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Cal Expo Amphitheater Part of Grateful Dead Anniversary Boxed Set

Sacramento’s Bill Graham-operated Cal Expo Amphitheater, which closed in 1998 because of neighbor noise complaints, is soon to be immortalized by the legendary Grateful Dead.

Anyone who saw one of the Grateful Dead’s 25 shows at Cal Expo during the venue’s 1983-98 run remembers what a special place it was to see any band. With a capacity of a homey 12,000, Cal Expo was essentially a big lawn area with a high school football-like grandstand. But it was a very comfortable place to watch a show, and because of the Graham connections, drew some of the biggest acts in the business, from the heralded Bob Dylan/Tom Petty tour to Dire Straits (when that band had the No. 1 album in the country), Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, Huey Lewis and the News. The list goes on.

It’s still my all-time favorite venue in Sacramento and I miss it every time I’m forced to drive to Wheatland or the Bay area just to see a name act.

Now, thanks to the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary boxed set, a $699 behemoth that is set for release the middle of this month, the Cal Expo legend will live on.

The boxed set includes one complete show from each of the Dead’s years (1966-95) that the band performed live before leader Jerry Garcia’s death on Aug. 9, 1995. And the 1986 show in the anniversary set? It will be none other than the May 3 performance at Cal Expo.

It’s only fitting Cal Expo is part of the Dead’s anniversary set, as Sacramento ingrained itself into the legend that made the band, and its fans, special. Every year, the band rolled into Sacramento for, at first, two days of shows, and then later into the 1990s, three days.

The area, to the chagrin of local neighbors, was taken over by the Dead Nation, whose tie-dyed inhabitants camped anywhere space was found, which was often on the lawns of the apartments and homes in the area, enjoying the essence of the Dead lifestyle (i.e. every drug imaginable). The photos presented here by Bob Beyn, who was Graham’s PR arm for Cal Expo, captures that scene vividly.

OK, now comes what is really surprising about all this for me. About four years ago, I put together a web site I call Martarano’s Archives, where I posted my old news clips from the 10 years I was a reporter at the Sacramento Union. (I’ve since added my recent work for Sacramento Press and others as well). I devoted a page to the approximately 50 concert reviews I did for the Sacramento Union, and among those reviews were two Grateful Dead shows at Cal Expo, from 1984 and 1986.

A few months ago, I received a call from the legal department of Rhino Entertainment, which holds the rights to all of the Grateful Dead music. The rep was asking permission to use my 1986 review as artwork for the anniversary album.

Here’s the kicker: The 1986 Cal Expo Grateful Dead show that I reviewed, which is also on my web site, is from May 3, 1986, and is the same show that’s included in the boxed set and Beyn’s photos.

Sometimes, you just never know, but it’s wonderful that Cal Expo is being brought to life once again, by the band that most defined its 12-year run.

Cal Expo Amphitheater 1986 2

Cal Expo Amphitheater 1986 1

Cal Expo Amphitheater 1986 3

Cal Expo Amphitheater 1986 5

Photos: May 3, 1986 Grateful Dead concert at the Cal Expo Amphitheater. By Bob Beyn. Courtesy of Bob Beyn, Seraphein Beyn Advertising, Inc.

About the author

Steve Martarano

A resident of Sacramento since graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, Steve spent the 1980s at The Sacramento Union, working as a sports writer, music reviewer and crime reporter, among other assignments. He's spent the last 25+ years working in government public affairs for both state and federal agencies and currently is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Bay-Delta office in Sacramento. He has shot just about every local sports team for the Sacramento Press, including local colleges, the Sacramento River Cats and Sacramento Republic FC. He resides in Curtis Park with his wife Sharon.

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