|The front cover of the Grateful Dead's April, 1981 release Reckoning|
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|
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 ;||
|Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie >||
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.