Friday, November 11, 2011

September 25, 1980: Fox-Warfield Theater, San Francisco, CA "Ripple" (That's Otis)

The front cover of the Grateful Dead's April, 1981 release Reckoning
(Update: Touching as all the events I describe here may be, I am actually describing something that happened in my mind and not in real life. Thanks to various commenters, it appears that Bob Weir's dog Otis walked on stage the second night of the Warfield run [September 26], not the first [September 25], which I describe here. So my description of the first night at the Warfield seems to be accurate, and my description of Otis coming on stage is very vivid, but they happened on two separate nights. Some decades ago I "discovered" that the Otis event was on September 25, and simply merged the events in my mind. Although I have a firm and cherished memory of this, it isn't true, however much I believe it to be so. This conflation is a good example of how we can have reservations when some Commenter insists that they did or did not see the Dead play "Dark Star" on a given night, or that they played a certain venue, or that Jimi Hendrix appeared on stage.

I am leaving the post intact as a marker for my clear yet wrong memory)

On the Grateful Dead release Reckoning, recorded at the Fox-Warfield Theater in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in New York in September and October 1980, the final track is "Ripple." The released version of the song was recorded the very first night of the run, on September 25, 1980. In the middle of the song, there is an audible cheer from the crowd, and then shortly afterwards a huge round of applause. Jerry Garcia, uniquely talking to the audience while playing, says "That's Otis." Otis, Bob Weir's dog, had walked on stage to the amusement of the crowd. Although Otis was not the most famous on-stage guest ever at a Grateful Dead performance, he was still an interesting one. Since I was fortunate enough to be at the show that night, I thought I would describe this event of world historical importance in greater detail.

The Fox-Warfield Theater
In the Summer of 1980, the Grateful Dead had announced that they would be playing an incredible 14 nights at the Fox-Warfield Theater in San Francisco. The Fox-Warfield was at 982 Market Street (at 6th Street), in a once-glamorous but by-then-sleazy part of downtown. The theater had been newly restored, and in 1979 Bill Graham Presents had begun using it for select shows. In particular, in November of 1979 Bob Dylan had played twelve nights there. In fact, since Dylan insisted on playing only his material from Slow Train Coming and Saved, the shows were poorly received. I saw one of them, and it was definitely not good, in a willful Dylan way, but like everyone else I was impressed with the venue.

Back in 1980, the Fox-Warfield was a fully seated venue, with a capacity of about 2200. After some renovations around 1983, the name was changed to "The Warfield" and the downstairs had an open dance floor and tiered tables in the back, but back during the original run all patrons had reserved seats. The Grateful Dead had played seated venues in the Bay Area a few times in the 1970s, but not often. They had played 4 nights at the Berkeley Community Theater in 1972, and six nights at the Orpheum Theatre (at 1192  Market Street at 8th) in 1976, but the Fox-Warfield was smaller than either venue. Expectations ran high, and tickets were only available by mail order, also a first for the Bay Area.

My friend and I put our order in, and ended up with tickets for several nights. We were fortunate to get balcony seats for the very first night. Although the neighborhood was dubious, with Mike's faithful black lab snoozing in the back of his VW van (RIP Shadow, wherever you are, buddy), there was not going to be a problem. The first show of a Grateful Dead run or tour were always exciting, but this first night was truly special. The entire crowd was excited, but since we all had seats there wasn't the air of physical tension that came from trying to save or carve out space on a crowded floor.

The back cover to Reckoning, showing the Dead's 1980 acoustic set-up
The Acoustic Set
No one really knew whether the Grateful Dead were going to do anything other than play their usual two sets,but we all hoped for something different. Joel Selvin, in his San Francisco Chronicle column, had alluded to the possibility of acoustic sets, but there was no way to know for sure. Obviously, a few people close to the band knew that the Grateful Dead were rehearsing acoustically, but without an internet there was no way to know any of that. Thus when we walked down to our seats in the theater balcony and saw the acoustic instruments set up in front of the electric equipment, we knew we were going to see something different, and this added to the buzz of expectation in the house. The Dead's acoustic equipment was set up in a sort of semi-circle in front of the Dead's main gear. Garcia and Weir were in the center, with Phil Lesh mostly standing behind them, and Brent off to stage left playing piano, while the drummers played slimmed down kits in front of their regular trap sets.

