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Surprise announcement recalls the year Grateful Dead played West High auditorium

  • Author: Chris Bieri
  • Updated: March 16, 2017
  • Published March 16, 2017

Bob Weir will play two shows in Girdwood this week.

Nearly 37 years after being part of Alaska's greatest Outside musical spectacle, Bob Weir is returning to perform in the state.

Weir, longtime guitarist and founding member of the Grateful Dead, will stand in for his friend David Nelson as the David Nelson Band plays a three-night stand this weekend at the Sitzmark in Girdwood. Nelson was recently diagnosed with colon cancer and had to curtail his work while focusing on treatment.

At first, Skip Lichter, who works as the talent buyer and music consultant for Alyeska Resort, thought guitarist Peter Rowan might be able to fill out the bill. But when that plan didn't work out, word reached Weir, who agreed to play with the band.

"We looked around for other artists who would be compatible and know his music and Bobby wanted to do it for his friend David," Lichter said. "He's familiar with all this music. It's very easy for him to be able to pick it up."

Lichter and his brothers George and Andy operated Northern Stage Co., which brought the Grateful Dead to Alaska in 1980 for a three-night stint playing to sold-out crowds at the West High School auditorium during summer solstice.

Local media covered the scene, from the band's arrival and shows to the travels and travails of their fans, known as Dead Heads.

"Looking and carrying on more like a keg-league softball team than members of a rock group, the musicians and their entourage strode unmolested through the airport," wrote Anchorage Times reporter Bill Kossen.

The Times reported drummer Mickey Hart immediately flew out to go salmon fishing, while Weir and keyboardist Brent Mydland took a flightseeing tour that included Mount Susitna and Knik Glacier. The Times also featured a picture of drummer Bill Kreutzmann gnawing on a big chunk of Columbia Glacier ice.

Lichter said that was just a start.

"We had the band up for a couple weeks," Lichter said. "We had a lot of activities planned. We had a special dinner where we brought everyone up to the top of Rabbit Creek at Hash Hill and had a special dinner of salmon, halibut and caribou stew."

Lichter said Weir and bassist Phil Lesh even went up in a radio helicopter to do a wacky traffic report from above Anchorage.

"On Tudor Road headed eastbound, in the area of Muldoon, everything seems to be moving right along, but traffic appears to be going backwards," Weir reported flatly, according to the Times, adding the recommendation that motorists should "turn on your lights and honk your horn."

Local fans are already anticipating Weir's return and reminiscing about the band's 1980 performances.

To say that was a memorable weekend in Suzanne Knudsen's life would be a significant understatement. Not only was the Bird resident front and center for the final Dead show at West, she also got married that afternoon.

"We got married at Portage Glacier," she said. "It was a nice day and we had all of our relatives come up and we had our reception at Bird Creek. After that we changed out of our (formal) clothes and our family members were looking at us curiously. We said, 'We're going to the Grateful Dead concert. See you tomorrow.' There aren't a lot of people who can say the Grateful Dead played on their wedding day."

Knudsen was excited to be able to grab a ticket to see Weir this weekend.

"I was shocked," she said. "I got on the phone right away. It took awhile, but I kept calling. I guess the ticket office closed at 8:30 and I got through at 8:28. They were almost all sold out except Thursday and I just got in."

Reviews of the 1980 shows were overwhelmingly positive, both from the press and fans.

Writing in the Anchorage Daily News, Clint Swett likened the band to a good cabernet, its music aging tastefully compared to some of the aimless jamming (i.e. cheap wine) he perceived in their earlier years.

He also pointed out that West High, with a capacity of 2,000, was likely the smallest venue the group had played in the last decade.

In the Times, Chris Godwin gave a recap of the concert, including the scene at the intermission: "Outside, it could have been a scene from a free concert at Golden Gate Park. In twos and threes and more, people were still singing, dancing, hugging, talking, tossing Frisbees — the usual Summer of Love kind of things."

Lewis Leonard, who now operates Girdwood's Glacier City Radio, was part of the crew working the concerts. He said Santana and Fleetwood Mac also played major shows in Alaska, but when it came to sound, no one could touch the Dead.

"Lots of well-known bands played up in Anchorage, but the Dead were it," Leonard said.

The poster from the 1980 Grateful Dead show at the West High Auditorium.

Lichter said the band's prodigious amount of audio gear was hauled up the Alcan in two trucks.

The crush of gear was not lost on Leonard, a self-described audiophile who said the walls of the West High auditorium were packed from floor to ceiling with all order of speakers.

"Literally, the room was kind of a speaker in itself," he said. "It was incredible sound. I was going to drop acid, so I was out on a nice acid trip while I was working and it was really great. It was so good that I dropped acid a second night."

Weir, now 69, was only 17 when the Grateful Dead formed and was perceived by some fans as Bobby, the kid brother of the band compared to Jerry Garcia's more patriarchal role.

After a nearly 40-year hiatus from recording as a solo artist, Weir released "Blue Mountain" last fall.

The album, which teamed Weir with producer Josh Kaufman of The National and songwriter Josh Ritter, was a critical success.

Much like the 1980 shows, the return shows with Weir and the David Nelson Band quickly sold out once Weir's inclusion was announced.

Lichter said Alyeska Resort owner John Byrne, also a Grateful Dead fan, was essential in bringing Weir back to the state.

"This isn't a big money-making thing and neither were the shows in 1980," Lichter said. "Those were to get those guys to experience Alaska."

The David Nelson Band with Bob Weir

When: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 10 p.m.-2 a.m.

Where: Sitzmark Bar and Grill

Tickets: Sold out

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