Concert Retrospective: Jerry Garcia Band

Until recently, the only connection I could draw between Jerry Garcia, guitarist and singer of the folk-psychedelic-jam-rock band the Grateful Dead, and Oberlin is that he is the namesake of one of Ben and Jerry’s (Jerry Greenfield, Oberlin Class of ‘73) most popular flavors, Cherry Garcia. But that was before I found out that Jerry Garcia played Finney Chapel with his solo band on March 13, 1976. So, Greenfield just missed the concert by a few years, and the current student body by several decades, but in the absence of traditional live music on Oberlin’s campus, I wanted to shed light on what I think is (or at least, had potential to be) one of the grooviest happenings to talk place on this historically groovy campus. In researching the concert, I came away with less Garcia than anticipated, but a greater perspective on Oberlin College, which I hope will prove to be valuable to others, as well.

Writing for the March 12, 1976 issue of the Oberlin Review, David See warns of a rumor circulating on our very own campus that “some star-crazed freaks are planning to throw their joints up on stage when Garcia makes his grand entrance tomorrow,” adding in parentheses: “that’s quite some popularity.” The rest of See’s article offers a brief chronicle of Garcia’s “dippy” life, characterized by “wandering” in years leading up to the Oberlin concert. Peter Ruchman, author of “After the Gold Rush: The Rise and Fall of Sports Betting’s Glory in Las Vegas” and self-proclaimed Deadhead offers his take on the concert in his March 16  article “Garcia: In the Wee Hours” featured in the Review. Ruchman’s review of the concert isn’t particularly positive. In fact, he thought the concert was rather lackluster, which I thought was humorous considering the fact that one of the times Oberlin managed to attract someone I would categorize as a superstar, that superstar plays a less-than-super live show, even though that is what Garcia and the Grateful Dead are known for. But Ruchman emphatically notes twice, once at the very beginning and once at the very end of his article, that this was not a Dead concert. Ruchman perceptively points out that the mid/late-70s was a transition period for the “self-conscious evolving musician” and that he was clearly experimenting with a jazzier style but “[had] not yet settled into a comfortable groove.” One might guess that a “jazzier style” might appeal to Obies, but something tells me it wasn’t jazz studies majors in the Con were going to see the Jerry Garcia Band.

Nestled around the surprisingly small Garcia articles in the Review are political cartoons (one making fun of President Carter, whom I wrote an article about two weeks ago for the Grape) and a “How to Win Air Hockey” Budweiser ad from the March 12 and 16 issues, respectively.

Following the Garcia concert in mid-March of 1976, students were dealing with midterms with Spring Break in sight. An editorial from the March 16 Review issue with the headline “An Escapist Institution: Spring Break Costs Money, Takes Time, and Therefore Should Be Abolished” is positioned above Letters to the Editor addressing issues of feminism, racial tension at Oberlin, and lambasting the Student Senate election, which the letter’s author referred to as a “mockery”. It should be of no surprise that Oberlin was the political bastion it continues to be in the mid-’70s, nor should it be a surprise that we’re still working on the issues that Oberlin students were demanding 45 years ago. I was surprised, though, and quite amused, by the editorial ripping Spring Break as a “sham that interrupts studying” that is “unproductive and anti-intellectual.” The closing paragraph is particularly telling: “Spring Break has nothing to do with learning and labor. It is an escapist innovation. If we’re going to keep up with Harvard and Yale, Spring Break has no place in an Oberlin curriculum.” I have no intention of arguing with this editor, likely Executive Editor Steve Maas, but if they are reading this, I’d like them to know two things: (1) 2021 is a fast-paced world, disjointed by a global pandemic, so with few structured ways to let off steam, many students feel that the 2-day on-campus vacation Oberlin has granted will not cut it, and (2) we do not need to compete with Harvard or Yale, we are the Harvard of Lorain County!

