Amidst San Francisco's picturesque waterside splendor, Winterland Arena was repulsive. A gigantic eyesore of no aesthetic or architectural value; the building was old, shabby, and rundown. Chunks of plaster would occasionally snow down upon occupants from the high rafters; the temperature would invariably be either exhaustively hot, or unbearably chilly. From inside or out, the building was just ugly.
In a city teeming with concert venues, why would anyone miss such a hole?
Simple: the music.
Built shortly after the turn of the century to host marquee boxing matches, the structure was turned into an ice-skating rink after an incident where the ring collapsed mid-fight. It wasn't until later, in 1967, that rock promoter Bill Graham decided to turn the place into a concert hall.
The rest is music history.
Over the next decade the place would host some of the most culturally important and musically virtuous performances ever: The Band's farewell show, "The Last Waltz", held on Thanksgiving, 1976; Bruce Springstein's self-proclaimed greatest show ever, during December of '78; and memorable performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones and The Who.
Somehow, the place always seemed to inspire greatness.
When it finally came time to close the hall down in 1978, in typical Graham fashion, Winterland hosted a no-holds-barred bash a New Year's Eve extravaganza featuring San Francisco's own, the Grateful Dead.
While the concert was originally broadcast live over San Francisco public television, the night can now be experienced in a newly re-mastered DVD. Just like most Grateful Dead re-releases, this fresh look at America's greatest rock band is well worth the wait.
No one knew or understood the building better than the Dead. During Winterland's stint as a music hall, the Dead played there 59 times, comprising almost 10 percent of all shows ever presented there. They somehow turned the cavernous place into a home, their own friendly confines of a sort, whose familiarity allowed them to churn out many of their most memorable performances ever.
With a classic set list featuring both new (Shakedown Street was released just months before) and old tunes, the Dead demonstrate their jamming brilliance during a clear climax of their career. While the show represents an obvious nostalgic farewell to the band's adopted home court, in retrospect, the concert also signified another important ending. The years '77 and '78 are considered two of the band's best for both touring and recording. In this sense the show acts as an epilogue, a dramatic summary of the band's pinnacle of genius.
Since the video and audio recordings were never intended to by synched, the fact that this DVD was ever produced is an accomplishment itself. While the picture can appear hazy and pixilated in spots, producers Jeffrey Norman and David Lemieux, tremendously recreate the band's sound from the original 24-track recordings.
Jerry Garcia sounds, well, like Jerry. His guitar licks are crisp, clean and piercing, with his signature upward twang resonating majestically around the big hall. He sounds uniquely inspired, with his voice still in the healthy part of his career, that gentle rustic wallow as soothing and empathetic as ever. He even looks like he's having a good time.
Ultimately though, it is Garcia's soloing that makes the DVD. Watching him noodle on such an 'on' night from the '70's is profoundly perfect, like a slice of rock 'n' roll euphoria. While nearly every note that he plays and every note that he doesn't play is almost perfect throughout the show, Garcia delivers the clear highlight of the evening half-way through the third set: a delicate solo over the beautifully woeful "Wharf Rat."
Bassist Phil Lesh looks somehow relaxed and energetic at the same time, and sounds as chunky and loud as ever. You can almost feel the huge Winterland walls shaking as he pounds out the first few notes of the mysteriously appropriate "Samson and Delilah." Lesh leading the group into the main riff of "The Other One" is easily one of the most adrenaline-pumping moments of the show as well.
While the spacy jamming of "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain" perfectly typify that psychedelic Dead sound, it's the more concentrated grooves of "Me and My Uncle" and Johnny Cash's "Big River" that get the band and the crowd rolling into the new year.
Some parts of the almost four-hour show may seem too spacy to even the most tripped-out Deadheads. Percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann sound cosmically grooved together through much of "Rhythm Devils," but it drags. As does the 19 minute version of "Not Fade Away," which contains only a few inspired moments from special guest John Cipollina. Also, what exactly guest star Ken Kesey is trying to do with his 'thunder machine' could probably be understood only by the most severely psychedelicized in the crowd.
Nonetheless, the DVD is rich throughout. The extras are notably extensive, especially the "Winterland: A Million Memories" documentary film, as well as the detailed chronological history of the Dead at Winterland.
With the Dead jamming into the wee hours of the morning, ushering in a new year and a new era, "The Closing of Winterland" acts as a fond farewell to perhaps the most glorious dump in the history of American music.
"The Closing of Winterland": AB
DVD features: A