Quick Take:

Though Santa Cruz County certainly qualifies as Grateful Dead-friendly territory — and UCSC houses the Grateful Dead Archive — the legendary band played just one show here: Sept. 24, 1983, at the county fairgrounds outside Watsonville. While some locals who were involved with the concert have mixed reviews, the Dead will get their due Sunday night at a special anniversary edition of Felton Music Hall’s weekly Grateful Sundays.

Even if you’re on the outside looking in at the devoted fan base of the Grateful Dead, you probably believe, or at least sense, that Santa Cruz is friendly territory — if not holy ground — for all things Dead. For instance, Santa Cruz is home to the Grateful Dead Archive (if you want to visit “Dead Central,” it’s right near the main entrance of the McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz). The number of Dead tribute-band shows that have gone down in Santa Cruz and environs over the years is roughly equal to the number of stars in the sky

Now you’re wondering: Back when Jerry Garcia was still among the living, how many times did the Grateful Dead perform in Santa Cruz County? Dozens of times, right?

Actually, just once.

Though Garcia himself had performed in Santa Cruz in other incarnations, including with the Jerry Garcia Band, the Grateful Dead — Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Brent Mydland — performed only once in Santa Cruz County, on the afternoon of Sept. 24, 1983, at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds outside Watsonville.

On Sunday night, Felton Music Hall will host its Grateful Sunday evening with Santa Cruz guitarist Matt Hartle, as it does every week. But this Grateful Sunday will be devoted to the 40th anniversary commemoration of that sole Dead show in Santa Cruz. (For the record, the Dead was all set to headline a big show at Cabrillo College in the fall of 1967, just a couple of months after appearing at the iconic Monterey Pop Festival, but that show was canceled.)

Former First District County Supervisor John Leopold is a Deadhead in fine standing, and a former board member of the Dead’s philanthropic arm, the Rex Foundation. He’s also behind the 40th anniversary commemoration. At Felton Music Hall, Leopold will be there with some material from the Grateful Dead Archive, and those who were there at that show will be along to share stories and memories.

“The Grateful Dead has this amazing history in Santa Cruz County,” said Leopold, “but they only played here one time, on tour in 1983. In part, that’s because we don’t really have places the size that bands like the Grateful Dead were used to playing. And it may have been the biggest show ever in the county’s history, at least it was the biggest show at the time.”

Jerry Garcia performing at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds on Sept. 24, 1983.
Jerry Garcia performing at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds on Sept. 24, 1983. Credit: Via Marc Currie

The show attracted about 11,000 fans. The existing stage at the fairgrounds was far too small for the band, so a new makeshift stage was built beside the old stage.

At the time, the Dead was an enormously famous touchstone of the 1960s San Francisco sound. But, knee-deep in the Reagan era, the mainstream of music fans were more focused on post-punk acts like Talking Heads and U2. Though still able to command devotion from legions of fans in the burgeoning Dead subculture, the band was at the same time out of fashion with the times. They were still several years away from their mainstream resurrection.

A 40-year-old poster advertising the Grateful Dead's only live show in Santa Cruz County.
A 40-year-old poster advertising the Grateful Dead’s only live show in Santa Cruz County.

“In some ways, it was not a great point in their career,” said Leopold. “They hadn’t put out a record in years. They had put out two major double live CDs celebrating their 15th anniversary in 1980, but they hadn’t really been in the studio. There wasn’t a new studio record released until 1987. Garcia had some [drug] issues at that time.”

Still, the band played a long show, with two sets and a double encore. And the show was notable in Dead lore, Leopold said: “It was the last time they would play a song that they originally started playing acoustically called ‘Deep Elem Blues.’”

Veteran Santa Cruz concert presenter and radio personality Sleepy John Sandidge was also at the show. In fact, he was the show’s local promoter.

Sandidge has little positive to say about the 1983 show, at which he was working with a partner named Mirandi Babitz in a promotion company called Northern Stage.

“We had probably 500 or 600 people come over the fence to come in, making us really overattended,” said Sandidge. “And we had to put up with a stage crew that were just mean people.”

Santa Cruz promoter John Sandidge in front of the stage built at the county fairgrounds to accommodate the Grateful Dead.
Santa Cruz promoter John Sandidge in front of the stage that had to be built at the fairgrounds to accommodate the Grateful Dead. Credit: Via John Leopold

Sandidge said that the Dead’s stage crew — not the musicians themselves — insisted on having Perrier water, which was not an easy find in Watsonville in 1983. “So we finally come back with it,” remembered Sandidge. “And what did they do with it? They poured it into their dogs’ drinking bowls.”

The event also featured a tragedy. Sometime during the show, a toddler wandered from his family and disappeared. According to news reports at the time, the boy’s body was found the next morning in a nearby pond.

“The band wasn’t responsible for any of that,” said Sandidge. “But we had to rent each one of them a separate trailer so they each have their own private dressing room. It was just a very unpleasant day.”

In fact, the experience represented a turning point in Sandidge’s career putting on shows locally. He stepped away from working with major stars like the Grateful Dead and began bringing to town second-tier country, folk and rock acts, artists with fine if underappreciated bodies of work. “It was so much money and such a risk that I just decided I can do it another way, have more fun, actually meet the people I’m working with,” he said. “And it worked out just as I thought it would.”

As for the Dead, the band’s legacy in Santa Cruz County includes more than the one show at the fairgrounds. Several band members, including Garcia, were on hand at the first historic “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters back in 1965 before they were even calling themselves the Grateful Dead. And, many years before that, a 5-year-old Jerry Garcia and his brother were fooling around with an ax, which resulted in young Jerry losing the middle finger on his right hand. And that reportedly happened somewhere near Lompico in the San Lorenzo Valley.

Yet, 40 years after the band’s only Santa Cruz County show, and nearly 60 years after they first came together in Palo Alto, the Grateful Dead are still very much part of the present moment. Dead & Company, which featured several of the Dead’s surviving band members, only this summer ceased touring with three sold-out dates at Oracle Park in San Francisco. And many bands devoted solely to the music and vibe of the Dead, such as the Dark Star Orchestra, continue to attract enormous crowds touring the world.

“The Grateful Dead is popular in lots of places,” said John Leopold, “and there are Grateful Dead cover bands that play almost every night of the week somewhere in this country. And then, with Dead & Company doing a summer tour that was playing at baseball stadiums, they’re as popular now — or maybe even more popular —than they were back in 1995 when Jerry Garcia passed.”

Leopold last year went to a festival in Mendocino County that featured only Grateful Dead tribute bands, and he was impressed by the number of young people flocking to hear a band that had stopped performing before many of them were even born.

“Dark Star Orchestra came out to play,” said Leopold, “and for them, that was their Grateful Dead experience. They’re never gonna see Jerry, but they were having an experience through one of the many different iterations of the Grateful Dead that are still going on. And Santa Cruz has been doing this probably as long or longer than most places. There’s a lot of stories of the Grateful Dead family that have passed through Santa Cruz.”

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Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...