SOUTH – WESTERN GRATEFUL DEAD TOUR 1985                                   

by Karen Bell

After seeing almost 200 Grateful Dead shows over a 6 year period all over the US, Canada and Europe, I am often asked what my favourite show was or which tour was the best.

I am not the typical deadhead who can run off setlists from memory and although I always did write down the setlist during each show they have long been misplaced or thrown away.  It wasn’t just what the Grateful Dead played on a certain night which made a concert special but it was a combination of how they played it, where they played, how the audience reacted and of course one’s own state of mind.  It also involved the surroundings of the venue and the adventures and experiences you had there.

 Here said, some of my favourite shows weren’t necessarily the concerts where the band played the best songs or flawless versions of them, but instead the ones that created a special atmosphere and left a lasting magical memory with me.

 One of my all-time favourite tours with the Grateful Dead was the South-West Summer Tour of 1985, my first tour and one that I will always fondly remember – despite some early misadventures.  I had moved to California only a month and a half earlier (before the Ventura shows) and was a “couch-creature” at the renowned “Arch St. Zoo” located at 1849 Arch Street, just off campus near the University in Berkeley.   The “Zoo”, as it was called, was a large house of deadheads with up to 18 permanent residents along with numerous temporary and not so temporary guests.  I had first met my later friends Jane, Dwion & Brian at a Jerry Garcia concert at The Stone in San Francisco and they had invited me to stay with them at the Zoo where they were living.  This would become my permanent home at a later date..

 Although I didn’t have tickets and had absolutely no clue about mail order at that time, I decided to go on the South-West tour.  Was there a better opportunity for a Canadian native to see part of America and enjoy the Dead at the same time?  The first show was on Saturday August 24th at Boreal Ridge, a ski resort near Lake Tahoe at Donner Summit.  Jane and most of the Zoo residents were also there and we camped out the evening before the concert across the highway at a site with hundreds of other deadheads.  It was a wonderful evening with campfires, music, drums and dance.  The next stop would be Houston, Texas and I tried to find a ride there as most of the Zooites weren’t going.

 Unfortunately, I still didn’t know very many people and those who were going on the tour weren’t leaving until later in the week.   I wanted to depart right after the Boreal show and  I decided that if I didn’t find a ride by the time the show was finished that I would hitch-hike the 2000 miles to Houston..

 The show at Boreal was musically quite a lousy one but the scenery and the atmosphere were perfect.  There were so many colourful people on the mountainside and the chair lifts behind us.  The weather was splendid, the air was filled with balloons and beach balls and it was just a real fun event.  Then the show was over and I still hadn’t found a ride to Texas.  My friends suggested that I go back to the Bay Area with them and look for a drive later in the week but I insisted upon leaving early the next morning and hitch-hike to Houston.  I really don’t know why, looking back, but I think I was just afraid of not finding a ride later on and then not having enough time to hitch-hike there either.  I told Jane’s friend, Buzzard from Sacramento, not to worry as I had a knife with me and was immediately reprimanded by he and his friends being told that if any problems arise that I would likely be the weaker of the parties and that defending myself with a knife could backfire.  They suggested carrying a large stone in my purse and after a short search I found part of a concrete building block and packed it into my handbag.  A special thanks to Buzzard and his friends for this suggestion that probably ended up saving my life!!  I spent a relaxed evening at our campsite with Jane and some other members of the “Clean Crew” (volunteers who stayed on to collect garbage at the concert grounds and campsite)  and the next morning I said my goodbyes, took my map, my backpack and a rather heavy purse and headed off to the highway.

 I quickly caught my 1st ride and ended up being let out in the middle of nowhere, near military land, in the desert.  It was midday and scorching hot and there were no cars to be seen for far and wide.  Luckily, I had a gallon jug of water with me but I was beginning to have an uneasy feeling and thought I’d be doomed in the desert with the snakes and scorpions and die of heat stroke.  However, about 4 hours later a car finally came by and took me along to San Bernadino and this is where my real adventure began.

