I really backed into this one, folks. Last week, chasing down a rumor that sprung from an Instagram meme about Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead (because this is 2018, I guess), I found a rabbit hole of a Dead blog that eventually led me to a historical chart of the band’s live performances of its original songs that plots every performance of each such song along a timeline. If there are two uncontested facts about the Dead, they are that they played for a long time and had a voluminous song catalog. One of the data points caught my eye for three reasons: (1) it indicated that the band played the song only once; (2) that performance came in 1995, the final year of the band’s active life; and (3) its title, “Salt Lake City,” was unfamiliar to me. In fact, besides “Unbroken Chain,” a famously un(der)peformed Dead song, “Salt Lake City” was the last original song the band debuted in concert.
As it turns out, SLC’s origins trace to 1977, when it appeared on Weir’s second solo album, Heaven Help the Fool. Like many Weir songs, John Perry Barlow collaborated on the lyrics, which discuss the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City and read like a more buttoned-up version of the traditional “New Minglewood Blues” that Weir often sang with the Grateful Dead.
On February 21, 1995, at Salt Lake City’s Delta Center, the band opened with “Salt Lake City,” the first and last time they ever played it live. The twenty-first was the Dead’s last of three straight nights in SLC. While that stretch wasn’t the Dead’s first appearance in the city, it was their first time back since 1981 (opener: “Alabama Getaway”), which was the only other time they played there since the release of Heaven Help the Fool (unless you count September 4, 1983 and August 20, 1987 in Park City). Perhaps the Dead saw it as a bit of a novelty, or an easy nod to a locale infrequently visited. Reviews of the night carry a generally positive tone, though many qualify or limit encouraging notes to the context of a mid-90s era regarded as low in energy, inspiration, and musical quality. Few reviews remark on the appearance of “Salt Lake City,” most preferring to mention the very good cover of Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” that emerges out of a second-set “Space,” which both surges due to and is pock-marked by the almost cartoonish synthesizer of Vince Welnick, who was celebrating his forty-fourth birthday that day.
Technically, the Dead had played “Salt Lake City” live once prior, at a soundcheck in Atlanta in 1978. What follows and serves as this week’s Jam is the only acknowledged (and possibly the only recorded) performance, however, from 1995, less than five months before the band’s final concert: