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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2008/05/23
by John Zinkand

Goodbye, Old Friend

My buddy stopped by the other night and hung out and told me about the sold out run of Phil & Friends shows he had just caught at the Warfield Theater down in San Francisco. He described the music as great and the vibe as incredibly high. I could not make it down to see the shows as my vacation time has already been blocked out for the year, but his description helped me get a taste of what these final shows at this grand old venue might have been like. The people were festive and there was much anticipation each night as far as what might be played. Phil broke some new ground by playing complete Grateful Dead albums as sets. And he even gave away commemorative posters for free at the end of each night that made up a large design of some of the interior of the venue when you put them all together. The final show was a multi-set affair that ran until the wee hours of the morning and apparently the vibe was downright electric (which it would have to be to keep all those aging deadheads awake so late).
But unfortunately, those are the last shows that will ever be played in that venue as it is known now as The Warfield Theater. The fact that the final shows were Grateful Dead related is very fitting. While this esteemed venue was opened in 1922 as a vaudeville theater and has also been utilized as a movie theater, it became well-known as a legendary concert venue. And it is even better known as a frequent haunt of the Grateful Dead. The Dead played many concerts here and the bands most famous run was in 1980 when it played a sold-out 15 show run. When the Dead became too big to play here, it was home to many Dead related shows including Jerry Garcia Band and Old and in the Way.
Many bands have played here throughout the years and the venue was run by Bill Graham Productions. Varied artists such as Bob Dylan, Slayer, Phish, Guns-n-Roses, and Les Claypool have all graced the stage of this theater. The seats were removed in the 1980s which made the venue even more concert friendly as fans now had ample room to dance. And while one can lay out the history of the venue and the bands that have played here, its the intangible vibe of this theater that made it so special.
It was a beautiful place that was warm and comforting. The sound system was great and there was always plenty of room to move around freely. The floor was tiered which provided great sight lines there were bars at the sides and back of the room. And the vibe was always very kind. The security through the years was mellow and laid back, to say the very least. Many times people who worked at the venue were fans that got to see the show free if they worked for one of the sets. There was always a very free and family friendly vibe here – no matter what trip someone was on they were treated with respect and kindness.
The Warfield has special memories for me, too, and I am sad to see it go (and am also really bummed I missed the final shows here with Phil). My first experience here was seeing Phish play three consecutive nights in May of 1994. I was a young and innocent college student in my junior year and a friend offered me the ultimate kick down hed buy the plane tickets to get us there all the way from Worcester, MA. I was basically this guys personal limo service all through college (he was from Norway and had no ride) and had driven him all over the place, including many Grateful Dead and Phish shows. So when he made this generous offer I took him up. How could I not? Id heard so many tales about the mellow vibe and awesome power of this venue with strong ties to the Grateful Dead. The shows were incredible and I had found a new favorite indoor concert venue. Since then Ive seen a small handful of shows there including the Trey run in 2004 when Santana stopped by for the entire second set and a run of Phil Lesh Quintet shows. So its definitely a personal loss that the venue will never be the same, as well.
And while it looks like there will certainly be more concerts played here in the future, it is doubtful that the venue will ever retain the splendor of its glory years from the 1970s through May 19th 2008. The new promoter who will be taking over the Warfield will apparently be Goldenvoice out of Los Angeles. They will renovate the place and it will reopen for concerts at some point, but will most likely look and feel very different inside. The music will play on, but the special magic of the venue will most likely be lost. But I think folks that knew it as the original Warfield Theater will always feel the presence of Jerry Garcia and company when walking through the doors no matter what shape the new version of this grand old venue may take. Goodbye, old friend. You will be missed.

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