 My drive let me off in San Bernadino at the junction of Highway 10 at 2 am in the morning.  It was pitch-black and vehicles were roaring past me on the 8-lane highway.  It was scary.  A car finally stopped and I was just happy to get away from there.  Normally, I am very particular with whom I take a ride, but I was tired and scared and just climbed into the car without much thought.  As it turns out it was a big mistake.  The fellow was creepy from the first moment and after about a half a hour it became frightening.  He kept putting his hand on my leg (I was wearing shorts) and when I kept telling him to stop he became aggressive.  I told him to pull over and he did, but before I could get out of the car he grabbed my shirt and tried to hold me there.  Well, before I could even think I swung my purse at him (which I had held prepared in my hand the whole time) and he fell limp beside me.  Oh my God, I thought I killed him!  I grabbed my backpack, got out of the car, and ran along the highway waving my arms back and forth.  There were trucks racing by but nobody stopped.  I was barefoot and realized I had left my shoes in the car and slowly went back, opened the door and grabbed my shoes on the floor of the passenger side.  I heard the fellow groaning - at least I wasn’t a murderer - and ran away again still waving my arms.  A car saw me and stopped but due to his speed on the highway he ended up parking in front of the car I had left.  I cautiously went his direction but suddenly the vehicle I had left began driving backwards towards me and the other car, I suppose,  figured he was picking me up and drove off again.  I was in panic, running as fast as I could away from the car, who luckily was going very slowly, waving my arms and almost standing on the actual highway where the trucks were still whizzing by.  A truck finally saw me and managed to stop between myself and the car at which time my assailant drove off and left.  I was crying and shaking like a leaf when I got into the truck but the truck driver was decent and understanding and when he heard my story said he would help me.  After I calmed down some, I snoozed for a while on the bunk and was woken up when we arrived in Yuma, Arizona where he had to let me out.  It is illegal to hitch-hike from this truck stop but the driver had made special arrangements for me over his cb radio and after buying me breakfast he left me in the trucker’s lounge where I feel asleep.  I was woken by the management around 9 am and they told  me they had found a truck that would take me to Houston.

 It was a Mayflower moving truck driven by a black fellow and his son.  They were both really nice and when I saw my first huge cactuses at the side of the road, they stopped and let me get out to look at them and take some pictures.  I’d never seen such a huge ones before, except in movies, and they really found that very amusing.  Sometime late afternoon we arrived in the outskirts of Houston where we parted ways.

 It had never occurred to me that I would arrive in Houston so quickly and long before the other deadheads.  In fact I thought I would need several days to get there and there would be deadheads camped out near the venue when I arrived.  I hitch-hiked into the city and there wasn’t one single deadhead to be found anywhere.  Houston is huge and I didn’t know where to stay with my low budget and therefore decided to leave the city and find a campsite for a day or 2.  I was picked up by a well groomed young Latino driving a Federal Express truck.  He asked me, “ didn’t I see you hitching in the other direction about an hour ago?”.  I told him he had and what my plans were and he invited me to stay with him and promised to be a perfect gentlemen.  Hell, I figured this short haired guy working for Fedex was decent and trustworthy and it turned out he was  - even if I was in for another small surprise! 

 He made one last delivery and then we drove to his house where he showed me the guestroom and allowed me to shower.  He then asked if I wanted to go to a party with him that evening and I agreed.  Then he showered and came out dressed in full colours and a leather jacket with “Bandidos” printed on the back.  At that time I knew nothing of the Bandidos and he took me to the party on his motorcycle where I had a lovely evening playing pool with what seemed to be rather normal bikers.  Looking back today, I must laugh over this occasion, especially that I was befriended with several ex- Hell’s Angels later in California (who I didn’t dare tell this story).  Anyways, he had the next day off and took me sightseeing around Houston on his motorcycle and the next couple of days he let me stay at his house while he was at work.  I stayed with him until Friday morning Aug 30th when he dropped me off at the Southern Star Amphitheatre where the concert was being held.



