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Dead of the Day: February 17, 1979

Oakland Coliseum Arena
Oakland, California
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Not only was this a historic night, being Donna and Keith’s last with the band, but the boys absolutely torched this show. Right out of the gate Bobby storms into Greatest Story Ever Told with Jerry following behind blazing a funky, interstellar sound and the crowd roaring its approval. A solid first set followed, capped off by an absolutely insane Lazy Lightnin’> Supplication. Out of Jerry’s guitar spills the raw forces of nature, the band keeps it incredibly tight throughout, and Bobby kills the vocals. A hot Might as Well opens the second set, which, once they bust into the Terrapin, advances from merely mind blowing to truly unreal as the whole band seems to provide a beautiful musical sendoff for the Godchauxs. 

The night was billed as an environmental cancer research benefit sponsored by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. Before the show, Fonda’s forgettable 1977 film Fun with Dick and Jane – reprised just as forgettably by Jim Carrey in 2005 – played on a massive screen over the stage. You can bet those people who had dosed early had little idea what the film was or, even more so, why the hell it was playing at a Grateful Dead concert. By time Fonda and Hayden came on to say a few words and introduce the band, the crowd was more than ready for some music. “Operator 552” on Archive, who was near the stage, related that “super-crusty-toothless-biker-ass-drug-suckers at the foot of the stage (mere feet from us) were,” during this moment, “screaming at Fonda ‘GRATEFUL!!! FUCKING!!! DEAD!!!’” clearly rattling her. Fortunately, the band quickly provided deliverance for everyone involved in the form of that amazing Greatest Story Ever Told.

By the late seventies, Keith had a serious addiction to heroin that deeply affected his playing, including causing him to fall asleep during a few shows. For her part, Donna struggled with cocaine and had failed to arrive for a couple concert dates. To make matters even worse, the two fought relentlessly, and nastily, offstage. But with, as Phil has said, confrontation avoidance being a religion amongst the band members, it took a couple years before the boys got around to doing something about the situation, which they finally did in a meeting just a few nights before this February 17th show, kicking the couple out of the Grateful Dead. The emotion of the night seems to come through a few times for Donna. For instance, she barely makes it through From the Heart of Me and seems to have tears welling up during the “since the end is never told” verse in Terrapin. With her off-key wailing, Donna could often be a real detriment to the band, but by ’79 she had clearly grown into her role with the Dead, adding far more than she took away from a show. The Sugar Mags closing the second set provides just one example of how much she could enhance the music. In the months after leaving the Dead, both Donna and Keith got clean, repaired their relationship, and formed the Heart of Gold Band. Sadly, all of this was cut short when Keith died in an automobile accident in July 1980.

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