I liked the Grateful Dead, but never anywhere near enough to earn the title “Deadhead.” Those folks followed the band all over the country, seeing multiple shows on a given tour, trading tapes back and forth, and generally living their lives for the Dead. Some would keep track of how many concerts they’d been to — the most dedicated (pun resisted; you’re welcome) would claim dozens or even hundreds of shows.
Me, I saw one.
It was at the Mississippi River Festival, exactly 30 years ago tonight. I went with my cousin Bruce — who COULD call himself a Deadhead; I think his concert list stretched to more than 50 — and my friend Kurt and his brother Webster.
The Mississippi River Festival was an annual summer-long series of concerts held at an outdoor amphitheater on the campus of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. Although the festival for the most part predates my years of concert attendance, I did manage to see three shows there: Linda Ronstadt (my first concert), Doc Severinson (with my parents, so maybe it doesn’t really count as a concert), and, on August 16, 1980, The Dead.
The four of us drove in my dad’s station wagon, and when we arrived at the campus, it was a beautiful night. I parked the wagon in one of the huge fields being used for parking lots, and we made our way into the concert and found a place on the lawn for our blanket.
Musically, I’ll have to confess that I don’t remember a whole lot from the concert. Alabama Getaway was the first song; it started out loud, but then, after a few bars, the volume was cut back. And I remember Bruce being elated as the band segued from the song China Cat Sunflower to I Know You Rider … just as they had done on the excellent Europe ’72 triple live album. But honestly, I didn’t know most of the songs in the first place, and, after 30 years, most of the concert blurs into something of a haze. I do remember a great game of Frisbee we played up at the back of the lawn during the concert. This being summer in St. Louis, what can start out as a beautiful evening can turn nasty, and before long storm clouds started rolling toward Edwardsville. We went back to our blanket to watch more of the show, and soon we could see lightning in those clouds. Bruce’s favorite memory of the concert — which I can only vaguely remember now — is that during the band’s lengthy drum solo, the drummers were taking turns playing off the thunder and lightning.
Well, before long, the storm was on, and we were caught on the lawn in a drenching downpour. We tried holding the blanket over our heads, but as you can probably imagine, that worked about as well as rowing a boat with a feather.
We were soaked. But the stage was covered, and the band played on. And all around us on the lawn, everyone else was just as wet as we were, but everyone was having a great time. It was the most unique concert experience I’ve ever had.
Here is the setlist. And here, since the Dead were pioneers in allowing fans to tape their concerts and trade shows, is the actual concert, if you’re interested in downloading it. (Here and here are two more versions from the same source, Archive.org. I’ll let you decide which is better.)
After the final strains of One More Saturday Night (and it was, in fact, a Saturday night), everyone started the long slosh through the mud back to the parking lots. Except that the parking lots were quagmires as well. Lots of tires were spinning in lots of mud puddles. Grateful Dead fans are by nature mellow and friendly, and everyone was helping everyone else get their cars unstuck. We must have pushed at least a dozen cars out before we decided we needed to think about making our own escape. All I remember is that the parking lot was shaped like a huge bowl, with sloped hills around the outside. The bottom of the bowl was a lake of mud, so we somehow got the station wagon on one of those hills, and with Bruce, Kurt and Webster pushing, I was somehow able to keep it up out of the really messy stuff, and we slipped and slid our way out of there.
We stopped at a Denny’s somewhere in North St. Louis County for something eat on the way home. We were all covered head to foot with mud, but for some reason they served us, and it was a great way to end an absolutely incomparable night.