I was so excited to finally be there and the first deadheads were slowly showing up.  The Southern Star Amphitheatre is part of a large complex that includes an amusement park and the golf ball-shaped Astrodome which is home to the Houston Astros baseball team.  Admittance to the Amphitheatre wasn’t until around 6 pm so the deadheads gathered in the parking lot in front of the main gates and we had just a blast!  It was also a very hot day with temperatures up near 100 °F and the asphalt was so hot that you could barely walk on it with bare feet.  I was always in bare feet but even my calloused soles couldn’t stand the scorching asphalt and I had to put my shoes on.  Other deadheads were playing congas & bongos and dancing and as the day progressed, it got hotter, and the parking lot transformed into a huge half-naked deadhead party.  There were trolleys that ran between the parking lot and the amusement park shuttling the normal tourists back and forth and, boy, what fun we had watching them watch us!  Many children were waving at us but their parents were appalled and held their children securely trying to shelter them from this alien invasion.  Others were pointing at us and taking pictures with their movie cameras as if they were visiting a zoo full of rare animals.   It was hilarious and got even better. 

 Later in the afternoon and shortly before the gates opened the skies did too.  We were hit by a huge torrential rainfall and it was pouring in buckets.  Gosh, were we thrilled to have a break from the heat and everyone began dancing and singing in the rain.  The asphalt was steaming and the tourists in the trolleys, doing their best to keep dry, were watching the soaking wet deadheads rejoicing in the rain with disbelief and intrepidation.  The downpour didn’t last very long and when it eased the sun came back out and the gates were finally opened.

 It was still daylight when the concert began and I was on the lawn toward the back of the amphitheatre.  Needless to say, the music was awesome.  We collected garbage bags to sit on or to put our bags and extra clothing into and danced as best we could on the steep muddy hillside until the end of the first set.  During the pause it had become dark and presented the most spectacular view from where I was standing.  The hillside below me was a sea of colour, the stage was illuminated with it’s colourful backdrop, beyond the sphere-shaped Astrodome was brightly lit up and the sky above was full of stars.  We discovered we could slide down the muddy hillside on our garbage bags and before long there were dozens of deadheads skidding down the centre aisle through the mud and we just had a ball.  I was, at this time, slightly affected from the use of a minor illegal substance, and when the 2nd set began I was having the time of my life.

 The 2nd set was so much fun and although I can’t spontaneously list the songs that they played I will always remember one of the best Morning Dews I have ever experienced.  Of the whole show, it was this song, that left a lasting impression and I will always associate it with this Houston concert.  Shortly afterwards, the concert came to an end.

 It was always a sad moment when the concert ended and you had to leave the magical world and return to reality, but this was only the beginning of the tour and there was so much more to look forward to, so it wasn’t that bad.   I returned to the parking lot and was selling bumper stickers when I ran into some familiar faces from the Bay Area.  Jeff, Chuck and another person (whose name I have since forgotten) had room in their car and offered me a ride to Austin and the to the other venues later on the tour.  A couple of hours later we left for Austin.


MANOR DOWNS, Austin, TX August 31 1985

The concert at Manor Downs was the next day and I have no extraordinary memories of this show.  The venue was a large open field and we got there early enough to sell some stickers and Guatemalan woven bracelets and spent some time wandering the parking lots, listening to music and enjoying some vegetarian food that the Hari Krishna’s were selling there.  The Hari Krishna’s were an odd bunch, with their orange robes, their chants and finger bells and I think this was the first time I had ever seen them.  They would show up at many shows in the future and although we mainly ignored them they did sell good food. 

 It was a good show and musically, supposedly, much better than Houston but for myself it was just a normal show and the magic wasn’t as powerful as the previous day.  They did play two encores though which was rather special.


ZOO AMPHITHEATRE, Oklahoma City, OK, September 2 1985

We had a day off after the show in Austin and camped overnight before heading to Oklahoma the next day.  We were still having great weather and took some time exploring the countryside on our way and arrived at Oklahoma City late in the evening.  I camped overnight in the deadhead parking lot and spent the following day selling my merchandise, which was kindly supplied by a fellow named Harry, and meeting new people.  What I forgot to mention earlier in this writing is that a major part of my day always involved searching for a ticket.  I had made a cardboard sign with a big red Maple Leaf and words to the effect of - A Canadian deadhead needs at ticket - please!  On this day, as the previous ones, I was fortunate to find a ticket without much problem.

