The word is it was a cold night with a biting wind that brought the real world temperature to around 20 below. The sky was overcast on that Sunday evening in Cedar Falls, Iowa and there was a chance of snow. It was a fairly common winter evening for this college town of about 50,000 residents nestled next to a river of the same name; some even perpetuated the myth that the University of Northern Iowa campus was the second windiest, trailing behind Loyola or some other Chicago-based college.
The Grateful Dead’s winter tour in the early months of 1978 had just played Madison and Milwaukee, making Wisconsin the lucky recipient of the band’s weekend mojo. The University of Northern Iowa was fortunate enough to book the band for the Sunday night in their large athletic arena called the UNI-Dome.
I should note that I am an alumnus of the University of Northern Iowa, so I’m very familiar with the campus and the area itself. I continue to live in the Cedar Valley and enjoy living here.
I’m also a fan of the Grateful Dead, to the point where my family rolls their eyes when I ask Alexa to play the band in the kitchen. But fuck those guys. I’m cooking them dinner and I want to hear “Jack Straw” sometimes while I’m boiling water.
Acknowledging both of these things is important, because it makes me a barely credible source regarding the time the Grateful Dead rolled into Cedar Falls and performed a concert at a regionally iconic venue/sports complex at the same university that let me walk away with a B.A. in Communications after only five completely underachieving years.
While I wasn’t present for the performance, I was very aware of the folklore of the show while attending the university a decade after it actually happened. The recollections were (literal) half-baked musings or suspect recounts of someone how knew someone who had a friend who went to the show.
Appropriately, the real story about the performance could be found in the low-fidelity audience recordings of the show, passed around on hand-written TDK or Maxell shells. To verify its very existence meant networking amongst the Deadheads that littered the NEIA landscape and their more prominent Wisconsin counterparts that filled cassette cases with loads of shows from various incarnations of the band.
The version we’re talking about here is the Donna Jean and Keith Godchaux era. It’s generally regarded as a strong period of the band, before Keith’s increasing heroin addiction would begin to ostracize him from Garcia by the end of the same year, leading to both Keith and Donna’s separation from the band in early ’79.
Prior to all of this, the Grateful Dead began 1978 on solid footing, continuing the previous year’s noted run of inspired shows. The May 8, 1977 show from Cornell University is often regarded as the peak example of this watershed era, a period of excellence that is attributed to the recording of Terrapin Station. Producer Keith Olsen had become a desired commodity after Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and was in the position to dictate to the Grateful Dead how and where the band would be recording their first album in nearly two years. The band agreed to his terms and set out to make a successful release for their new label, Arista Records.
Olsen put the band through their paces, specifically the band’s Rhythm Devils: Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman. The producer wanted them to focus their efforts on timekeeping, a slight criticism of the pair’s metronomic skills and the duo’s general apathy towards 4/4 time. The results of Olsen’s perfection carried over into the Spring ‘77 shows especially, but the muscle memory was still apparent in the early winter months of ‘78.
Likewise, Garcia and Keith Godchaux remained inspired in their own interplay with Jerry decorating those early ‘78 shows with beautiful flourishes and expressive runs. It’s hard to explain what he found to motivate his guitar work while crossing the Midwest for one cold week in February, but maybe the idea of getting the hell out of the Hawkeye state for a two month vacation from the band was motivating enough for Garcia to end their winter tour with some truly remarkable playing.
The efficiently named UNI-Dome was designed by a sports complex structural engineering firm called Geiger Engineers. While their portfolio includes some architecturally brilliant designs, in the mid-1970s they were known for utilitarian dome and arena structures, meant primarily for football and other sporting events.
The UNI-Dome is comparative to its more notorious relative: the now-demolished Pontiac Silverdome. The two structures shared a similar design characteristic: an air-supported roof. As understood by Michiganders, this style of roof can prove to be problematic during the winter months, particularly when heavy snow and ice can accumulate on the top of it. You can find examples of what happens on YouTube.
Most of the air-supported domes have since been retrofitted to have a more stable cover, provided the facility is still being utilized. This was later the case for the UNI-Dome, but during the time the Grateful Dead arrived in Cedar Falls, they would have immediately noticed the puffy top of the arena and felt the wind gush from the circulating air when they made their way into the venue.
People noted this phenomenon when they began to arrive to the show. The weather was already a bone-chilling cold, so the forceful burst of warm air would have been a startling feeling, particularly if there was any amount of extra-curricular activities in the parking lot prior to the doors opening.
The band opened with “Bertha,” a Dead favorite for introducing the first or second set. The UNI-Dome was far from sold-out, by most accounts, but there was a healthy presence from the Iowa hippy farm community, college students and loads of Wisconsin fans who made the trek to catch the band’s last show of the winter tour.
The rest of the first set featured some nice performances, but nothing to really set the show apart from the ones earlier in the tour. When the band took their break after the first set, the reality of the upcoming tour break and the member’s resulting excitement must have been enough to light a fire underneath them for the second half.
It’s here where the show really begins to shine. The band begins with a slow-building “Samson and Delilah,” built on a strong progressive groove. Garcia tip-toes around an introductive solo, seemingly finding his place in the mix. The searching makes the first line a bit of a surprise, to the point where he briefly loses a chord.