Like all good Deadheads, Mike and I devoted ourselves to guessing the first song. For once, instead or merely deciding between "Promised Land" or "Alabama Getaway," we knew we were looking at the first acoustic set in 10 years (not counting the Chicago set in '78). Anything was possible. It was a rare moment to be guaranteed that it would be something we had never seen, in the sense that neither Mike nor I had ever seen an acoustic set. Mike took the high road, and decided that they would open with "Uncle John's Band," and I decided that they would start with something easy, and went with "Dark Hollow." We were both wrong.

The magical moment when the entire crowd realized after the first few notes that the Dead were doing an acoustic version of "Bird Song" stands as one of my most memorable experiences as a Deadhead. So often, the Dead made magic on random nights out in the hinterlands, while making the dumbest song choices for high profile events. Yet here they were, with sky-high expectations for an historic run that included their first real acoustic set in a decade, and they played a song that not only had never been played acoustically, few in the crowd had probably ever been graced with a live version of it. To top it off, "Bird Song" is a great Dead song in almost everyone's book, and it was truly magical when the band met the challenge to choose a cool song and exceeded it.

After "Bird Song," nothing could go wrong. Remember that from the crowd's perspective, every song was a surprise. The actual 35-minute set was
Bird Song ;

I've Been All Around This World ;

Dark Hollow ;

Rosalie McFall ;

Monkey And The Engineer ;

It Must Have Been The Roses ;

Jack-A-Roe ;

Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie >

Ripple ;
When Garcia and Weir started up "Ripple," everybody knew that it was the end of the set. While "Ripple" is actually a trivial song, it gave everyone a warm fuzzy feeling, and it was a night to be warm and fuzzy. There was still one surprise left, however, when Bob Weir's dog Otis wandered onto the stage [as I pointed out above, this actually happened the next night, September 26, which I also attended, and I have simply merged the two nights in my memory].

Otis was a fairly large Siberian husky mix, very handsome and regal, and like most of his breed he appeared friendly but indifferent to the needs and concerns of mere humans, even one who claimed to "own" him. For whatever reason, Otis got tired of standing on stage right and watching and calmly strolled onto the stage, towards Weir. The first roar you hear on "Ripple" is Otis coming onto the stage. Weir heard the roar and looked up from his guitar to see Otis standing in the center of the stage, staring at him. Glaring at his dog, albeit while suppressing a smile, Weir angrily pointed offstage.

Otis stared back at Weir, and then turned to the audience. With the royal disdain of a Siberian Husky, and with Weir gesturing for him to get offstage, Otis gave a gigantic doggie yawn--"who cares what that guy thinks," he seemed to be saying. Since everyone in the tiny Warfield could see the yawn, the entire crowd went crazy, and all the members of the Grateful Dead busted a gut laughing. The second, louder cheer you hear on "Ripple" is for the yawn. At that juncture, a laughing Garcia announced "that's Otis!," confirming the dog's immortality.

Ultimately Otis got Weir's message and drifted offstage. Somebody on the crew led him off when he got near the edge, but Otis was alone on stage for 30 seconds to a minute, a long time for a dog. In less than 40 minutes, we had an acoustic set, "Bird Song" and Otis, and this was just the first set. Mike and I agreed that we could leave right then and it would have been a fantastic night. Of course we stayed (and we're glad we did), but I'm not aware of any other Grateful Dead show where a dog came on stage, and certainly Otis was the only one to get namechecked by Jerry.


  1. I always loved that little bit. Thanks for painting the picture!

  2. At least Otis did not attempt to howl along like Pink Floyd's Seamus!

    One small note - "'Ripple' is actually a trivial song...." More trivial than the preceding seven songs? Dude! After all your praise for the much more common Bird Song, that's quite a remark! Ripple's as deep & well-crafted as any Dead song; Garcia himself called it a perfect song; and it also got the Otis yawn of approval!

