BY HAL BIENSTOCK
Who would have thought that arguably the finest performance of the last 15 years of the Grateful Dead’s career would take place in a rundown hockey arena on Long Island? Yet that’s exactly what happened on March 29, 1990, at the Nassau Coliseum as saxophonist Branford Marsalis sat in with the Dead.
I was a high school student at the time and was lucky enough to be there. I had seen my first Dead show two years earlier, so I knew enough to realize this night was special but also was very aware that I couldn’t really compare it to the epic shows of the band’s ‘60s and ‘70s heyday. Memories aside, Wake Up to Find Out proves that this concert deserves to be mentioned as one of their all-time great performances. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of the classics from 1977 or the golden age of 1969-72, it’s at least in the ballpark.
Marsalis joins the band late in the first set for “Bird Song,” and instantly adds a new dimension. (It only came out later that Marsalis barely knew the Dead’s repertoire when he got onstage). But it’s the second set that’s where this show really makes its mark, highlighted by a spacey yet energetic “Eyes of the World” (previously released on the live album Without a Net) and a rare-at-the-time “Dark Star” the heads into free jazz territory. By the time the set closes with the blazing R&B of “Turn on Your Lovelight,” it feels like the roof is going to come off the building. A beautiful rendition of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” ends the night.
Wake Up to Find Out is available on its own as a three-disc set as well as part of a 23-disc boxed set Spring 1990 (The Other One) that covers eight shows. The whole set sounds great and just about every performance has something to recommend it. The band was going through a rebirth at the time, unearthing rarely performed songs and playing at incredibly high level, something that’s even more remarkable when you think about where peers like Bob Dylan and the Stones were at the time. The three-disc version is marred only by its lack of liner notes and photos, something that makes little sense given that much of the story behind Marsalis’ appearance is recounted in the book that comes with the larger box.
DOWNLOAD: “Eyes of the World” “Bird Song” “Turn on Your Lovelight”