 The Amphitheatre, itself, was lovely and quaint.  In fact, most of the shows on the tour were in smaller Amphitheatres and they provided a much pleasanter and more personal atmosphere than in the larger indoor arenas or stadiums.  I was the first person in line at the entrance gate and ended up standing at the stage, smack-dab in front of Jerry, in the 1st row.  I’d never been this close before and after this show I would almost always be up front at future ones.  It was a completely different experience with lot’s of room to dance and there really was a bond between yourself and the band.  You could see when they smiled or frowned or even looked at you and when people say the band didn’t notice individuals in the audience, they are very wrong.  Perhaps when the spotlights were shining on them but not when it was still daylight in an Amphitheatre or other outdoor event.  They certainly did see you and occasionally one would see a smile of recognition or a nod when the band came onto the stage at future shows.  Wow, it was really cool up front and I had an awesome experience watching the band and danced my feet sore.  It was also here that I started getting to know the “railrat” family – the other deadheads who always came up to the front.   The show itself was great, but then again I enjoyed the whole tour and the peripheral thereof was so fantastic that the band could have played the worst shows of their careers and I still would have loved it.  After the show we caught some sleep and left at the break of dawn for Kansas City, Missouri where the next days show was.


STARLIGHT AMPHITHEATRE, Kansas City, MO, Sept. 3 1985

We arrived in Kansas City late in the morning and opted to get Motel room for the night.  It was about time to get some real sleep and have a shower.  There were several Motels along the roadside with large signposts posting their rates and we pulled in front of the reception office of a rather cheap one and went to check in.  Now call me naive and to an extent I certainly was  - but this was actually funnier than hell.  The receptionist asked me if we wanted mirrors or not.  I didn’t hesitate a second and said of course we want mirrors.  I did think it was a rather odd question but perhaps it wasn’t that common to have mirrors in the bathrooms in this part of America.  After all, we were in the so-called Bible Belt.  So there I was, standing at the reception with 3 men with whom I am sharing the room and telling them I wanted mirrors.  Everyone was grinning ear to ear and I still didn’t know what the ordeal was all about until we unlocked the door to our room and the whole ceiling above the beds was tiled with mirrors.  Oh my God, he must have thought we were going to huge orgy that night.  Needless to say, I was rather embarrassed but we really didn’t care as we knew that wouldn’t be the case and we were just happy for the beds and shower.

 After everyone had showered we headed off to the venue and I commenced with the usual routine of selling stickers, bracelets and looking for a ticket.  I then joined some of the fellow railrats at the front of the line and when the gates opened ran down to the front and decided to stand between Bob and Jerry that night.  It was another beautiful amphitheatre and an absolutely mind-boggling show.  Wow, the 2nd set opened with Cryptical, the Other One, Cryptical and even though Jerry forgot half the words it was a special moment and a suite we heard very seldom. It was also a “good Phil day” which left the bass resonating in your ribcage and I just loved it when Phil had those days.  I was slightly high and by the time Drums began I was way out there having a ball under the starlit sky.  These were the days when Mickey had the wooden xylophone, which I just loved, and I was standing right in front of him and it was fascinating to watch.  The sound up front was great but most of what we hear comes directly from the monitors on the stage and I believe I heard the tapers later complaining about the lousy sound out back - mainly due to the wind which was often a problem at outdoor shows.  I still haven’t found a recording of this show that does it justice.

 Anyways, when the show was over we spent an hour or so in the parking lot and then returned to our motel room.  We put on a cassette of an old Grateful Dead show and lay on the beds playing charades and guessing each other’s charade by watching each other in the ceiling mirrors.  It was hilarious.  After a good nights sleep and a big breakfast we headed off to Colorado where the next 3 shows were.


RED ROCKS AMPHITHEATRE, CO, Sept. 5, 6 & 7, 1985 

Red Rocks is probably the most spectacular and one of the most popular outdoor venues where the Grateful Dead played and an absolute highlight on their summer tours.  It was my first time in Colorado and the scenery was breathtaking.  We arrived there sometime late afternoon on the day before the 1st show and were directed to the main Deadhead Campsite which was some distance from the venue itself.  It was a real campsite in the woods and there the tourheads were joined  by hundred of other deadheads from the east and west coasts who had just come out for these particular shows.  The campsite was full of creatively painted old school buses, tents of every shape and size and the odd other camping vehicle, including Kurt’s converted hearse.  The party began the moment we arrived and didn’t end until after the last show over 4 days later.

