30th Anniversary of The Grateful Dead’s Spring 1990 Tour: The Capital Centre, Landover, MD 3/14/90

1990 was an eventful year across the North American entertainment industry. While this author was blissfully unaware of all happenings outside the respective worlds of dinosaurs & Cal Ripken Jr., the continent otherwise experienced a series of fortuitous occurrences, including the cinematic debuts of Home Alone & Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as the groundbreaking release of Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme. In the midst of this American pop culture zenith arose what is now considered by many (read: many Deadheads) to be one of the greatest musical triumphs of all time: The Grateful Dead’s 1990 Spring Tour.

While MTV & FM radios everywhere were seemingly blaring the slick beats & poetic lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby” on a continuous loop, the Dead were destroying the East Coast with some of the tightest and most consistent playing of their careers during a stretch that lasted twenty-one days with stops in six cities and one Canadian province. 

Coming off the previous year’s studio album effort Built to Last as well as a successful & critically acclaimed Fall Tour, which featured some highly experimental playing (the Miami “Dark Star”) and some historic bust-outs (the Hampton “Formerly the Warlocks” shows), the band was entering the new decade at a performance-peak flush with new material which they were clearly eager to share with the masses. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir expounded on the band’s mood at the time. “For my money, this was our hottest era. We couldn’t wait to go on tour; we couldn’t wait to play because it was really working for us and it was keeping us amused. We had been working together as a unit for a good length of time.”

Now several years removed from his 1986 diabetic coma, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia was, by all accounts, abstaining from hard-drug use and focusing on staying (relatively) healthy. Those efforts paid off as Garcia was clearly more engaged on-stage than he had been in years and once again approached his guitar work with a laser-like focus that had begun to fade at times during some uneven mid-80’s performances. Seemingly invigorated by their relatively recent commercial success after their surprise top-10 hit “Touch of Grey”, along with the influx of a new generation of fans that accompanied it, Garcia could often be seen on stage with a huge grin as knew the band was performing at an entirely different level during this particular run of shows.

While most of the focus from fans and critics alike during this time was on Garcia’s performances – understandably so – the often-unheralded contributions of keyboardist Brent Mydland were just as essential to achieving the seemingly endless series of musical peaks that define this tour. His chameleon-like abilities to switch between a rousing lead solo on his trademark Hammond-B3 organ and subtly complementing Garcia’s lines on midi & electric piano were especially evident during this time, which often inspired the other band members to step up their game as well. In Deal, Bill Kreutzmann’s 2015 auto-biography, the drummer fondly remembers Brent’s performances from this era. “Brent played the best organ I’ve ever heard anybody play. He had the piss and the vinegar in him and he brought it to the table every night. The band, as a whole, had come alive again. Those shows had energy, with thunderbolts of electricity to spare. We didn’t wreck drum sets or smash guitars or dress up in elaborate stage costumes; our shows were always about the music and the music during that period was adventurous. It dared listeners to ride shotgun as we went around hairpin turns, whizzing past ever-changing landscapes. Some nights, I could look out from my perch on the drum riser and see the whole house rocking back and forth in unison, a giant wave of people, and those were the nights you knew it was working.”

In addition to the remarkably consistent playing from all band members, the somewhat unique song-selection was another contributing factor to the success of this tour. Continuing a theme from the previous year’s Fall tour, the group continued to surprise the audience with bust-outs and rarities that were well-rehearsed and often sent the already raucous East Coast crowds into a frenzy. Long-forgotten songs like “Loose Lucy”, “Black-Throated Wind” and the full version of The Beatles “Hey Jude” were all revived after spending 15+ years on the shelf while gems like The Band’s “The Weight” made their Grateful Dead concert debut.

For a “warts-and-all” band like The Grateful Dead, the Spring 1990 tour was something of an anomaly. While uneven performances were an endearing hallmark of the band’s modus operandi, it could be argued that this was perhaps one of the band’s only tours ever that featured this high a level of playing from all members on such a consistent basis. Sure, there’s some lyrical flubs and a missed note here and there, but otherwise every single show from this run is peak late-era Dead and chock-full of must-hear moments. 

