We were admittedly late to the party.

It took until the early 90s until me and my crew caught on to how much fun the whole live music scene, particularly everything one degree of separation from the Grateful Dead. There was so much going on all along, but somehow we missed most of it.

The Dead played constantly in the Bay Area in the 80s. Aside from tagging along to a Laguna Seca show where I may or may not have had an actual ticket, I’m ashamed to have missed every other show.

It was all around us. I remember being at Di’s house for New Year’s Eve on the last day of 1985. Her parents were out at their own NYE party, and ten of us ended up in Los Altos Hills at her place drinking what we could find, listening to KMEL’s live simulcast of the Grateful Dead’s show from across the bay in the Oakland Coliseum just 20 miles away as the crow flies.

I missed all 13 Grateful Dead shows in the eucalyptus groves in my own backyard at Frost. I lived on campus and still missed these shows. My parents went to one in like 1988, for God’s sake, where Evan was reportedly shaking quite the tail feather.

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Around that same time, a year after high school graduation, a yet-to-be-enlightened group of friends blazed our way through the town of Angels Camp on our way up to Bear Valley. We felt pretty smug about having opportunistically scored some fungus, but later regret for missing yet another show, including a Santana sit-in, played right under our noses at the Jumping Frog Festival ’87 in Calaveras County.

We caught on. Eventually.

I’d finally caught the Jerry bug and we’d go see JGB at the Warfield a lot for a while (he essentially had an ongoing residency there).

By the time 1993 rolled around, most of us had paychecks coming every two weeks and an appetite for adventure. So when the Grateful Dead announced a run of three shows in Las Vegas with Sting as the warm-up act, well it amounted to a no brainer.

Road trip!

The May 14–16, 1993 run was three daytime shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Our thoughtfully constructed plan was for me, Paul, Sam, and Scott to head out from the Crib in Palo Alto on Thursday night after work, drive 10 hours to the lot, crash landing about six hours before showtime. Friday show. Casino. Saturday show. Casino. Then drive 600 miles home on Sunday. Back at work on-time Monday morning. We were showing considerable adult-like restraint, not attempting to squeeze in the Sunday show.

Thursday the 13th rolled around and we were amped. The four of us piled Sammy’s sleek black Jetta with the only plausibly legal tinted windows on all four. With four of us, there was sparing space for clothes and a couple of twelvers of swill.

“Not driving.”

“Not driving.”

“Not driving.”

OK, let’s do this reasonably.

I suggest a method I picked up from road-tripping with some friends of Matt’s to San Diego for Memorial Day weekend for some Roberto’s and the Indy 500. As four of us gathered for the 10 hour drive ahead, Noel says ‘I’ll drive for 150 bucks’.

Seriously??? I’ll drive for 145. Ha. Ha?

I’ll drive for 140.

130.

And so it goes, until someone solves the calculus where it becomes worth being paid $65 to put up with a car full of 3 other guys drinking beers out of plastic cups for the next potential 10 hours. $22 to not drive?! Everyone’s happy.

Sadly the group didn’t go for this win-win mechanism. We were feeling more social than free market anyway. We should be fair. Someone suggests everyone drive one shift each of 150 miles. This becomes instantly agreeable. Soon, there is jockeying for position. I feel smug securing the second shift, allowing Sam to take the first shift, it being his car. The #2 shift is by far the next best one. Once done, I can join Sam with the beers and Scott and Paul will have to wait, ensuring we have a safe driver, the number one priority.

Sam’s shift finishes about 10pm, and now we are on the open road, cruising south on 5. Sam gets us as far as the invisible border to where people change from calling the freeway “5” to “the 5”. I start my shift, and Sam cracks a celebratory roadie.

Scott reasons that he can have a beer too, because his shift won’t be for another 3 hours, and Paul, driving even later, follows his lead.

With Sam egging them on for one more and then one more, inevitably someone remembered Jason’s “let me get so hammy no one will want me to drive” move to dodge his post Reno driving shift on our road trip to Park City.

The sound of more beers opening, and suddenly I found myself in check mate.

I stay awake playing the side-bet we make over-under (2.5) number of VW busses broken down on the side of the road. I’ve got the over, and am on the lookout.

Bring on the self-driving cars, already.

