Happy Birthday Keith Godchaux: Revisiting Keyboardist’s 1st Show With Grateful Dead In 1971

The keyboardist was a member of the band through the Dead's February 17, 1979 concert.

By Andy Kahn Jul 19, 2021 6:10 am PDT

Former Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux was born in Seattle on July 19, 1948. A car accident in 1980 took his life just days after his 32nd birthday. In celebration of Keith’s all-too-short life, on what would have been his 73rd birthday today, here’s a look back at the October 19, 1971 Dead show in Minneapolis featuring Godchaux’s first appearance as a member of the band.

Keith’s widow Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay, who also spent several years as an official member of the Grateful Dead, recalled the circumstances surrounding her husband’s path to joining an ailing Ron “Pigpen” McKernan as the group’s keyboardist. Here’s Donna’s take from the Long Strange Trip documentary film about the Dead:

My husband and I had been seeing the Grateful Dead whenever we could – total fans. I was a singer and Keith was a trained classical pianist. I came home one day and said, “Let’s listen to the Grateful Dead,” and Keith said, “I don’t want to listen to it anymore, I want to play it.” He had never played rock ‘n’ roll before, and I said, “Ok, well let’s go get in the band.” I mean it was a simple as that – that’s sounds so, I don’t know what it sounds like to you but at that time it was just normal. And that’s why I had the audacity to come up to [Jerry] Garcia after a show and say, “Keith is your next keyboard player.” Just like that, Keith was in the band.

Keith, guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann took the stage at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium on October 19, 1971 (Pigpen was absent due to illness). Godchaux’s first song performed with the group, “Bertha,” got the concert and band’s Fall Tour officially underway. Godchaux was not the only debut that night as the Dead offered first-time performances of “Tennessee Jed,” “Jack Straw,” “Mexicali Blues,” “Comes A Time,” and “One More Saturday Night “ all within the first set.

The first second set of the Godchaux era opened with “Truckin’” and the final debut of the evening in the form of “Ramble On Rose.” The second half also saw takes on the rarely played “Brokedown Palace” as well as Keith’s first foray in improvisation during a “Cryptical Envelopment” > “Drums” > “The Other One” > “Cryptical Envelopment” > “Wharf Rat” sequence. Godchaux’s first show concluded with “Not Fade Away” > “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad” > “Not Fade Away.” Stream the show below:

Setlist (via JerryGarcia.com)

Set One: Bertha, Me And My Uncle, Sugaree, Beat It On Down The Line, Cumberland Blues, Tennessee Jed, Black Peter, Jack Straw, Big Railroad Blues, Brown Eyed Women, Mexicali Blues, Comes A Time, Playing In The Band, One More Saturday Night, Casey Jones

Set Two: Truckin’, Ramble On Rose, Me And Bobby McGee, Brokedown Palace, Cryptical Envelopment > Drums > The Other One > Cryptical Envelopment > Wharf Rat, Sugar Magnolia, Uncle John’s Band > Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad > Not Fade Away


Keith Godchaux’s First show.

Pigpen was absent due to illness.

[Originally Published: July 19, 2017]

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