JENNINGS: 'Truckin' ' off to rank Buffalo's best Dead shows

This August, 1969 photo shows Jerry Garcia as he performs during Woodstock in Bethel. (The Associated Press)

No examination of historic Western New York concerts would be complete without a look at some of the Grateful Dead’s notable performances in the area. Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter included the iconic line “Truckin', up to Buffalo,” in one of the Grateful Dead’s most recognizable songs, “Truckin’,” a song that the U.S. Library of Congress recognized as a national treasure in 1997.

“Truckin’” chronicled life on the road for the band in 1970, the year they released the song on the iconic “American Beauty” album. Hunter spent time on the road with the group and was probably with the Grateful Dead when they performed in Buffalo for the first time on March 17, 1970 at Kleinhans Music Hall with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. That is likely the show Hunter referred to in “Truckin’.”

The Kleinhans show is also of note because it is one of the few performances by the Grateful Dead that does not have a publicly available tape of the show. The group encouraged “tapers” but the reason that the BPO performance with the Grateful Dead may not have been recorded is because of union rules prohibiting unauthorized tapes of orchestra performances. Despite sizeable cash rewards being offered for a tape of the show, none have surfaced in over 50 years.

In addition to Kleinhans, the Grateful Dead performed at Shea’s once, and at the Buffalo Aud and at Rich Stadium multiple times. In 1973 and again in 1979, The Grateful Dead performed two shows within the same calendar year.

That leads us to the question, what was the most notable Grateful Dead show in the Buffalo market?

Fans of the Grateful Dead will often cite the May 8, 1977 at Cornell University as the greatest Grateful Dead show of all-time, but some fans have tried to make the case that the May, 9, 1977 performance in Buffalo at the Aud was just as good, or maybe even better. The show is set to be released on Oct. 24 for Record Store Day as a five record set on vinyl.

The Grateful Dead performed at Rich Stadium five times, including shows on July 4 in 1986 and again in 1989. Parts of the 1986 show was simulcast to Texas for that year’s Farm Aid benefit concert and Jerry Garcia lapsed into a diabetic coma just five days after the performance and did not perform with the band again for five months.

The 1989 performance was released on vinyl, CD and DVD under the moniker “Truckin' Up To Buffalo.” The show was the first of a series of streamed shows as part of the Grateful Dead’s Saturday night “Shakedown Stream” series. It was a spectacular performance, perhaps one of the best from that era.

The 1990 performance at Orchard park was the last with keyboardist Brent Mydland, who died of a heroin overdose 10 days after the July 16 performance. The show included a 17:28 long performance of “Truckin’.” The spring and summer 1990 shows are considered by some fans to be the last of the great shows by the group.

The last two performances at the stadium were in 1992 and 1993. The Grateful Dead disbanded in 1995 after the death of Jerry Garcia.

So which show was the best? My personal favorites are the 1977 and 1989 shows, with a slight edge going to the 1989 show because that happens to be my favorite lineup of the band, and I have no way to judge the 1970 performance.

Whatever the case, when the Grateful Dead trucked into town, it was always a great night.

Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night and Day.

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