Many hours later, we cruise into Vegas right as the sun is coming up. It is dawn patrol. We open the AAA map Sam brought and locate the Thomas & Mack center at UNLV. We drive up and down some gargantuan boulevards and eventually enter the unattended gate and straight into the lot.

Granted, it was a good seven hours before the 2pm show-time, but still there should have been a lot more than the 50 or so cars and campers and VW busses strewn around the lot, looking pleased with their primo real estate.

No, this can’t be right.

It wasn’t.

To this day, I still wonder about the couple hundred people in that lot. What time did they figure it all out? What about that moment when the dime drops on the dude with a headful realizing everyone is leaving because you are almost 10 miles from where you had counted on being.

We roll into the lot at the crispy Silver Bowl parking lot and spill out of the dusty Jetta.

The lot was full of a motley crew of misfits. Trekkies. Trustafarians. Nerds. Granola. We looked like under-aged narcs.

Just wanting to chill and settle in, we did what everyone did back then. Open up the fanny pack. Let’s hack.

Because anywhere there was a fanny pack, you had a better than 50% chance you’d find a hacky sack in there. And there were a lot of fanny packs around, trust me.

After a bit, some other guys came over to hack. The sun is bright, but clouds come and go, and it gets chilly in the high desert wind. Someone jumps into the bed of the pickup truck parked in the spot next to ours. Next thing you know there were 6 or 8 people huddling in the warmth of the truck.

The driver and passenger of the truck were nowhere to be seen. Somehow it seemed perfectly reasonable to host a tailgate party in the back of their truck. Which we did.

But, I needed a more appropriate pair of shorts.

A few of us walked around, and we stumbled into a spot where a few vendors had gathered. A mini Shakedown Street.

Some clothing vendor guy showed me some exotic shorts with a prototypically mystical psychedelic pattern and a purple and blue tie-dye vibe. I was stoned, had money in my pocket, and a strong interest in procuring a pair of hippy shorts.

Do they have pockets, I ask, not seeing any in the flowing cut.

“They qualify”, he says with conviction, deftly revealing the pockets.

‘But, how much do they quantify?’ I quip. Sam busts up, and I pay 2 bucks too much for an 8 dollar pair of shorts I’d own for the next 15 years.

Now I have new shorts. With pockets. To go with my fanny pack.

I have so many pockets I lose everything.

Sting is scheduled to go on at 2pm. By noon the lot starts to get pretty packed and the party is picking up. I’m determined to see Sting, as I had been listening a lot to the Ten Summoners Tale CD which had been released in March two months earlier. So, I get everyone to rally around 1pm, prompting an activity whirlwind as everyone tries to get sorted. What to bring. What not to bring. For the next seven hours.

We head in. Unfortunately, just about everyone else had the same idea we had, and the entrance gate was an absolute zoo. The security was nominally screening people, looking for glass bottles, but the mass of humanity mostly just flowed through the gate. Inevetably some wise guy would bleat like a sheep on its way to being slaughtered. I get through and find Scott at the other side.

Scott, check it out! They didn’t tear my ticket. Thinking I can save it in it’s pure form as a momento. He says, hey, me too. Big whup.

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But then, I realise I could take both tickets, go outside and sell the other one, and come back in. It seemed crazy to reverse back through the impacted gate, but even crazier not to.

I grab his ticket and head out with my pair, working my way upstream toward a spot where I had noticed people looking for tickets, holding up tired looking index fingers. The more pathetic the lifted finger, the better.

“Who needs one?” I mutter under my breath, unclear on how the scalping etiquette might differ from being at Candlestick trying to salvage face value for an extra.

I’m thinking I can make a quick 20 on the $26 face value ticket, and pay off my new shorts. And then, I saw someone who actually clearly didn’t have 20 bucks, and who also clearly didn’t have a ticket, and handed her my first miracle.

Only to be cosmically rewarded with a “I Need a Miracle” in the second set that very day.

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We get into the stadium, and decide to get calibrated at a distance, and take things from there. We end up finding a spot on the bleachers all the way across the stadium from the stage. I’m actually not sure we could have been farther from the stage. But, it was super chill, lots of room to twirl, with an amazing desert mountain view backdrop.