Remarkably, the error causes Garcia to take a firm grip on the entire arrangement. His fills become more assertive and he turns up his instrument. “Samson” is a Bobby song on paper, but on this evening Jerry begins to make the song his own and Weir wisely lets him. He lets out an admiring “Woo!” around the five minute mark, impressed by Jerry’s prowess before the first verse is even uttered. The rest of the song follows a similar pattern of verse-growing solo-verse, hinting at things to come.
Those things start with a lively “Scarlet Begonias,” which benefits from its place in the set and grows with every measure of Jerry’s soloing. He’s caught fire now, blistering around the frets and swelling higher in the mix with each new measure. The band pulls back a bit to observe and Garcia continues with his frenetic finger picking. They stay in this zone for several minutes before Phil Lesh begins phrasing the bass line to “Fire On The Mountain.” Garcia notices the change and pauses. He fiddles with his effects while contemplating some unfinished business that began to crop up during the last part of “Begonias.”
The UNI-Dome was not built for rock concerts. The fidelity within its concrete shell is better suited for the cracking of football helmets and the blast of a marching band during halftime. Considering amplified music, the UNI-Dome becomes a place where notes bounce around the hardened walls before dissipating into the marshmallow fluff ceiling. The circulating air only escalates this process, making the efforts of the sound crew a Herculean effort.
Jerry undoubtedly recognized this as soon as he plugged in his instrument. He and the rest of the band must have considered the resulting sound collage as the price of their success and the venues they now needed to accommodate their fan base. Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of how the UNI-Dome is ultimately ruining his sonic runs, Garcia approaches his Mu-Tron III envelope filter pedal and dials up an suitable setting. With the band still working a light and tight rhythm, Jerry begins to increase the guitar volume and bounce his solos of the walls of the UNI-Dome and play against his own fucking echoes.
Speaking from a source of obvious alumnus pride, it is the best version of Scarlet > Fire the band has ever performed. This pair of songs on this evening, in this configuration, in this unforgiving of a venue, absolutely destroys any other version that you may have heard, including a much more acknowledged version from the Cornell show the previous year.
After “Fire On The Mountain,” the crew fires up the equipment semis which they’ve book ended the stage with. With diesel smoke bellowing inside the UNI-Dome, they light off some fireworks from the trailer and the band kicks into “Truckin.” For anyone in attendance that night, this seems to be the visual that most walked away from. The smoke forcibly made its way around the venue, masking the marijuana smoke and concealing it in a haze of pollution that would easily turn into fines or worse in today’s heavily litigated culture.
The Rhythm Devils throw together a brief bit of “Drums” before Lesh announces an efficient “The Other One.” Garcia is by now approaching close to an hour of intense guitar exercising and the rest of the Dead have complimented him with some of the most intense jamming of their entire career. All of this within a mile away from a barren corn field laying dormant for the winter.
The song begins to fade into some spacey moments until Garcia lays into a nice relaxed version of “Warf Rat.” It’s a cathartic release, with the crowd giving a roar of approval upon hearing August West admit that half of his life was spent “doin’ time for some other fucker’s crime.”
Emotionally spent, Bobby brings the band back home for an appropriate Chuck Berry finale, with the band making one more appearance on stage with an encore of U.S Blues. With that, the Grateful Dead left the venue and headed up University Avenue where they stayed at the Holiday Inn before heading out West the following morning.
The Grateful Dead would play in Iowa only one more time after this show, a gig ninety minutes to the south during the Summer of 1982. After that, the band would bypass the state for all subsequent tours. I’ve heard about the show in Iowa City on occasion, but it’s typically localized and isn’t recognized with the same amount of reverence provided to their Cedar Falls date.
With that said, the 30th anniversary of this show came and went without any real celebration. While no lost treasure release was provided to the Northern Iowa show like the Cornell date received upon its third decade anniversary, the second set of that UNI-Dome gig was formally preserved with Dick’s Picks: Volume 18 which contains the entire second set (minus the “U.S. Blues” encore) and portions of songs from the first set tucked within some tracks recorded during the Wisconsin dates. It’s a wonderful place to verify the show just described and to witness just how brilliant this band could be on stage.
The UNI-Dome is still in use, with regional airlines occasionally pointing out the structure from the air, subconsciously affirming the region’s “fly-over” status. To the pilot, the area offers little beyond some man-made structure from 40 years ago as the only notable point of reference outside of the window. The air-supported dome was removed in the 90’s after one too many collapses during winter storms caused the state to pony-up for a new, permanently affixed roof design.
The rock shows also dried up after the novelty of the dome era began to wane. Fleetwood Mac, The Who and The Police all made Cedar Falls a stop during their commercial highpoints; a Roger Waters-less Pink Floyd also used the facility in the late 80’s, bringing their quadraphonic sound to the ping-pong confines of the arena. Only the road crew of the Floyd stayed at the Holiday Inn; The rest of the band was already in the air flying out of ALO before Nick Mason’s drum kit had even been packed away.
But back in February 5, 1978, the Grateful Dead not only made a stop in Northeast Iowa on a cold Sunday night, they left some viable roots in the hardened soil. As strange as it may seem-and given the location’s unremarkable and unforgiving venue, consider the line from “Scarlet Begonias” that explains it all: “Once in a while, you get shown the light/In the strangest of places, if you look at it right.”
Photos via Dead.net.