 I spent the first evening at Redrocks strolling from one campsite to another, meeting many new people as well as running into several familiar faces who had just arrived from the Bay Area.  At some point I ended up around a huge bonfire and danced to the bongos until the wee hours when it was finally time to get some sleep.  When I awoke the next morning, we had a beautiful day, and overnight a complete deadhead village had emerged amongst the tree in the Colorado mountains.  Much to my relief I found a ticket early in the day as the concert was more than sold out and then we drove down to the gravel parking lot of the amphitheatre.  Excitedly, I jumped out of the car and landed on a broken bottle in my bare feet.  So my first experience at Red Rocks was visiting the Medical tent and getting my foot bandaged and a tetanus shot.  It wasn’t that bad though and certainly didn’t handicap my dancing in any way.

 Finally the gates opened and I found my way up front on Jerry’s side of the stage.  The nice thing about these amphitheatres were that there were no high barriers between the audience and the stage and we probably had more room to dance up front than the people on the stone terracing behind us.  Also the stages weren’t as high as in the normal venues and therefore the band was really right in front of you and not above you.  Looking back, I certainly can’t imagine this situation later in the 80s when the Dead played to much larger crowds including thousands of rowdy East Coast teenagers.  Perhaps that was why the wonderful Amphitheatre tours sadly came to an end?  I was already euphoric by the time I got into the venue and it was only then that I realised the beauty of the place.  The Redrocks, after which the venue is named, are behind the stage and to the left and are indeed impressive.  Behind me were stone terraces that ascended the hillside and beyond that was a steep grassy slope.  I was up front with Jeff (a different Jeff), Jamie and Stacey, who were newly befriended railrats from the East Coast and Florida and with whom I’d later share many wonderful adventures on future tours. We were so excited and so grateful to be there and there really was an intense, positive energy among the audience even before the band began to play.

 After the typical tuning, the band opened the show with Cold, Rain & Snow, one of my personal favourites and the first Dead song I had ever attempted to learn on guitar.  A special aura was there and without trying to sound too spiritual, there was something very magical in the air and both the band and the audience knew it.  The 2nd set began with Scarlet / Fire and of course it was timed perfectly with a gorgeous orange sunset and we just danced and danced and danced!  When the show finished we returned to our campsite village and just continued dancing.  I don’t think anyone slept that night and we celebrated until dawn.


REDROCKS, 2nd show

The next day was slightly overcast and the campsite was mainly in the shade so I, and many others, ended up sleeping comfortably most of the morning.  Then the hunt began for a ticket.  I had heard of the hundreds of deadheads who had been shutout from the previous concert without one and certainly hoped this wouldn’t happen to me.  The hours went by and I admit I was getting very anxious.  Then it was time to drive down to the venue and I was still without a ticket.  The show had been sold out for months and several familiar faces apologised saying they had just sold their extra ticket to someone else not knowing I had needed one.  Oh well - I always was, and still am, a positive thinker and didn’t give up hope.  However, without a ticket I couldn’t line up early to get to the front and was slightly discouraged.  The gates were about to open and Jamie and Stacey told me they would save a spot for me up front.  Bless their souls – now I just had to find the darn ticket.  Then the gates opened and I went back out to the parking lot and sat on a stone at the entrance with my Maple Leaf sign.  There weren’t many cars coming in anymore and just when I was about to give up hope, a car stopped, and they sold me a ticket.  Yippee!  I went in and up to the front and sure enough, Stacey had a spot for me right in front of Bob.  That’s where our famous “Bob the Spitter” tale first evolved but that’s another story ….  Less than 2 minutes later the show began.  Needless to say, I was exuberant just to have gotten in and enjoyed another wonderful show.  OK, I must admit it was the worst, or better said - it wasn’t quite as good the previous day or next show, -  but I was just so happy to be there and the atmosphere at Redrocks really is awesome.  I was pretty beat after the show and only participated in the aftershow festivities for a short while.  I snuggled into my sleeping bag, listening to the drums in the background and just hoped I would have better luck finding a ticket the next day.