Of course, all good things must eventually come to an end, and the 1990 Spring Tour, along with its accompanying magic and mystique, was no exception. Referred to as “the last great Grateful Dead” by band publicist Dennis McNally, it truly was all downhill from there. Shortly after the group’s Summer tour later that year – which featured mostly solid, if not spectacular, playing – Mydland tragically passed away from a drug overdose at the age of 37. While the addition of pianist Bruce Hornsby helped keep things afloat and alleviate some of the pressure of losing such an integral member, the waters continued to darken. Garcia soon returned to using hard drugs and steadily became increasingly detached from the rest of the band on stage, eventually leading to canceled shows and some uncharacteristically sloppy playing from the once brilliant guitarist before he passed away in August of 1995.

Fortunately for Deadheads, this tour has been given the official release treatment more than any other in the band’s storied history. With meticulously curated and pristine sounding compilations such as “Without A Net”, “Dozin’ at the Knick” and the “Spring 1990” box-sets as well as the limited-edition live album “Terrapin Limited”, the grandeur & glory of this legendary tour will be available in all its sonic wonder for generations to come. 

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Dead’s 1990 Spring Tour, Glide will be taking a closer look at the finest moments and performances from each night of this historic run.


March 14, 1990 – The Capital Centre, Landover, MD:

This once-iconic arena, nestled directly in between Baltimore & Washington D.C. was familiar grounds to the Dead and their fans with 26 total performances over nearly 20 years. After performing a handful of one-night affairs between 1974 and 1982, the band began staging multi-night runs in 1987 before playing their final shows there in 1993.

Even though it was only the opening show of the ‘90 Spring tour, the band already sounded loose & relaxed and were immediately firing on all cylinders. Almost every song in the first set is a standout version, with the finest moments occurring during the “Loose Lucy” bust-out as well as a phenomenal take on the Weir/John Barlow composition “Let it Grow.” An unusual sequence of “Crazy Fingers” “Playing in the Band” and “Uncle John’s Band” opens the second set, setting the stage for the rest of the remarkably well played tour-opening evening.

“Loose Lucy”: Arguably the high point from the tour’s inaugural night, the Dead pulled out this Garcia /Hunter classic in the middle of the opening set for the first time since 1974. Performed at a slightly slower pace than the From the Mars Hotel studio cut, this version still manages to maintain its feel as a bad-ass rocker that is bolstered by Brent’s rich B3 organ comping the main riff underneath Garcia’s melodic leads. While difficult to judge from the official soundboard recordings, the crowd slowly builds to a deafening roar once the lyrics start as they gradually realize what is happening on stage. The jubilant cacophony finally simmers down halfway through the first verse, only to return louder than ever, after Garcia sings, “Thank you, for a real good time!”

“Let it Grow”: One of the bookends to the Weir/Barlow opus “Weather Report Suite”, this flamenco influenced composition was typically used as an improvisational launchpad towards the end of their opening sets once the band was warmed up. Officially released on the 1990 live album “Without a Net”, this performance ranks among the best-ever versions, regardless of era, with Jerry & Brent at each other’s heels, chasing one another into the stratosphere before gently capping things off with its signature descending riff. 



“Crazy Fingers-Playing in the Band->Uncle John’s Band->Playing in the Band (reprise)”: While “Crazy Fingers” often found itself paired with the familiar “Playing in the Band/Uncle John’s Band” medley throughout the mid to late 80’s, this was one of the rare times it was also utilized as a second set opener. This version of the haiku-like Garcia/Hunter gem features some beautiful harmonies from the group’s vocalists along with a shimmering solo from Garcia. The monstrous “Playing/Uncle John’s” segment that follows – a clever musical & lyrical juxtaposition since the band first paired the songs in 1980 – features nearly 25 minutes of mind-bending psychedelic exploration before devolving into the evening’s “drums/space” segment.

Grateful Dead Setlist Capital Centre, Landover, MD, USA, Spring Tour 1990

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One Response

  1. Always find it fascinating to read about the band’s tours/eras and what was going on to influence the quality of playing, energy, etc. Couldn’t help but notice in the author’s bio that he is busy spreading the gospel of Billy Strings. I’ve started my own Billy ministry as well! I note this here because of the reverence and passion that we plays Dead covers. The recent Capital theater shows were magic in large part because of his understanding of the venue and its place in Dead lore. I find it incredibly moving whenever he chooses to play something from the catalogue. I can’t recommend checking out him and his band strongly enough to deadheads.

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