Sting opening for the Dead in 1993 in and of itself was an exotic pairing — made possible thanks only to Sting’s curiosity when asked to consider it. He could easily be faced with playing to an unenthusiastic 1/3 full stadium. Would the Deadheads be motivaed and organised enough to get in on time?

Sting came on at 2pm to the bright stage in a pair of overalls and no shirt.

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He killed.

His third song started in the sunshine, and during “Heavy Cloud, No Rain” clouds formed, and by the end of the song, it began to rain. That actually happened.

Sting next played three consecutive Police covers, the hippy boomers eating right out of Sting’s hand.

After concluding his 13 song set with a second three-fer from the Police, he strutted off to a delighted crowd, now suitably warmed up and ready to rock. People were fired up.

But, a thunderstorm was now happening. A guy across the stadium inexplicably shimmied up one of the light poles. Lighting was striking all around. And, very close.

It went from beautiful to a bit scary to beautiful again very quickly. For a moment there was a consciousness that we should probably be less cavalier about the aluminum bleachers we were sitting in. So we stood, careful not to touch the electrified seating, feeling foolish to be worried, yet equally unenthusiastic about becoming Darwin award nominees.

Turns out we were right to worry….

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The storm dies off as fast as it came in. It is somehow gone. And then the Dead are on stage, and start their opening set with “Cold Rain and Snow” to the delight of those paying attention to lyrics.

What the band probably didn’t know at that point was that fans had actually been struck by lightening. Otherwise they might have wanted to open with The Wheel (if the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will). Too soon?

We are having a blast.

Sam eats the best Dove bar in his life, and commemorates the Dove Bar dance. He’s enthusiastic and insists that it was a very good Dove Bar. He is rocking his San Jose Sharks zubaz.

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We are getting roasted in the sun. The second set opens with a Scarlet Begonias leading into a Fire on the Mountain just as the light hits the mountain behind the stadium. It was a phenomenal 20 minutes.

From the speakers to the microphones to the tape recorders to the tapes to the digital ripping devices to the compression to the streaming to your ears:

It was an epic day. We ran into old friends, and made new ones.

Paul did the gopher from Caddyshack a bunch.

It was Friday night. I don’t even remember where we stayed. I guess we must have hit the strip that night, but I honestly can’t remember much from that night. Sam probably won playing black jack.

Saturday.

I had my shorts already, so I was good.

We ended up in the stadium in the same spot as the day before.

It’s like how when you go to class on the first day, and pick a seat, and how it endes up being your seat for the rest of the year. We felt comfortable there. We knew where all the nearest bathrooms were.

By the time Sting comes on, the stadium is way more packed than the day before! Maybe because it’s Saturday not Friday, or maybe it’s because Sting crushed his set and maybe was the MVP of the first day, people rallied and got to their spots by 2pm.

The set starts out great. But starting with the 4th song, eight of the remaining nine are repeats from yesterday. What?! The air goes right out of the room. What felt like authentic and spontaneous jams and solos from the day before, all of a sudden lose luster and feel now rehearsed. There is a palpable lull in the crowd as the set gets deeper, and the vibe is lost.

Sting must have been baffled. He crushed it yesterday. Today was just as good, right? What happened? He was like a standup comic who kills the room one night, and then the exact same set completely bombs the next night.

Because there were exactly the same 42,000 people in that bowl as the ones there 24 hours earlier! No one gave Sting the memo. He must have been mortified. The Dead never play the same song over the course of several shows — as doing so would bore the audience and even worse, bore the band themselves.

Sting recovered though. For his Sunday set, he redeemed himself, coming back with a 14-song set with no repeats, delving deep into his catalog and going off piste with a cover of Jimi Hendrix.

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On Saturday, the Dead start their set, and the place is primed to go off.

Unlike Sting, almost as if to make a point, the song choices for the Dead include a lot of obscure songs I don’t really know and apparently neither does a significant other part of the crowd. Still, everyone gets into it.

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I realize the trick is being in the moment.

Newbs like us find ourselves hoping to hear certain song favorites, and thinking about what could be played rather than what is being played at that very moment. And then miss some songs by thinking about other songs missing the one being played right then and there. It’s all a big lesson in meditation and being in the moment.

People are tripping.

After the 3rd song, I notice the guys in the row below us huddling after each song, conferring with a pad of paper and pencil. Writing down set-lists in and of itself was unremarkable to the time. But the mini-debate and subsequent conference after each song generated more than a little curiosity in me.