REDROCKS, 3nd show

Then the day arrived.  199 Grateful Dead shows in 6 years and I was only shut out of one single concert.  This was it! 

 I woke up early and the easy going me didn’t bother trying to sell anything or socialize but, after the scare from the previous day,  I immediately began searching for a ticket.  To no avail however.  The day slowly progressed, as if in slow motion,  and then it was time to go to the amphitheatre.  The gates opened and the show was about to begin and I still didn’t have a ticket.  I was devastated and close to tears when I heard the first chord of the first set – from the parking lot!  Another ticketless deadhead grabbed my hand and said, “come up on the hillside, you can hear the music really well”.  I didn’t hesitate a moment and we climbed the mountain at the side of the venue until we arrived at a steep meadow right behind the amphitheatre.  The band was near the end of Mississippi Half-Step, which was only the second song, and I found myself standing amongst 100s of deadheads on the mountainside behind the venue and experienced, perhaps, the greatest show I would ever see.

 The view from our standpoint is indescribable.  We couldn’t see the stage but could see the people and security persons standing at the top and back of the amphitheatre.  However, we could see the whole world around us.  To the left was the big city Denver and towards the right were several small lakes covered with sailboats and windsurfers.  A weather front went through and we could see the wind over the lakes, the boats tipping over, lightening and rain showers falling from the clouds above them.  It was dry and sunny with clouds where we were but there certainly was quite a storm down in the valley.

 The music was loud and clear enough but somewhat peculiar as a strong wind was blowing and depending on which gusts went through, it was loud, it was quiet, it came from the right, or from the left.  Wow- it was a trip, in several ways.  It was so steep that we really had to watch our footing but we danced – as much, if not more than the people below us.  I was happy and thought what a wonderful concert to be shut out of.  The first set ended and at some point nature called.  Dear me, I can’t even write this because I’m laughing so hard ….

 Ok, nature called and I was on a steep mountainside with some desert-like vegetation and I was high – on life and on substance.  I descended the hillside some until I found a large bush and prepared to do my duty behind it and out of sight of the others.  I squatted, (as a woman must do) lost my balance and landed with my precious behind on a Prickly Pear (a cactus) … sorry I’m still laughing!  Ow – it hurt like hell and my whole backside was covered in Prickly Pear spikes.  It took some time to find and remove them all and after doing so and I finally returned to the main group of hillside spectators with a literal “pain in the ass”.

 Anyways, after I survived the killer cactus, the 2nd set began.  WOW – it was so hot!  It opened with Shakedown Street followed by Crazy Fingers and the energy was boiling over.  We danced and danced and danced and then shortly after Space the band began to play Dear Mr. Fantasy.  I can’t explain what happened but the vibes were indescribable, the emotions, the feeling, it was something absolutely magical and unique and the persons around me began running down the hillside toward the upper part of the amphitheatre and the security gate.  I didn’t hesitate and came galloping down the hillside behind them and suddenly I was inside the venue looking over the stage.  I don’t think the security even tried to stop us and we were in the amphitheatre for the remainder of the concert.  By the time Brent began singing Hey Jude at the end of Dear Mr. Fantasy I was standing at the back dancing and watching the sea of movement around and below me and when the show finally ended with a beautiful, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue, I was just awestruck and could barely even move.  One of my friends found me on their way out and took me back to the campsite and all I could say was, Oh wow, oh wow … It was so awesome!!

 This had been the last concert on the South-Western tour in 1985 and we wound down around the campfire and discussed the show and events to come.  We were happy to have had such a wonderful experience but it was also a very somber moment to realize that it was all over and there were many goodbyes to be said and hugs to be given.   This had been my first major Grateful Dead Tour but by far not my last.  It was, however, one of the most enjoyable tours I ever went on and perhaps my favourite.  (It’s hard to decide as all the tours were so different!)  The next morning we packed the car and started our journey back to California.  We certainly weren’t as sad as many of the East-Coasters though  -  we were returning to the Bay Area where the next concert was only 3 days later … Oh yes, living in the Bay Area had its advantages but that is, of course, another story!

Karen Bell

© August 2007