    Another small note - may I note my dismay that your blogs now have advertising?

  3. "Ripple" is brilliantly constructed with a memorable chorus, but it's sentimental, and sentiment doesn't really do it for me. "Blowing In The Wind" is a brilliant folk song, but I prefer "Boots Of Spanish Leather."

    See, what was Otis yawning at? Weir or "Ripple"?

  4. Otis lived a good number of doggie years. I was first aware of him when Bill Kreutzmann joked about Weir doing a trick onstage with his dog at the Harding Theater 11/7/71. He breathed his last in January 1987, just prior to the SF Civic run, which means he lived at least 15+ human years, or 106+ dog years. I suppose the 1971 dog could have not been Otis, but I'm pretty sure he was.

  5. 15 years is pretty amazing for a Husky-sized dog. Good for Otis.

  6. On stage at the Warfield, Otis seemed like a Husky, yet in the picture he's clearly some sort of mix. It just shows how the bright lights give you a different picture.

  7. Hey Corry - I played the 9/26/80 set on KPFA the other night, and during Ripple you hear Bobby muttering to Otis and then Jerry says, "That's Otis" out loud. Dif that happen two nights in a row?

  8. Well, I'll be honest, I went to both the Sep 25 and Sep 26 show, so it's not impossible I'm conflating them. They both ended with "Ripple," but the dog did not come on stage twice, I'm sure of that. I took the date off of Deaddisc or the Archive, so if it's the 26th, then my memory has just gotten fogged. Was there a double cheer on the 26th (little cheer, doggie yawn, then big cheer).

    Of course I would have to re-write the whole post...darn history and accuracy

  9. I edited the post. Is blogging great or what? Now my post is about how memories, however clear, may not be accurate. I saw both the 25th and 26th and simply merged the memories of Otis coming on stage and the opening acoustic set of the run.

  10. Easy enough to do. I am always struck by how well some people seem to remember the shows they went to.

  11. Wolfgang's Vault has put up a new video of Oakland 8/5/79. One viewer notes that Otis emerges onstage during Scarlet Begonias.

  12. A closeup of Otis!

    Steve Barncard notes that he was originally John Kahn's dog (!) but got passed along to Weir.

  13. I have always known the "True Tale of Otis" because I, too, attended this very show, with Otis acknowledged by Jerry in the middle of Ripple, at the point where it occurs on the Reckoning set. It's funny that this comment on record took on such a life of it's own. Many times at subsequent shows I heard many conversations alluding the Jerry's comment, which those who had only heard the album had assumed was some form of salutation to Otis Redding. They would talk in detail about how influential Redding had been and that Jerry's comment assigned some special significance of the song "Ripple" to Redding. I only once burst their bubble of literary wisdom and said Otis was a dog who had wandered on stage. Perhaps Otis Redding inspired Weir to name the dog, but this did not happen that night. I never did this again when I'd hear the same discussion among other fans. Some don't like their bubble burst, and I've always liked the irony of listening to such "experts"

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  15. I was at that show too. I actually forgot about it until I was downloading all the Dead Concerts I had been to and was somewhat confused re:the Warfield run because they played a lot of the same songs. Most of the Downloads clearly pick up the roar of the crowd when Otis comes out but one has a comment from a lady that must have been with ear shot of the taper. She clearly says..."there's a dog on the Stage!" That sealed it for me and I very much remember the concert now.

  16. Thanks to everyone that shared their memories (and Otis photos!). Sincerely appreciated :) ♫

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  19. Twice lately on sirius xm GDchannel, The car radio showed Ripple, Warfield Theater, Sep 26, 1980, and I grinned, stayed in car waited for it, but no “That’s Otis”. I wonder if they edited it out, and why? Wish there was a visual too. Once asked Jay B-beef; he didn’t think so

  20. B-beef would be a pretty cool nickname, though.

  21. But what about Weir's other dog, who had no nose? How did he smell?