Twenty fabled moments in Denver music: #15: Grateful Dead's first time at Red Rocks in 1978

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Over the course of the next few weeks, Backbeat will be counting down the twenty most fabled moments in Denver music history. Today, a look back at the first time the Grateful Dead played at Red Rocks in 1978.

The origins of Colorado's jam band "scene" are pretty nebulous, but July 7, 1978, is probably as close to a date as you're going to find pinpointing its genesis, for that's the first time the Grateful Dead played Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and, by all accounts, it was a barn burner of a performance. Words like "legendary" and "monumental" are thrown around on internet discussion boards describing the first of a two-night stand in Morrison.

See Also: #20: Beatlemania at Red Rocks#19: Michael Jackson's secretive stay in Denver#18: Black Flag openers Nig-Heist get arrested for nudity 1984#17: Einsturzende Neubauten play '86 junkyard show#16: Radiohead's gear gets jacked in 1995

Consider the circumstances leading up to these summer shows: Red Rocks was famously shut down after an infamous 1971 Jethro Tull concert (which is sure to be included here in the twenty fabled moments at some point). The tear gas dissipated and the crowds had left crying, and there wouldn't be another rock show at the Morrison venue for a full five years, soft-rock acts like Sonny & Cher excluded.

Meanwhile, the Dead had just come off a nearly two-year hiatus that ended in 1976. They had long before then established themselves as the quintessential Bay Area psychedelic folk band and had developed a strong fan base. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty were released in 1970, giving the world "Uncle John's Band," "Truckin'" and "Casey Jones." They had already played Colorado a number of times by then, including a City Park gig in Denver in 1967 (which also featured an altitude-sick Captain Beefheart) and an indoor rodeo gig in Colorado Springs in 1969 (where they took the stage at 4 a.m.). They also played gigs in Boulder in '69 and '72.

So they were a known quantity around these parts. The Dead's time off, however, and Red Rocks' somewhat recent reintroduction of rock bands created the kind of momentum that pretty much assured the band's first show there would be legendary. Jerry Garcia could have taken a nap on stage that night, and it would likely still be remembered as the Dead's mythical first Red Rocks show.

Twist & Shout owner Paul Epstein was there, and put it in perspective thusly:

"The entire -- what is now unfortunately called the 'jam band movement' -- is inextricably tied to Colorado. Absolutely, this is the cradle of it. The whole summer festival touring scene really developed here. The Grateful Dead's first concert at Red Rocks was hugely important. This was when the traveling Dead scene was becoming nationally known, instead of a little cult thing. Those shows at red rocks were just gigantically important. Tons of people came out from California. It really became the first major travel destination outside the Bay Area for the Grateful Dead."

And it became a major headache. Deadheads, the (mostly) harmless band of Dead groupies, inundated campgrounds around Morrison with each successive year the band played there. This culminated in a petition to get the Dead show in Telluride canceled in 1987, while the band was on a career high with their only hit song, "Touch of Grey." The petition did not work.

The '78 shows -- of which there were four total (two in July, two in August) -- were the first of many return engagements to Red Rocks. By the time Phish first played there in '93, the venue was already a mecca for jam bands. The question of whether Colorado would be the jam band destination it is today is debatable. But Epstein's point is a salient one: Without the Dead playing here on those summer days more than three decades ago, the Rocky Mountains would be a little less tie-dyed than it is today.

Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music

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