The Grateful Dead played at Alpine Valley Music Theatre 20 times from 1980 to 1989. Fans trucked to the southeastern Wisconsin venue from all over the country. Producer Steve Gotcher attended most of those shows. On the day that turned out to be their last concert at Alpine in July of ’89, he decided to record the sounds of the scene in the parking lot. Here’s what he found.
When I was 25, I became a deadhead, a fan of the Grateful Dead. Up until then, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. So, my friend Kevin suggested that I come along with him to a show at Alpine Valley near Milwaukee. He claimed that once I saw a concert I would understand. He was right, and so, from July 1981 to July 1989, I made my way to that hillside for 19 concerts.
In the early 80’s most of the people who showed up had a ticket with a few looking “for a miracle”. What started out as a loopy easy-going crowd who followed the band around over the summer swelled, over the years, into a much larger bunch who came to party.
It was the scene in the parking lot before and after the show that I found the most intriguing, so I decided to try and capture the setting on tape, wandering around the dusty parking area with my portable cassette recorder.
The deadheads started filling up the parking lot early, grilling, drinking beer, and playing hacky sack.
They were smoking, making deals and listening to cassette tapes of past Dead shows.
Sounds, smells, and colors swirled in a college that overwhelmed the senses and appealed to my young hippie sensibilities.
Camping wasn’t allowed in the parking area, but you wouldn’t have known it with hundreds of tents dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see. Porta-johns, on the other hand, were not as plentiful.
I found a few “parking attendants” and asked what they thought.
People tried to sell everything from watermelon slices, beer, Gatorade, cigarettes, tie die tee-shirts, stickers, flowers, and other things not found in stores.
Some hippies in an old school bus with a makeshift kitchen served questionable falafel to hungry partiers.
The smell of middle eastern spices mingled with sweat, patchouli, marijuana and the surrounding pine woods. It was like a psychedelic tailgate party.
Finally, the time came for the main event and the tranquil vibe spilled onto the hill, flowing to the stage. The band kicked off with Hell in a Bucket and then wove their way through Althea, Deal, Terrapin Station, and Morning Dew.
Eventually, the Grateful Dead scene became too much to manage and brought the annual gathering to an end. But, for a decade, Deadheads came from all over the country to camp in the woods and experience the band’s vision of love, sharing and peaceful coexistence. We got to hear them play songs fit for a hippie utopia on a hillside near the rolling farm fields of southeastern Wisconsin.