At the right moment, I got my neighbors attention. What is with the um, pad and paper? ‘Oh! We’re playing Grateful Dead golf’, he says.

Oh?

Yeah, the first set is the front nine, and the second set is the back nine. Each song is scored as a birdie, par or bogey, depending on how it’s played.

I like it. For example, after the second number, they had to decide if Peggy-O was a par or a bogey. Or could that 3rd obscure Willie Dixon song actually be a birdie hole? Is the scoring for the song, or for specifically the quality of the playing of that song. I bet I missed the entire Tennessee Jed, losing focus in the moment as I contemplated Grateful Dead Golf and the various possible playing and scoring criteria.

I’m tripping.

At some point, a song suddenly ends, and then I hear Bob Weir mutter something vague about coming back soon. The first set was already over. It had been a bit of a snoozer, and felt like ended prematurely. I notice my guys huddling, no doubt excited by and debating the Bird Song closer, tallying the scores for the front side.

I catch my new friend’s attention. “What did they shoot on the front nine?” I ask, instantly regretting the use of ‘they’ and not ‘we’.

“Front six.”

Oof. His correction is his answer — six being an unjustifiably flimsy effort for the highly anticipated set.

The second set wasn’t much more generous, technically only reaching true “back nine” status by counting Drums and Space as two individual “songs”.

During the second set, there was a nice spacy vibe, and Paul settles in for a quick cat nap. He’s reclined into some comfy position in a meditative state, with his eyes closed, either asleep or just listening to the music. Suddenly, without prompt, he comes to, as though awakening from a deep slumber. He looks around with a perplexed expression, taking in the scene. Suddenly he stands up erect, addresses the pizza vendor guy who almost gets by unnoticed, and acquires himself a pizza and a mountain dew. Like a boss.

Paul’s sub-reptilian brain had taken over, hijacked his brain, waking him up and navigating him expertly through the transaction. It all happened within 20 seconds of smelling pizza guy.

The second set ends on a high with a rowdy “One More Saturday Night” set closer followed by a trippy cover of the Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, inevitably interpreted as a dog-whistle to those under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide.

The sitar infused vibe of the exotic Beatles encore paired nicely with my new shorts.

In those days whenever we’d see someone out of their tree, one of us would say “I’ll have what he’s having” evoking the classic line from When Harry Met Sally beloved by all GenX. “And make it a double.”

Unless, of course, the person is off the rails (“maybe you had too much to fast, maybe you had too much too fast”) and then it’s “I’ll have what he’s having… kids portion, please.”

After the Saturday show in the lot, Paul finds himself rolling joyfully in the grass, cracking himself up to the point of tears. “I’ll have what I’m having” he declares, snorting and foaming at his own hilarity. Paul’s gopher dance morphs into his now legendary “Go me” dance, and all is right in the world.

All that was left was to find the VW bus selling the post-show grilled cheese sandwiches and veggie burritos (sold by the brilliant one-for-three-two-for-five pricing model). Chip and I were once convinced we could fund being on tour full-time if we stood about 50 yards past the veggie burrito stand, with Tabasco bottles, vending shakes of hot sauce to rescue the bland but hearty black bean filled burritos (one-shake-fifty-cents-three-shakes-for-a-dollar).

I have no idea what went on the rest of that Saturday night. It would have been the 3rd sleepless in a row. Mark remembers playing blackjack with the Deadheads, which sounds like a pretty good bet.

Sunday was another 600 miles home. We battled our way through the 9 hour glare of the Jetta’s windshield. Those who’d shirked their driving responsibilities on Thursday paid the price on Sunday.

All the while, some 40 odd thousand fans found their own moment in the Silver Bowl that very same afternoon. The Grateful Dead, followed Sting’s highly improvisational set of redemption, with all of the songs missing Friday and Saturday, intentionally rewarding the heartiest of heads. Who had been there at Frost. Who had been there in Angel’s Camp. And who had organized their entire lives around never missing a Sunday show.

Brad Porteus tends to take three times longer than he needs to to make his point, adding tangental side-bar stories as he goes. If his meandering style doesn’t drive you completely mad, there is a lot more where that came from. Check here on Medium or the complete set on porteus.com.

Written by

American in Amsterdam.

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