Spring ’90 is synonymous with many things to many people, but in the Grateful Dead world, it was perhaps one of the most vital tours in the beloved band’s history: everything was clickin’. Glide is continuing to revisit Grateful Dead’s Spring ’90 tour in honor of its 30th anniversary, with recaps and video highlights. For those stuck at home during these bizarre times, there’s no better time than now to go back 30 years and couch up this run…
March 29, 1990 – Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY:
Over their illustrious 30-year career, the Dead were fortunate enough to have shared the stage with a plethora of legendary musicians, ranging from pop darlings Hall & Oates and Huey Lewis to jazz deities such as Ornette Coleman and David Murray, with nearly everything in between. However, no Grateful Dead guest appearance can even come close to matching the sonic majesty and wonder that was saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s debut with the band on 3/29/90.
Now simply referred to as “the Branford show” by Deadheads everywhere, this astonishing concert is among the Dead’s finest – regardless of era – and contains arguably one of the single greatest performances in the band’s history: a sublime 16-minute rendition of “Eyes of the World” which was ultimately released on Without A Net.
Like so many other great collaborations, this one happened almost entirely by chance. After a mutual friend relayed a casual invite from bassist Phil Lesh to Branford to “sit in with us at Nassau”, the saxophonist surprisingly dropped by before the opening night (3/28) to “say hello” to the band, at which point Phil & Jerry “fell all over ourselves inviting him to come back the next night and to please bring his horn”, as Lesh recalled to noted Dead journalist Blair Jackson. Branford was more than happy to oblige as he returned the following night with not one – but two horns (soprano & tenor saxophones) – and the rest is Grateful Dead history. Eric Pooley, of New York Magazine, perfectly described this newfound musical union: “The band began the simple, undulating melody of a 1971 Garcia tune called ‘Bird Song,’ and the guitarist started to play genial host to the jazzman. Smiling above his white beard, Garcia danced a little shuffle, guided Marsalis through the changes, and gave him some room to play. Soon Marsalis’s soprano sax and Garcia’s bell-like guitar were somersaulting through the upper reaches of the audible spectrum – trading licks, chiming together – while Lesh’s bass lines bounded around in the depths. The entire band seemed galvanized by Marsalis’s presence, and the crowd – even those who had, like, no idea who the dude with the horn was – settled down for a night of exploration.”
Marsalis himself was clearly moved by the performance, prompting him to write a heartfelt letter to the band afterwards, thanking them for the opportunity: “On Thursday night I had the best time I’ve had in my entire life. I now know that playing rock and roll can be all that I have envisioned it would be.” His effusions carried over into some interviews he conducted at the time as well. “I really had a hell of a time. I really like the way they play together. I just love everything about them: they’re not posers, and in a genre where it is just reeking of posers.” That feeling was mutual as the Dead would ultimately invite Mr. Marsalis to sit-in with them a total of five times prior to Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. This special relationship continues to this day as Branford has made multiple cameos with various post-Garcia lineups, including The Dead in 2009 and a memorable 2018 appearance with Dead & Company at the Lockn’ Festival in central Virginia.
While Branford only appears for one song during tonight’s first set – an all-time reading of Garcia’s “Bird Song” – the opening frame is still full of standout moments including a powerful one-two combo of “Jack Straw” & “Bertha” to start things off as well as beautiful takes on “Ramble on Rose” and Bob Dylan’s anthemic “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
However, similar to the 3/22 show a week prior, this performance earns its keep through its legendary second set. After the aforementioned “Eyes” comes a funky take on Weir’s “Estimated Prophet” before the newly-formed septet delivers a “Dark Star” for the ages. A spacey “The Wheel” then precedes a fiery pair of Weir rockers “Throwing Stones” and “Turn on Your Lovelight” to close the set, with Branford locked-in and not missing a single beat. The jazz icon returned to the stage with the group for a tender encore performance of the evening’s second Dylan song, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”
“Bird Song”: “Well ok, we got a special guest tonight…I think…” After Bob’s eloquent introduction of Branford, it only took a matter of seconds before the saxophonist and Jerry were “trading licks as though they were old friends” as band publicist Dennis McNally wrote in A Long Strange Trip. Though he was completely unfamiliar with the Dead’s material – he “thinks” he owned one of their records in high school – Branford’s sax immediately fit the band’s sound like a glove, offering up some brilliant harmonic counterpoints to Garcia’s melodic leads as they weave their way through this first set masterpiece.
“Eyes of the World”: Debuted in 1973, this Garcia/Hunter gem became an instant second-set regular with close to 400 performances through 1995. Keeping with the same “relaxed” version of the song the band broke out a week earlier in Hartford (3/19) after years of playing it at a breakneck tempo throughout the 80’s, this performance is simply legendary. Garcia & Marsalis chase each other into the ether with inspired playing throughout, resulting in some of the most beautiful musical sequences in Grateful Dead history. This transcendent version was not only chosen by Phil Lesh to be included on Without A Net, but it is also referenced in this author’s very serious and professional-sounding bio (see below).
“Dark Star”: The “holy grail” of Grateful Dead songs, this free-form magnum opus made its concert debut in 1967 and was ultimately played over 220 times despite numerous multi-year performance gaps. With an open-ended structure akin to some of John Coltrane’s and Miles Davis’s more adventurous works, “Dark Star” gradually evolved from its beginnings as a short & frenetic psychedelic rocker to the expansive and improv-laden renditions for which the song became infamous. This version, along with the “Miami Dark Star” from the previous fall, ranks among the most exploratory and avant-garde late-era performances. Once again, Branford & Jerry repeatedly propel this song to dizzying heights before dissolving into “Drums” & “Space”, only to return for a triumphant reading of its second verse. The saxophonist later described this moment to an interviewer: “It kept going! It wouldn’t stop! And I kept looking at him and saying, ‘OK, I’m finished now,’ and Jerry was like, ‘No, no, play, play, come play with me.’ And then I would feed off of ideas that he did. It was really different, you know. And it kept going and kept going and kept going and then it went into this space and then the space went forever, and it went back to ‘Dark Star.’ It was wild…they are a hell of a band.”
“Turn on Your Lovelight”: Originally debuted as a Pigpen specialty in 1967, this Bobby “Blue” Bland rocker was among the original frontman’s most oft-performed – and memorable – songs with well over 100 renditions prior to his death in 1973. It was then revived by Weir in 1981 and went on to become a regular second-set show-stopper with 335 total performances through 1995. This version features Jerry masterfully using his MIDI effects to mimic Branford’s tone before the saxophonist delivers one of the most badass solos you’ll ever hear. As Mr. Marsalis succinctly put it during a post-show interview: “[T]hat’s the kind of music I grew up with…I love to play that shit.”
Hi, Dave. My friend Ed Martin and I did a blogpost about 3/29/90 for Liner Notes. Ed was there, and has a lengthy personal account. Here’s the link: