The Closing of Winterland
The Music Box's #1 specialty package for 2003
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2004, Volume 11, #1
Written by John Metzger
Tue December 16, 2003, 12:00 AM CST
The Grateful Dead performed at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena more often than any other band — an astounding 59 times during the venue’s 11 ½ years of operation — and therefore, it was only fitting that the group was hired to invoke its magic at the concert hall’s final hurrah — an elaborate evening of music held on New Year’s Eve in 1978. After what was undoubtedly a herculean effort, the ensemble’s original 24-track analog master tapes from this event have been mastered digitally and synched with the original video footage shot for a public television broadcast in order to form the basis for The Closing of Winterland. Of course, none of this material was ever intended for release — and there are moments when visually it certainly appears that way — but overall, the result is a truly magnificent double-DVD package, which boasts glorious mixes in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround sound.
In creating The Closing of Winterland, David Lemieux and Jeffrey Norman, the film’s producers, added a plethora of bonus materials, and these include a retrospective on the Grateful Dead’s relationship to the venue as well as to concert promoter Bill Graham; performances by The Blues Brothers and New Riders of the Purple Sage; interviews with Graham as well as Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Ken Kesey; and a discussion on how this historic document was assembled. All of it — and there is more than initially meets the eye — is entertaining fare that serves its purpose quite well, adding both background and perspective on the overall affair. However, it’s the music combined with the visual imagery that will repeatedly draw fans back to this wonderful collection. The reasons for this are plentiful, not the least of which is the fact that very little archival footage exists prior to the late 1980s when the Grateful Dead began projecting video onto giant screens at its concerts. In fact, according to Norman, this is the only multi-track video project that exists from the ’70s, making a release such as The Closing of Winterland an extremely rare commodity.
Even so, scarcity alone isn’t enough to warrant such an extravagant package or make it one that is guaranteed to hold interest. Without question, the Grateful Dead was at its best in a live setting, and its excursions during the ’70s, generally speaking, eclipsed those of the ’80s and ’90s. One thing that remained consistent, however, was the group’s tendency to fall flat when expectations were highest, but in this instance, it actually succeeded in delivering a rather remarkable performance. Surely it helped that following its trip to Egypt in September, the band had experienced a surge in both its energy and its inspiration, and although both Keith and Donna Godchaux would soon depart, one might not have expected it based upon the collaboration that took place at this event.
For the record, none of the songs featured during the show on December 31, 1978 can be considered among the best renditions that the Grateful Dead ever performed, but they are all solidly transcendent in their own unique way. Such was the nature of the band’s cosmic high wire act, and The Closing of Winterland highlights one of those events where the entirety of the affair was better than the sum of its individual components. The set list itself was intriguing, to say the least, from the unusual opening salvo of Sugar Magnolia, Scarlet Begonias, and Fire on the Mountain to the third set’s stratospheric cruise through such notable fan favorites as Dark Star, The Other One, Wharf Rat, St. Stephen, and Good Lovin’. Indeed, the band playfully wound its way through many of its oft-cherished tunes — such as its operatic suite Terrapin Station, its psychedelic workhorse Playing in the Band, its lilting country ballad Friend of the Devil, and its slow-blues mutation of Not Fade Away — turning them into a loose-knit song cycle that served as both a means for psychic transportation as well as the perfect party soundtrack for bidding a fond farewell to the place that had become its home. In other words, taken in its entirety, The Closing of Winterland is a sterling encapsulation of one of the greatest performing ensembles in rock history, doing what it did best — delivering music that carries one away from the trials and tribulations of every day life into a world where anything could happen and frequently did.
The Closing of Winterland (DVD) is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
The Closing of Winterland (CD) is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box