Way back, nearing a million years ago, while languishing as a thoroughly underperforming high school student whose only focus was music, I dropped a few bucks to call the GD Hotline. Yep, you read that right. Calling another country, especially from Canada cost something in the dollar range per minute. As a poor teenager selling juice, trash bags and toilet paper over the phone, this cost likely burned a half hour of afterschool toil. As a poor Canadian teenage Deadhead long before the internet, this was a form of leisure. I likely wasn’t seeing the band in Toronto anytime soon, having just missed their 1987 appearance, but it was fun to hear where and when they were putting on shows. I recently found a notebook with a page of chicken-scratched dates listing the summer 1990 tour. Again, as there was no internet or obviously social media, the hotline was the only way to get the news. If you had more than one Deadhead friend, one person in your spidering network had to make that call before word could spread to your ears.
Any details I write about how I first heard the Spring 1990 tour announcement would be pure fabrication, but I’ll assume that my Deadhead mentor Richie laid the news on me. The Dead were playing a pair of shows on the north side of the border and only an hour’s drive from Toronto on March 21 & 22. Like so many other Deadheads, despite the relatively short distance, March 21st would mark my first time visiting Hamilton, ON. At the time, it almost seemed insulting that any band would shrug off playing the largest city in Canada for a small industrial town to its west. Having a better understanding of tour routing and how many venues didn’t want to risk the perceived headaches that arrived with Dead tour, I see the reasoning all these years later. The likeliest Toronto venue in 1990 was Maple Leaf Gardens and a quick look at the team’s schedule shows that they were on the road during these dates. Also knowing the city’s Victorian views back then, when liquor and beer stores were still closed on Sundays, it feels clear that no amount of money was opening the stage doors to the Dead in downtown Toronto in the 90s.
The timing of this tour for fortuitous for me as I had been putting away cash from my crappy telemarketing job, like a good boy. And now, I had a reason to blow it all. Looking at that schedule, I consulted my two other Deadhead friends to see if we could put it together. To make it happen, I even offered to take care of ordering the tickets via GDTS saying that the two could pay me back later. You can probably guess on zero fingers and toes how many of these 300 loaned dollars were returned to me. Consulting my Deadheadmaster on the intricacies of the mail order process, I got my USD money order and prettied up my envelope. He told me that since the Hamilton shows were close to home, our odds of success were increased. I remember the day I received a note from the post office reporting that a registered letter awaited me. I begged a ride to the mall from my dad and ran to grab my package. Joyously, I found 15 tickets inside. Sadly, instead of fancy, sparkly and special tickets I so wanted for Hamilton, inside were bland, dot matrix printed billets, though each show had a different colour. That sort of flair was very on-brand for 1990s Canada. At least the Albany tickets had a bit of razzle-dazzle. While the trip to Albany required real planning, the Hamilton shows only needed a look at a bus schedule.
Leaving school early to hit Shakedown, we took a commuter bus west that for these two nights looked more like a Green Tortoise. Walking to the venue on a particularly shitty misty spring day, Shakedown appeared as sad, muddy and small. Instead of the Byzantine bazaar that thrilled me in Buffalo the previous summer, fewer vending Heads bothered with a border crossing. There was no reason to walk around outside for long, except to look for friends, so when doors opened, we headed in. I won’t go into deep detail about the show itself, not when listening to it is all the story you need.
Spring Tour 1990 was a high watermark for the Grateful Dead. It was one of those special tours, much like the same season’s thirteen years prior. Much has been written about and released from this tour. Bob Weir described it as a time when the entire band was itching to play. Garcia’s health was as good as it had been in a long time, which was the usual barometer for show quality. 1990 was the year I saw the majority of Dead shows in my short history and I feel pretty damn lucky. I was captivated by 70s shows and secretly wished they were my Deadhead era. It took decades to see that not only was I lucky to have caught as few shows as I did, but that I was a part of one of the sweetest sections of a very strong year for the band. That sort of retrospection adds to my growing list of gratitude for a life well lived.
We had floor seats for night one and when the band took the stage, there, 20 or so feet in front of me was Phil Lesh, in all his grey-sweatered professorial glory. Next to him, the ever-handsome Bob Weir and of course, dressed in a faded black crewneck, Mr. Jerry Garcia. Brent was sporting his usual plaid shirt. I was staring in disbelief. This band, which effectively exploded and ruined the idea of being a fan, was now right in front of me. Now, they weren’t doing much at this point apart from ignoring the crowd, twiddling knobs and maybe chatting with each other. Garcia was hacking a dart. Then they launched into Mississippi Half-Step and the place erupted. The next huge standout was a slinky fuckin’ Loose Lucy, so happily resurrected on this tour. Pretty sure I went to piss during Victim or The Crime, but when Standing On The Moon started, it was a frozen room that stood and stared. I’ll have to listen to this show again for more standouts. But as the night ended, the large joint I had brought with ST. STEPHEN written on it would have to wait until another night. The next night in fact. Obviously, the song wasn’t broken out ever again after its last showing on Halloween ’83. Oh, the naivete.
Night two in the Hammer was a different beast altogether. While night one was a bit short of peaks, this night was going to be one for the books. At the time, I didn’t quite realize it, nor did I get it entirely during the three Albany shows I’d be heading to see the day after this one. But with time and a zoomed-out view, Deadheads have come to realize just how special the Spring ’90 tour was. Arguably, they hadn’t played this well for much of the 80s nor would come close in the shows before Garcia’s death 5 years later. But on this night, a smooth Feel Like A Stranger opened the show. The first set is stingy on big highlights but the second set was going to lay waste to Copps. Starting with what some have called the best Scarlet Fire post-1977, a standard-good Samson and Delilah follows. Then a rare and final performance of Believe It Or Not prior to Truckin‘ and then into Drums. Next, we got a decent The Other One out of drums. Making another big mark on the night, the first full Hey Jude since 1969. Sugar Mag ended the set before another Dylan encore of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue moved the circus back stateside.
I remember just being glued to my seat when the house lights rose. I looked at my friends and said, ‘Well, I guess we gotta smoke this St. Stephen joint now’ which we did. Seeing as this night we were taking the bus back again, we weren’t much in the mood to leave. In fact, we decided to have another smoke break outside of the bus station before the hour ride back. We found a doorway and took a seat. For some reason, I didn’t light up quickly. I can’t think why I waited but a half dozen foot cops rounded the corner and walked right past us with hippie-disgusted glares. In those days, dear readers, cannabis was illegal in Canada. I realize my privilege by saying that even then, even if a cop caught us smoking, odds are they’d hassle us and make us toss the joint. Still, had they been in the mood to drag some longhairs, our trip to Albany may have never happened. Alas, luck smiled on us this night. Two nights later, we would have similar luck again somehow navigating Albany, NY despite our heavily psychedelically smashed minds leading us this way and that.
No promises that the next post will be about the Albany shows that followed. But I’ll try to write more about 1990 shows in the future.