Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Blair Jackson
Forty years ago, August 27,1972 - on a scorching Sunday afternoon, in a large meadow, in the heart of Oregon Renaissance Pleasure Faire land 13 miles west of Eugene, the Grateful Dead played one of the most famous shows of their 30-year career:
The Field Trip, a hastily put together benefit to raise money for the financially imperiled Springfield Creamery, which was operated by Ken Kesey’s brother, Chuck. The area was Merry Prankster territory—it’s where Kesey and a few of the other Pranksters hailed from, and it’s where Kesey and Ken Babbs took The Bus after the Acid Tests. “Back to the land” was part of the hippie revolution/evolution for many; the Oregon Pranksters embodied that ethos.
The Dead’s first performance—if you can call it that—in Oregon was at an Acid Test in Portland’s Beaver Hall in January ’66. No one seems to remember the exact date or what went on there. I guess that’s how you can tell it was a great success. Almost exactly two years later—in late January and the beginning of February 1968—they played five shows in Oregon during their great Northwest trek with Quicksilver, including their first in Eugene, in the University of Oregon’s student union building. One of my favorite 1969 Dead shows took place on the last day of May at McArthur Court gym on the U of O campus—an electric show from beginning to end, crackling with Prankster energy in the person of chatty host Babbs. They next played Eugene in January ’71 at Lane Community College, a gig for which only a muffled partial recording exists and which reveals nothing particularly extraordinary.
According to an article in the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper in late August ’72, the Creamery benefit, which had very little advance publicity, was only expected to draw about 5,000 to the fairgrounds, but by the time the show started that afternoon with a set by the New Riders of the Purple Sage (with Buddy Cage now in the steel guitar slot Garcia once occupied), there were three times that number, and as the afternoon progressed, the crowd hit somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000. There were traffic snarls on all roads near the concert, the facilities on site were inadequate for the size of the gathering, and, worst of all, the temperature soared as high as 108, an Oregon record.
Yet, if you talk to folks who were actually there, or if you watch the evocative, much-bootlegged film of the event, Sunshine Daydream, you come away believing that, heat and water issues aside, the Field Trip was a little piece of pure Hippie Heaven. After all, it was just a single day of relative discomfort, the vibes were good, security nonexistent (and not necessary), the psychedelics flowed freely, and the Dead rose to the occasion and played magnificently.
The band had been on a roll all year long, with the Europe tour that spring a particular triumph. But even by those lofty standards, the Field Trip was special. There is a reason why in poll after poll of Dead Heads through the years, 8/27/72 consistently lands at or near the top. Was it the most “important” Dead show of all time, as John Dwork contended in his intense but convincing 7,500-word essay about the show in The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium, Vol. 1? He called it “The quintessential Grateful Dead concert Experience—not just the display of technically and emotionally brilliant musicianship. But also a spiritually transcendent vision quest ritual for audience and band alike.” I can be talked into that.
The set list is typical for ’72, but the playing definitely has that unmistakable acid edge that makes it sound bolder and more adventurous—just on this side of completely unraveling at any moment. The payoffs are huge and exciting. You can feel the band’s determination to hold it together as they fearlessly keep charging forward, exploring the nuances of whatever unfolds before them musically, clinging to one another as they simultaneously push off in different directions.
Each of the three sets seems to soar higher than the one that preceded it. Set One achieves liftoff during a truly spectacular “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider.” If you’ve seen Sunshine Daydream, it’s hard to wipe away the images of bare-breasted young women in the crowd bopping to the music, or the vintage Prankster film footage of Neal Cassady piloting the bus to never-ever land. Before Set Two, Bob announces that the band is changing its name to the Sunstroke Serenaders, but the searing heat doesn’t prevent them from launching into what may be my favorite “Playing in the Band” of all time—18½ minutes of some of the finest structured psychedelic jamming you’ll ever hear. The “Bird Song” later in the set clocks in at a mere 12½ minutes, but also feels as if they’ve taken it as far as it can go.
Set Three, which begins as the relentless sun finally starts to go down behind the crowd, opens with a trippy and transcendent 31-minute “Dark Star” that, for all its inherent looseness, actually is completely logical and coherent in its mystical progression through orderly and chaotic realms. That rolls into “El Paso,” which then drops into a stunning version of “Sing Me Back Home” dripping with existential pathos. Finally, “Sugar Magnolia” brings the crowd back from the brink and has everyone smiling and kicking up dust. The encore is a pair of crowd-pleasing rockers—“Casey Jones” and “One More Saturday Night” (on Sunday, but who cares?).
