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Grateful Dead – 12/31/78 (Review)

On December 31st, 1978, the Grateful Dead played a legendary New Years Eve concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California. It was the final concert ever to be hosted at the venue, which was run by the famous rock promoter Bill Graham, and had hosted many famous performances between 1968 and 1978, including of course a whole bunch of Grateful Dead shows — 59 to be exact.

The band opened the show just before midnight and played three sets, finishing with an encore at sunrise followed by a complimentary breakfast in the lobby. This epic show was given official release in 2003 alongside a concert film that includes the entire performance.

To set the stage here in the Grateful Dead timeline, this show takes place right near the end of keyboardist Keith Godchaux’s tenure with the band, as he and Donna Jean ended up leaving just two months later, in February 1979. The band had gone through a high point in 1977, and were on the uphill side of their cocaine-fueled “disco dead” phase brought about by the release of the 1978 album Shakedown Street.

These were party times for the Grateful Dead, and while Jerry had already started to dabble in the harder drugs, they had yet to really do their damage. It’s clear that New Years Eve 1978 had the band in high spirits, both drug-induced and otherwise.

At the show that night, Bill Graham placed a billboard out front at Winterland containing the now-famous quote about the Grateful Dead: “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” And then, of course, the Grateful Dead proceeded to play until 6am, thus showing everybody just what Bill was talking about.

The billboard at Winterland on 12/31/78

The opening sequence to the Closing of Winterland contains a classic moment in Dead live history, where Bill Graham counts down to the New Year while riding atop a giant burning joint suspended from the ceiling.

As soon as the clock strikes midnight, the Dead open with a thumping “Sugar Magnolia” > “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire On The Mountain” that is admittedly somewhat sloppy, but given the context of this show sloppy is to be expected, and is honestly part of the appeal. The whole show is an absolute rager with both the band and the crowd participating in the shenanigans.

Another set 1 highlight is “Friend of the Devil”, played at half-time as was typical of the period, made special by the fun-loving energy that seemed to permeate the band that night. “Ramble on Rose” in set 2 is a big standout for me as well, for the same reasons.

The real meat of the show starts with “Terrapin Station”, played sometime around 2 or 3 in the morning when things were really starting to get weird. It rolls into a “Playing In The Band” that is still dripping with bits of the “Terrapin” melody. The jam devolves into a grooving late night dance party rhythm devils section that finds a bit of clarity when it falls into “Not Fade Away” and “Around and Around” to close out the set.

Then, set 3 opens with “Dark Star” > “The Other One” > “Dark Star” > “Wharf Rat” > “St. Stephen”. Yeah, at this point it’s approaching sunrise and the set has become a full-on blastoff marathon. The “St. Stephen” and “Dark Star” performed here were the final versions of the song played until 1983. The story goes that Bill Graham specifically requested they be played this evening in honor of the closing of Winterland. The Dead obviously complied and performed real bug-eyed versions.

Finally, after going through almost the entire catalog of 1978, plus “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen”, they exit the stage and return for a three track encore with “Casey Jones”, “Johnny B. Goode”, and “We Bid You Goodnight”, and then one last hoorah with breakfast in the lobby of good ole Winterland, courtesy of Bill Graham.

Watch the full 12/31/78 concert movie The Closing of Winterland from the Grateful Dead below.

Set 1:
Sugar Magnolia
Scarlet Begonias
Fire On The Mountain
Me And My Uncle
Big River
Friend Of The Devil
It’s All Over Now
Stagger Lee
From The Heart Of Me
Sunshine Daydream

Set 2:
Samson And Delilah
Ramble On Rose
I Need A Miracle
Terrapin Station
Playin’ In The Band
Not Fade Away
Around And Around

Set 3:
Dark Star
The Other One
Dark Star
Wharf Rat
St. Stephen
Good Lovin’

Casey Jones
Johnny B. Goode
And We Bid You Goodnight