Watch the Grateful Dead play at Jerry Garcia’s final show


Watch the Grateful Dead play ‘Black Muddy River’ at Jerry Garcia’s final show

(Credits: Far Out / Carl Lender)


Thinking about death was always a part of the Grateful Dead experience. It’s right there in the band’s name: if you weren’t willing to confront your own mortality while listening to the Dead, you might need a new group to obsess over.

Across their 30 years together, the Dead assembled a catalogue full of songs about the fleetingness of life. Original tracks like ‘Ripple’ and ‘Days Between’ rubbed elbows with potent covers like Reverend Gary Davis’ ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ to create a tableau of different takes on expiration. It might have seemed strange for a group of 20-somethings to be so obsessed with death, but as the years went by, the Grateful Dead were better equipped to sing about shuffling off the mortal coil.

By the 1990s, Grateful Dead shows were more like out-of-control parties. Thanks to the massive success of 1987’s In The Dark, mainstream music fans were exposed to the wild world of Deadheads. The loose approach to just about everything appealed to a wide scope of people, so much so that there were occasionally more people outside of a show than inside. 

For the uninitiated, shows were a jubilant celebration of nostalgia and hippie freedom. Classic songs like ‘Truckin’ and ‘Sugar Magnolia’ were still in constant rotation, but there were also more challenging moments sprinkled throughout the band’s setlists. At what would turn out to be their final show, the Dead played wistful meditations on time gone by like ‘Childhood’s End’ and ‘So Many Roads’.

Stood at his standard position was Jerry Garcia, now very much looking like the spectre of death that he constantly channelled in songs like ‘Black Peter’ and ‘Friend of the Devil’. With shock white hair and a fragile foundation, Garcia’s best days were firmly behind him. His voice might have been weak, but his guitar playing was still showing flashes of the musical genius that pushed the Dead forward for three decades. 

For a certain subsect of fans, Garcia’s deteriorating health and diminished musical ability were too tragic to face. But even at his lowest, Garcia still managed to add emotional weight to the band’s music. Completely unironically, Garcia also became comfortable in his role singing about the end of the line, usually throwing at least one song about death into every show toward the Dead’s final run. 

For the encore of their final show on July 9th, 1995, Garcia stepped up to the microphone and chose to sing ‘Black Muddy River’. With lyrics that focus on the finality of life, ‘Black Muddy River’ was one of the more potent and emotional songs that the Dead had in their catalogue. When Garcia was truly tapped into the song’s message, it could become one of the Dead’s heaviest tracks. 

“The black muddy river is a dream that I’ve had maybe three or four times over my life, and it is one of the most chilling experiences that I’ve had,” lyricist Robert Hunter explained in 1992. “It’s enough to turn you religious. I’ve burrowed under this incredible mansion, gone down into the cellars, and I find myself down at this black, lusterless, slow-flowing Stygian river. There are marble columns around and cobwebs. It’s vast, and it’s hopeless. It’s death, it’s death, with the absence of the soul. It’s my horror vision, and when I come out of that dream, I do anything I can to counter it.”

Without knowing it, Garcia was putting a tonally appropriate bow on what would be his final performance on stage. With a final life-affirming ‘Box of Rain’ closing things out, the Grateful Dead left Soldier Field and would never return to any stage with Garcia. When he died a month later, Garcia’s final testament on stage would be ‘Black Muddy River’. 

Check out the final performance of ‘Black Muddy River’ down below.

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