The Grateful Dead concert that took place at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY on March 29th, 1990 is probably my single favorite Grateful Dead concert, at least at the present moment. However I didn’t mention this show as one of the starting places for would-be Deadheads in my recent article about how to get into the Grateful Dead because I feel like this one is not for the uninitiated. Things get super weird in the second set, which is precisely the reason why this show is so special, but it also may throw off some folks who are just getting into the band.
Before we get into the meat of this show, I want to start with a little background. By most accounts, the Grateful Dead were absolutely on fire from the late eighties into the summer of 1990. Jerry had come back from his near-death experience of a diabetic coma in 1986, which caused him to sober up and get his health in check a bit. He seemed to be having fun again and he was playing well on a fairly consistent basis, as was the rest of the band. By now keyboardist Brent Mydland had really matured into his role and was playing better than ever, especially when he was interacting with Jerry. By the Spring of 1990, things were looking pretty good in the world of the Grateful Dead.
So that brings us to March 29th, 1990. It’s the second night of a three night run at Nassau Coliseum, which despite being one of their all-time most played venues, it was their first stop at the venue since 1985. The local police were notably strict here and often arrested fans for drugs in the parking lot, so the band refused to play the venue until they were promised by the authorities that there would be no drug busts made. Essentially what that means is that the crowd was hype, and the band was excited to be back in town, which is naturally a recipe for an excellent Grateful Dead concert.
The first set starts out strong with “Jack Straw” and “Bertha”, but then sags a bit with Brent on lead vocals during “We Can Run”. It’s just kind of a weird song and probably the weakest moment from the whole show, but even in its weakest moment the band was still tight and pepped up with an unusual bounce. “Ramble On Rose” brings the party as always, and then they hit a solid cover of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. But that’s just the warm-up phase for the main event.
The show becomes very special right around the start of “Bird Song”, when renowned jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis joins the band for the first time. “Bird Song” is fantastic and unique thanks to the saxophone, and sets the stage for what’s about to come from the second set, and specifically the set 2 opener, “Eyes of the World”. The band is just completely dialed in during this “Eyes”, and Branford and Jerry really mesh together nicely to make for a wonderful rendition. This recording is the single Grateful Dead live cut that I have listened to the most. It’s nothing short of beautiful and inspirational, and it’s one of my go-to listens for any time. I just can’t get enough of it.
“Eyes of the World” leads into a killer “Estimated Prophet”, which gradually spirals downward into a “Dark Star” that basically becomes thirty minutes of freeform jazz. The boys really go down the rabbit hole here, so you might want to sit down because the music is going to make you do it anyway. And by the time you’re ready to leave the rabbit hole of psychedelic candy land, they’ll bring you out with a solid cut of “The Wheel”. The band is obviously feeling accomplished after reaching transcendence with Branford and the last few songs close out the show with a banging energy. Closer “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” generally tends to be a bore for me, but here it’s great thanks to the inclusion of the saxophone.
Overall this is one of the most musically profound evenings that the Grateful Dead ever had. In 2014 The entire show was given official release under the name Wake Up To Find Out, and the “Eyes of the World” appears on the band’s 1990 live album Without A Net.
There is also really great interview on Youtube where Branford discusses playing with the Grateful Dead and specifically his interactions with Jerry Garcia. It’s really cool to hear his perspective, so I’m going to drop that video below. Stream the show and see full setlist below that.
Oh, and obviously this one gets a 10/10 in my book. It’s certainly not without a single flaw but in terms of Grateful Dead concerts it really doesn’t get much better than this.
Nassau Coliseum – Uniondale, NY
We Can Run
Ramble On Rose
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Eyes Of The World
Turn On Your Love Light
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door