Friday, December 30, 2011

Unknown Percussionist, 3rd Set: December 31, 1982, Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, CA

My notes for the 3rd set of the Grateful Dead's 12-31-82 show in Oakland
In the 1960s, no one remembered anything about Grateful Dead concerts. In the 70s, we started to remember highlights, but didn't take notice of every detail. By the 1980s, however, there were a fair number of us trying to take note of everything. We didn't know each other, but one by one we started to make connections, and when our own silos of information got merged, all sorts of details fell into place. Deadbase was the first great collective Grateful Dead historical project, remarkable for prefiguring widespread internet use by a decade. The first edition of Deadbase arrived in my mailbox in 1987, and it set the table for all of us to start fitting the pieces together. Today, thanks to Deadlists, The Archive, and numerous blogs, all sort of information is available. That is particularly true for Grateful Dead shows from the 1980s onward, as numerous Deadheads were making a point of noting everything.

Nonetheless, looking back on my old notes, now and again I come across tiny mysteries from the 1980s that remain to be resolved. The Grateful Dead's final show at the old Oakland Auditorium Arena, prior to its upgrade as the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, was on December 31, 1982. The guests for the third set were Etta James and the Tower of Power horns. They played a five-song set of R&B songs that for the most part had been long-gone since the Pigpen era: "Lovelight" (sung by Weir), "Tell Mama" (Etta's big hit, not the Savoy Brown song), "Baby What You Want Me To Do," "Hard To Handle" and "Midnight Hour." It was a great little set, with Etta in fine voice and the always-on Tower horns providing a serious jolt, and the Dead stayed tight in the pocket and played a rocking, uptempo set.

However, as my notes (above) attest, the ensemble was joined for all five numbers by an additional percussionist. The Dead didn't really "need" a third drummer, what with two drummers and a driving horn section, but I just assumed the guest was some pal of Mickey Hart's. While I never actually took notes at the show itself--even I draw the line--I always wrote down my notes before I went to bed, so my memory was fresh. You can see that I wrote "Airto-percussion," and then crossed his name out with a question mark. I must have looked at a picture at Airto and seen that it could not have been him. I had seen Airto before with the Dead, but I had thought that perhaps he had shaved his beard, but a closer look at the back of some album must have assured me it was not him.

I remember a wiry white guy, about 40ish, long sideburns but losing his hair on top, playing timbale-style with two sticks. And he was a real drummer, too, tucking into Mickey and Billy's  rhythm machine like a real pro. He wasn't just some token guy goofing along on the congas. Over the ensuing weeks and years, I always figured I would see a reference to a tape or a photo of this guy playing with the Dead on New Year's Eve 82/83, but I never have. Everyone else who sat in with the Grateful Dead seems to have put it on his or her website, but whoever this guy was, I can't find him.

It's not a big deal, really, that there was an additional percussionist for the last set of the Grateful Dead's New Year's Eve show on December 31, 1982. But as a Deadhead you make the decision that you are either going to pursue the details or you aren't. While I have never been a guy who worries much about tape sources and lineage, for example (though I give thanks to the people who do), I obsess far past the normal about venues and guests, because I made the decision that it was something that I Needed To Know. Thus for me, after 29 years, this little mystery about the Dead's guest percussionist is still hanging out there, but I haven't given up yet. One of these days--hopefully in the Comment section--someone is sure to know, and then I can check it off.


  1. a wild guess - michael hinton? old friend of mickey's, there's an interview with him in the sandy troy book. pretty sure he made at least one guest appearance with the dead.

    (i *think* that's the guy's name.)

  2. Actually, Mike Hinton is a great guess. I've got to look into this...

  3. when etta james passed away recently, i was linked a few times to video of this show, but i couldn't make out who the mystery guest was during the brief moments they showed him.

  4. Thanks Joobie. At least its a confirmation that I didn't imagine this.

  5. my pleasure. it's funny because i was never really into this show and i have now spent more time thinking about it that many of the shows i listen to all the time.

    when etta died i started listening to the third set and got interrupted, and for some reason didn't get back to it. maybe soon i will give the whole show the listening it deserves now.

  6. Joobie, I am always appreciative when people take the time to put comments on my blog, but you have said an extremely nice thing. I think about old shows too, probably too much, and if I can get other people to reflect upon them as well than I am not just spinning my wheels.