From the Archives: When the Grateful Dead rocked DeKalb

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DeKALB – Two days before the Grateful Dead were to play at Evans Field House in 1977, Northern Illinois University's Board of Regents rearranged its agenda to sign off on a contract with the band so ticket sales could begin.

Some regents balked at the terms of the deal, the Northern Star reported at the time.

“I understand it’s a matter of utmost importance,” Regent Chairman David Murray said. “But the fee, $30,000 plus 80 percent of the ticket receipts, is enough to make a regent flinch.”

Student Regent Rick Resnik asked the board to rearrange the agenda to consider the item first so ticket sales could start sooner. Resnik told the board the show would sell out and the concert committee would make $1,000 on the performance. University President Richard Nelson vouched for the concert committee’s “stable financial condition,” the Star reported at the time.

The regents approved the contract and the concert went on to make history as the largest and most expensive in NIU’s history at the time, according to reports in the Northern Star and Daily Chronicle.

The Grateful Dead was having a great year. The band's most-hyped show – at Cornell University's Barton Hall on May 8, 1977 – had been that spring. The DeKalb show also has received high praise.

The Grateful Dead's performance has been well documented. Elizabeth Lundholm-Sury wrote a great piece in Northern Now in 2004 that recounted how the show was organized in less than a month by students, including NIU graduate Jim Dombek, who now leads the Sycamore School District 427 Board. At the time, Northern Star reporter Lilia Chacon interviewed the band's cook. Fellow Northern Star writer G. Alexander summed up the show this way: "Anyone who missed the Grateful Dead Saturday night missed a spectacular show, period. The Dead had powerful magic that night and the Field House crowd had enough excitement and energy to light up Chicago. Together, the lit up crowd and the Dead made the concert the biggest and most exciting concert ever in this expanding corn town." Alexander also noted: "... one of the important aspects of the whole show is the fact that it happened."

An earlier show didn’t happen. The Grateful Dead were slated to play a benefit show March 11, 1971, at NIU’s Center Ballroom. Proceeds from the show were to go to the NIU Bail Bond Commission. Phil Larsen, president of the commission, told the Daily Chronicle the commission had formed the previous fall “to keep students in class while waiting to go to court.” Demonstrations in May 1970 – in response to the Kent State University shooting – shut down the DeKalb campus and NIU students were arrested by the busload, according to the DeKalb County Journal. The 1971 concert was canceled for some reason and $5,000 collected for tickets was refunded.

Even the 1977 show wasn’t without incident.

“Misuse of matches by persons traveling with the rock group the Grateful Dead resulted in a fire which did $435 damage to a room at the DeKalb Holiday Inn, 1212 W. Lincoln Hwy., early Sunday morning,” the Daily Chronicle reported Nov. 1. “DeKalb firemen were called to Room 238 about 6:14 a.m. They found the bed and surrounding areas in flames. The room reportedly was reserved to Keith and Donna Godchaux.”

Keith Godchaux was the Dead’s keyboardist at the time and his wife, Donna, had joined the band as a vocalist.

“A spokesman for the motel said the occupants of the room reportedly lit a match while looking for something under the bed,” the Chronicle reported. “Representatives of the band reportedly paid the motel management cash for the damage.”