The Grateful Dead’s Long & Strange History At Penn State
With more than 2,300 live shows performed to date, it’s no surprise the Grateful Dead has made a few stops in Happy Valley since its inception in 1965.
The eclectic, ever-changing jam band, mostly known for its extensive catalog of live shows, amassed a devoted fan base during its heyday. These fans, who often refer to themselves as “Deadheads” would follow the band around the country from Winterland Arena in San Franciso to Barton Hall in Ithaca, New York, and even to University Park.
While members of the Grateful Dead have formed different bands and performing outfits over the past 50 years, the group’s main years were from 1965 to 1995 while lead guitarist and de-facto frontman Jerry Garcia was still alive.
The Dead performed at Penn State twice during this era, but members of the band have put on concerts in Happy Valley at least seven total times. Between Bryce Jordan Center car crashes and Barack Obama fundraisers, the Dead’s history at Dear Old State is quite rich and wacky. But, first, let’s rewind to the band’s first show at Recreation Hall.
The Grateful Dead first played at Rec Hall on May 8, 1979. The band was undergoing a bit of a transitional period then, as keyboardist Keith Godchaux recently left the band amid issues with drug use. Brent Mydland joined up with the group in late April of ’79, which made this one of his first shows with the Dead. He went on to play with the band until his death in 1990.
According to the Daily Collegian archives, this show was sold out thanks to both Penn State students and Deadheads traveling from as far as California buying tickets. The Collegian described this show as “intense” and “unbelievable,” and one Deadhead told the paper that it was “the best they’ve done this year.”
Almost all of the Dead’s shows are recorded and cataloged online, so you can check this one out for yourself. It features a near 27-minute ballad of “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On The Mountain” and a long encore of fan-favorite “Shakedown Street.”
While the Grateful Dead’s first performance at Penn State was this show in 1979, Garcia had actually visited campus beforehand in 1977 with his own outfit, promptly titled the “Jerry Garcia Band.” The Collegian reported that about half of the band’s members were on stage to help Garcia cover songs like “How Sweet It Is” and “Catfish John” at Rec Hall. The performance lasted four hours and featured some quintessential Garcia in his prime.
But the real quintessential Penn State show was just about a year after the Dead’s first full show in 1979. On May 6, 1980, the band returned to Rec Hall for a performance that was quite different than the one just about a year before.
The setlists barely had any overlap and the songs that they played at both shows, like “Lazy Lightning” and “Supplication,” sound very different. Mydland really started to come into his own in 1980 and was noticeably higher in the mix for this recording. Parts of this show were also officially released under Road Trips Volume 3 Number 4, making it more accessible and popular than any other of the group’s other performances at University Park.
While The Collegian had said that this was the second “annual” concert, this ended up being the last time the full band played at Penn State. The paper also mislabeled “Saint of Circumstance” as “Same Circumstance” and “He’s Gone” as “Steal Your Face,” but, hey, we’re not keeping score.
Garcia returned to Penn State himself in 1984, this time at Eisenhower Auditorium, with his Jerry Garcia Band. Unfortunately, there’s no archived recording of this show available.
Things started to change drastically for the Grateful Dead as the band basically disbanded after Garcia’s death in 1995. However, members of the band continued to perform in a handful of groups and they came back to Penn State multiple times.
Bassists Phil Lesh was the first to return to Happy Valley with his band “Phil Lesh and Friends” in November of 1999. Lesh performed for over an hour and even ripped out a 20-minute version of “Terrapin Station.” Bob Dylan also performed at the BJC that evening.
But, perhaps one of the weirdest Grateful Dead-adjacent concerts occurred in 2000 when members of the band were in town for the “Furthur Festival Tour” on September 17. Former Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann performed at the festival as part of a group called “The Other Ones.”
According to The Collegian, five police forces and drug agencies mobilized to town for the festival to prepare for an influx of drug use, which is often associated with Deadhead culture. Well, their efforts didn’t quite work.
A BJC spokesperson said the concert was “extremely peaceful.” But later that night, a fan drove a car into the BJC at 55 mph, hit a 3,500-pound floor-scrubbing machine, and kept driving for 40 yards inside of the arena. He later admitted to being drunk, high, and tripping on acid at the time.
The last major show members at Penn State featuring members of the Dead is actually kind of a weird story. Lesh, Weir, and Hart took a hiatus from playing together in 2004 but reunited for a two-show tour in support of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. And, oddly enough, one of the shows was at the BJC.
On October 13, 2008, 15,000 fans gathered for the show in support of Obama, according to The Collegian. Jay Paterno and Penn State football cornerback Lydell Sargeant addressed the crowd in support of the future 44th president and encourage people to get out and vote.
As a battleground state, it makes sense Pennsylvania would be chosen as a location for such a concert. The state ended up going blue in 2008, so it’s cool that Penn State and the Grateful Dead had a small part to play in electing a president.
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