I continued my hunt for Garcia-related content in the Oberlin yearbook, the Hi-O-Hi. Combing through the 1976 Hi-O-Hi, I first noticed how different people my age looked nearly half a century ago. Everyone had long hair: shaggy, curly, poofy, greasy, wavy, straight, plus many fantastic afros. Besides their hair, I noticed something else different about these Obies. I could see their faces. Besides typical ’70s moustaches and Amish-like beards on those who could grow them, there were smiles on every face. Smiles I’ve seldom seen recently, merely needing to guess if a passerby is smiling at me based on how much their eyes squint. Flipping pages, I saw basketball players going up for layups (wearing the smallest shorts you’ve ever seen, held up by a little belt) with a blurry crowd of fans piled onto bleachers behind them, students and faculty rehearsing for plays and musicals, dance troupes with dancers leaning on one another, and a collection of pictures from May Day. At the May Day festivity, there were students at a booth with a sign encouraging you to “Join the Campaign for Socialism!” as well as students laying in the grass, string bands plucking out some tunes, plenty of legs hanging over the edge of Wilder porch, and other shots of many people hanging around, enjoying the weather and the communion. These moments seemed so foreign to me, as we creep towards weather that facilitates outside merriment, but more importantly, because we are restricted from gathering with more than just a few of our peers at a time for the safety of the community.

Slipped among pictures of individuals in solitary moments on one page, then pictures of groups in playful gatherings on the next page read the lines: “Singularity of purpose pulled him / off, / alone, / often. / Willpower provided that self-imposed obliviousness / So we just had to get together.” This strange little bite of poetry curiously provoked some movement within me. Everything in this yearbook was reminding me of what a strange moment we are living in. I had to read on, both in the hunt for Garcia, but also in pursuit of something even more personal.

In the commencement section of the Hi-O-Hi, there were more disturbingly normal pictures: students playing games and enjoying their last days together in non-ObieSafe sized groups, as well as hundreds of family, faculty, and soon-to-be graduates sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the beginnings of the Ohio summer heat. Amongst these pictures was another sort of spiritual reflection inscribed in simple handwriting: “Granted that the scenery is composed of people. Groups of people doing things, going places, living for the moment. The group is a unit – a space, an instant, a sudden flash of life; for each group is an interval in time, in the flowing stream of humanity. But for all these instants, each undeniably different, there is one element in them all that united these in time – people. Individuals with individual personalities and dreams.” In 2021, typical yearbook schmaltz became startlingly moving and prescient poetry. Recently, although I feel the most comfortable I have ever felt on Oberlin’s campus, I wondered why I still feel somewhat disconnected from campus life. I won’t lie, like many Oberlin students I have managed to see my friends in various forms, safely (of course), but so much is still lacking. The spontaneity of campus life, and the events that you didn’t even realize you were participating in simply by being there. That “flowing stream of humanity” has been dammed and those groups that act as “sudden flash[es] of life”  have been temporarily extinguished. 

In the 21st century, we take for granted having music at our fingertips (I found a picture of a student listening to music with a record player in Mudd). The 20th century Obies I encountered in the Hi-O-Hi took for granted something that really should always be possible, the act of gathering. Such as going to a concert. Which reminds me: while the closest I came to spotting the surprisingly elusive Garcia was the words “Rolling Stones” scrawled on a chalkboard in an image from the Senior Recital section of the Hi-O-Hi, as well as some pictures of performances in Finney by jazz pianist Les McCann, fingerstyle guitarist Leo Kottke, and English rock band Starry Eyed and Laughing, researching this concert has helped give me that connection to Oberlin that I’ve been missing. It has given me the acceptance, and better yet, the pride, that while Oberlin may not be an Ivy League institution, as the editor of the 1976 Review bemoaned, that effortlessly brings in big name artists for music festivals year after year, we manage to bring together the freaks and weirdos, to use what would have been flattering lingo in the ’70s, and make the best out of the cards we’re dealt. And in doing so, we help keep the “stream of humanity” flowing.

Here’s a playlist of the Jerry Garcia Band concert I made based on the set list: I also put a link to the official Jerry Garcia website that has some information about the show that night.