Tapes of 8/27/72 have circulated for many years—the show was a cornerstone of any decent collection, and definitely among the handful of tapes folks used to explain to a newbie, “This is what the Grateful Dead is all about.” When VHS copies of Sunshine Daydream began turning up in the mid-’80s—my first was reasonably low-gen, but still grainy and missing the “Dark Star” for some reason—we finally had some visuals to accompany the music already burned in our minds. That added immeasurably to subsequent listenings. Someday, both the film and the audio version will come out commercially; it’s just a matter of time. As one of the filmmakers, Phil DeGuere, told me in 1986, “I’ve never seen anything else that captures the squirrely craziness of that period.”
Almost 10 years to the day after the ’72 Field Trip—August 28, 1982—Kesey, Babbs and company brought the Dead back to what was now called the Oregon Country Fairgrounds for what was billed as “The Second Decadenal Field Trip.” Needless to say, the legend that had grown around the original Field Trip perked considerable out-of-state interest in this one (the first had been almost exclusively Oregon locals), and it became a summer weekend destination for thousands. Quite a few of our Northern California Dead Head friends made the trip to the Trip and all raved about what a magical environment it was. Peter Rowan, the Flying Karamozov Brothers juggling troupe and the up-and-coming Northwest bluesman Robert Cray opened for the Dead. And this time, the high temperature was only in the mid-’70s, and the promoters were ready to accommodate a large crowd. About 20,000 attended, and according to the front-page story in the next day’s Register-Guard, “Some shed their clothes and twisted near the stage. Others reminisced [about the ’72 concert] under trees with an ear of corn and a marijuana cigarette. A few merely listened.” Hmm, not sure about that corn-and-pot combo.
As for the show in ’82 versus the one in ’72—that’s a completely unfair comparison! The ’72 is a consensus Top Five of all time; the other is… well … not. It’s almost like two different bands. The first had Keith and Donna and just Billy on drums. That unit was unusually nimble and agile, and ’72 was their first peak. By ’82, Mickey had been back for years, so the drum sound and the beat of the band in general had changed, and Brent had brought in different keyboard colors and vocal harmony textures. Substance issues occasionally contributed to musical inconsistency.
The ’72 Dead, sans Pigpen, played almost no blues or R&B. By ’82, Bob was peppering nearly every set with a blues or two—Field Trip II had both “Minglewood” and the R&B classic “All Over Now.” After a sloppy opening, the ’82 show starts to pick up steam in the middle of the first set with a ripping version of a cover that came of age in ’72, “Big River,” followed by one of the best of their newish songs at the time, “Althea.” The aforementioned “All Over Now” rocks hard and then the set concludes with an exciting and jammy “China Cat” > “I Know You Rider” that surely had everyone there who loved the ’72 version grinning ear to ear. I have this theory that when the Dead hit those transcendent peaks, time disappears completely and it’s the same Grateful Dead Peak that courses through their whole history, popping up unpredictably with greater or lesser frequency. This was one of those.
Set Two in ’82 does not begin with an 18-minute “Playing in the Band.” Rather, the fans are greeted with the breakout of “Keep Your Day Job.” Now, that might sound like an awful turn of events to some of you, but it was always exciting to hear a new song, and it had been a couple of years since Garcia had introduced one, and it was a rockin’ little tune (even if JG didn’t know the words yet). Two songs later there’s the debut of “West L.A. Fadeway,” which was great from the start.
However, it’s not until the appearance of “Playing in the Band” (fifth song) that the second set gets a little wild and starts to fulfill the promise of that earlier “China-Rider.” There’s the merest hint of the just-revived “Crazy Fingers” toward the end of the “Playing” jam, but instead it charges into “Drums.” Dang! “Space,” a segment that did not exist, in a formalized sense, in ’72—“Dark Star” and “The Other One” took care of that side of the Dead—leads inexorably into a beautiful version of “The Wheel” (another song not in the live repertoire in ’72). Then comes “The Other One,” which the Dead did not play during the ’72 Field Trip, and it’s a good one. With its roots in the acid days and its allusions to Cowboy Neal and The Bus, that song is like the National Anthem of Prankster Country; the versions there always have plenty of juice.
The rest of the ’82 show is well played and occasionally inspired. “Truckin’” is at its anthemic best, “Black Peter” is there to remind everybody that, ’72 or ’82, this day is “just like any other day that’s ever been,” and the “Playing” reprise neatly wraps up the pre-“Drums” voyage. The “Saturday Night” closer comes abruptly on its heels (cue clouds of dust!) and then the encore brings a final treat—a nearly perfect “Dupree’s Diamond Blues,” played for the first time in four years. “Same old story and I know it’s been told…”
A splendid time was had by all, whether we fully appreciate the audio evidence of the day 30 years down the line or not. I like this quote from a 34-year-old fellow named Peter Zuhr, found in the August 29, 1982 Register Guard: “There’s been a lot of change in the last decade, but there are a lot of 10-year veterans here who came back to say, ‘This is still my life.’ From my own point of view, this is an affirmation and a celebration. We’re becoming settled in our own settled way.”
I still feel that way today.