteem as Jarnow's and thus was not especially worried about being unduly influenced.
Now on to the shows themselves, starting with three dates in a row, 1/6 in San Bernardino, and 1/7 and 1/8 in San Diego.  The most unique thing about these shows is the aforementioned laryngitis affecting Garcia. By Loser, the fifth song on 1/6, Garcia’s vocals are shredded.  He struggles through Tennessee Jed two songs later, and lets Bob and Donna take the vocal leads on Deal two songs on. From there they close the first set with a strong Lazy Lightning > Supplication, a combo I rarely otherwise enjoy.  The Jed would be his last vocals until 1/10. The second set of 1/6 is not long, but features a very good 23-minute Playing in the Band that jams through several different motifs before transitioning well into Estimated Prophet. Throughout, Garcia seems to be making up for his vocal absence by tearing shit up on his axe. The set closes with a very high-intensity Truckin’. 1/7 is fully without Garcia vocals. The Dancing in the Street is very hot and there’s a great little surprise jam towards the end of Not Fade Away, a song that I feel really tends to drag in this era. 1/8 again has no Garcia vocals, but features a very active Phil bass presence in the jamming late in Estimated.

1/10 in L.A. brings us the return of Garcia’s voice, but boy is it ragged.  The first set is great though, very consistent sharp playing from all hands.  The Music Never Stopped to end the set is very strong and features Garcia’s famed fanning technique at the jam’s climax.  For the third time in four shows, Estimated is played in the jam portion of the second set. Having played the hell out of Estimated all year in ‘77, the band feels so at home taking this weirdass California paranoia anthem out for a cruise. Garcia absolutely slaughters the first big solo and the band takes off for flight shortly thereafter. Unfortunately that flight drifts slowly down into He’s Gone, the Dead’s dullest jammer. After the desultory vocal jam, however, the band enters into a brief but frantic surprise instrumental section before yielding to Drums.  1/11 features good versions of Looks Like Rain and Big River, and Let It Grow is very very hot. Playing in the Band is nice and exploratory, with a great surprise transition into Saint Stephen after some drummy/spaciness.
1/13 in Santa Barbara bring us our first truly pedestrian show of the year.  I could find nothing in it worth recommending, or even commenting upon. But the Taping Compendium considers it one of the hottest shows of the run, so maybe I'm a huge stupid moron? Things improve for 1/14 in Bakersfield, with the whole show carrying a relaxed and confident vibe.  Loser is a great version and again Let It Grow is a highlight. I anticipated a strong Candyman but found myself disappointed by its dragginess. Estimated is undistinguished at this show and quickly does the usual abrupt transition into Eyes.  (Is there any version of Estimated > Eyes that features a smooth transition? How can they have played this combo so many times seemingly without ever figuring it out??) Eyes itself is good and features a spacey back end.
1/15 in Fresno has a great version of The Music Never Stopped, and Friend of the Devil features an intense solo from the nine-fingered man. Coming where it does in the set, it seems to serve as a warmup for a feisty Terrapin.  The version of Playing in the Band is long, but a lot of it sounds more like Drums with guitars vaguely present. Not a lot of melodic ideas present. 1/17 contains another strong Looks Like Rain, another good The Music Never Stopped, and a very pleasant and unique jam after He’s Gone.  There’s a similarly wonderful transition jam the next night (1/18) in Stockton between Playing in the Band and Passenger. The real strength of this month of shows is in brief but delightful surprises like this transition, 1/17’s jam after He’s Gone, and the next show’s spacey Close Encounters Jam during a rare Garcia solo section following The Other One.  This 1/22 show is easily the most well-know of this month, and was released in 2017 as Dave’s Picks Volume 23. Its high reputation is entirely justified.
After a week and  day off, the boys and gal find themselves in Chicago for the last two shows of the month.  1/30 has another great surprise moment when Stella Blue hits hyperspace to transition into Franklin’s Tower.  1/31 finishes up the month in style with another hot Let It Grow and the return of Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain.  
All in all, what this month lacks in pre-hiatus exploration it makes up for in energy and the aforementioned brief little twinkling moments, a cool jamlet here, and goodweird transition there. In the end, there’s much to enjoy.

Next Month, picked at random: June 1994. Eleven Grateful Dead shows from the much-maligned Vince-without-Bruce era. But should it be? Let’s give a close listen and find out!