WATCH: When The Grateful Dead played Hamilton back in 1990

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Published September 27, 2022 at 3:16 pm

On a day when Hamilton is getting a box of rain and then some, footage from a The Grateful Dead concert over three decades ago might be the best way to pass the time.

On March 21-22, 1990, the Dead — at that time a sixsome of Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Brent Mydland and Bob Weir — came over the border for a pair of shows at Copps Coliseum (now known as FirstOntario Centre). Their entire 2½-hour second show was recently posted by a YouTuber named Christopher Hazard, and it seems like a fairly characteristic illustration of why the band was among of the highest-grossing North American touring acts for multiple decades. The recording also captures the band just months before a tragedy, since keyboardist-vocalist Mydland died just four months later of an accidental drugs poisoning.

The concert opened with a triptych of “Feel Like A Stranger,” “West L.A. Fadeaway” and “Easy To Love You,” which showed how the Dead could toggle through any number of musical genres. The elements, at any given time, could include — but not be limited to — rock and/or roll, reggae, blues bluegrass, country, gospel and psychedelia (with psychedelic drugs often being a means for devoted Deadheads to enhance their enhancement of the music).

The second set opened with a seamless transition from “Scarlet Begonias” to “Fire on The Mountain.” That spate of songs also included the immortal “Truckin'” and the chorus that inspired a million high school yearbook quotes: “Lately it’s occurred to me / what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Per concertarchives.org, the Grateful Dead made a swing to Hamilton during a tour that was mostly concentrated in the northeastern United States. Two nights before their first show in Hamilton, they had played in the Hartford Civic Center, which was the home arena of the National Hockey League’s Hartford Whalers. After departing from Hamilton, they headed south, taking their form of musical expression to Albany, N.Y. for five nights.

Thirty-two years later, it is not apparent whether they were the toughest concert ticket in Hamilton that month. The boy band The New Kids On The Block came to town the following night.

‘Scene was so kind in Canada’

Be that as it might have been, the Hamilton shows apparently had good vibes for fans. The first year of the final decade of the 20th century came in the era of an United States government crackdown on drug use, which was known as “Just Say No” and later as the “War on Drugs.” Suffice to say, things were a little more chill in Hamilton.

“The scene was so kind in Canada,” one fan writes on dead.net, a fansite. “Instead of the loudspeakers blaring out nasty warnings near the gate (as had happened in previous venues), the gate announcements had a friendly ‘Welcome to Copps Coliseum…’ message and tone. A friendly policeman was observed, while pouring out a Deadhead’s hapless beer, to smile and lament ‘it’s such a waste of a good beer.’ When another Deadhead pointed out that he was pouring it over his cop shoes by accident, he had a good laugh.”

Another fan who says they were there that night says, “It was a great show beginning to end and the streets of Hamilton were crazy all night. I was crying during ‘Believe It Or Not.’ So beautiful. This was exactly what you want from a Dead experience.”

Garcia, the lead guitarist and principal songwriter, died in 1995 of a heart attack while in a rehabilitation facility. The bandname was retired after his death, and the four surviving members from that 1990 lineup, Hart, Kreutzmann, Lesh and Weir, have played in acts known as The Other Ones and The Dead.

For the record, “Box of Rain” was not in the setlist for that 1990 show. But filmmaker Paul Feig put it to good work in the climactic episode of the cult-favourite comedy series “Freaks and Geeks,” which featured future household names such as Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Rashida Jones. The series’ central character, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), shared a last name with one of the band members.

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