Bringing Out the Dead

A PSU student attempts to recreate a lost Grateful Dead show, based on the memories of those who were there. Good luck!

They say anyone who remembers the '60s wasn't there.

Tell it to Travis Neel. For the last six months, the 29-year-old Portland State University graduate student has been studying the Grateful Dead in an effort to bring a 1967 Portland concert to life with the help of a local Dead tribute band and one of the original opening acts.

It sounds easy enough: Nearly every moment from the Grateful Dead's decades-long career was preserved on miles and miles of reel-to-reel tape, traded among fans and translated from cassette to MiniDisc to MP3. You could spend the next few years listening to the more than 2,000 known Dead bootlegs, enjoying hundreds of iterations of Jerry Garcia's "Fire on the Mountain" guitar solo.

But, as Neel soon learned, not quite every moment. "When I first set out to do the project, I intended to use the recordings to frame the show," he says. As it turns out, he couldn't find such a recording. So, instead, Neel has had to create "this docu-memory of sorts," using the fractured, acid-fried 50-year-old memories of people who were there.

"Is it a revision or is it accurate?" says the clean-shaven soccer player and confirmed non-Deadhead as he sits at the counter inside a Heart Coffee Roasters on East Burnside Street. “I guess I just don’t know.”

On July 18, 1967, a rising San Francisco band flew into Portland to play one of its first gigs outside California in support of its just-released self-titled debut. The gig was at the local Masonic Temple. Unlike the Grateful Dead's semi-famous Crystal Ballroom show the following year, little record of the night exists. There's no known set list. People who were there disagree about whether there was a light show. Some people remember there being about 400 people in attendance, but others claim it was several thousand. Even the musicians who performed on the bill can't remember the details.  

Grateful Dead, Live at the Crystal Ballroom, February 2, 1968 (first recorded Portland show): 

As Neel started trying to piece the show together for his class project—part of Portland State University's Art and Social Practice Master of Fine Arts program—the only things he could confirm were the names of the openers, the presence of go-go dancers, the lack of merchandise and that the Dead played last. His theory of what actually happened that night comes from playbills, archival research and first-hand accounts. This week, at the Portland Art Museum, the former site of the Masonic Temple, Neel will try to recreate not just the sounds but the sights of the gig, with local tribute act the Garcia Birthday Band taking the headlining slot. 

"I knew the Dead had a large, unique following," Neel says. "It's a studied culture in and of itself, one that has made vast recordings of the band. Because the show was very early in the band's history, there's no audio recording of it. So I thought that was a nice gap in the archive to plug into and create something for that archive out of living memory."

In his attempt to fill that gap, Neel drew upon two crucial sources. One is Jim Felt, the promoter who originally brought the Dead to Portland as part of a summer concert series featuring bands that regularly headlined San Francisco's famed concert theater, the Fillmore. The other is Portland band U.S. Cadenza, one of the show's three opening acts, which has agreed to reunite for the project and revisit its performance. 

Despite the firsthand accounts from Cadenza, Felt and various members of the online Deadhead community, Neel discovered that memories of the era, though assuredly vivid in some cases, were faint and unclear in others.

In 1967, Cadenza was a group of five clean-cut kids between ages 17 and 22. The band, like many musicians during that period, was busy churning out more cover songs than originals. Nevertheless, it was a prominent act in the once-bustling coffee-shop circuit revolving around the now-defunct Cafe Espresso. Felt, then a 20-year-old concert promoter and friend of Cadenza guitarist Stew Dodge, recruited the band as the final opener for the Dead.

"The Cadenza were that good," recalls Felt, 66. "They were a blues band with an actual act. The rest of the bands were OK, but I liked [Cadenza], so they were popular."

The specifics of that night, however, remain cloudy at best.

"I played Garcia's amp," says Dodge, 68. "For a long time, I was afraid to talk about it. I thought I might have made it up. I thought, 'Did I just imagine that?" Harmonica player John Ward and guitarist Steve Bradley assured him it happened. While playing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's "Born in Chicago" during afternoon warm-ups, Dodge cranked up the volume on his twin-reverb amp before his lead solo, only to be greeted by the sound of hissing static and a blown amp. "I was paralyzed," Dodge says. "And I look over to the side of the stage, and here's the Grateful Dead, pointing and rolling on the floor laughing. Really fun joke."

Garcia let Dodge use his equipment. After the Portland quintet received a standing ovation from the crowd, however, the Dead grew disgruntled, according to Felt, nervous to follow the hometown heroes.

"Three of [the Dead] came charging in, whiny and bitchy," Felt says. "I told them they needed to get their shit together and get changed out. There was no negotiating it. The city would turn the light off because of our permit at a certain [closing] time."

The show went on. There was no alcohol, no merch table slinging tie-dye T-shirts adorned with dancing bears, and no encore. Go-go dancers reportedly danced atop risers on either side of the stage, hanging above the few thousand—or a few hundred, depending on who you're talking to—college and high-school students clouded in the haze of pot smoke. There may have been a liquid light show and possibly security but, naturally, accounts differ. 

The set list also remains shrouded in mystery. To build its set, the Garcia Birthday Band researched the songs the Dead were documented as having regularly performed during that period. Surveying actual attendees online, the band learned the show potentially featured one of the earliest renditions of fan-favorite R&B cover "Turn on Your Lovelight," which Neel chose as the title of the project.

But according to the tribute band's members, when it comes to honoring the Dead, the details aren't what matter.

"This is a celebration of the time that they played there. We're not trying to recreate what that was," says Garcia Birthday Band drummer Arthur Steinhorn. After all, considering how early the show occurred in the Dead's career, the Garcia Birthday Band can probably play these songs better than the Grateful Dead did on that night in 1967. "We've had the advantage of playing those songs for another 20, 25 years longer than the Dead," Steinhorn says. "If you do something long enough, you're bound to get good at. We're all just looking forward to having a good time in the spirit of then."

Grateful Dead, Live at Portland Meadows May 29, 1995 (last Portland show)

SEE IT: “Turn On Your Love Light” is at the Portland Art Museum, 1119 SW Park Ave., on Friday, May 17. 7 pm. $15. All ages.