Upstaged isn't the word for it. The Grateful Dead couldn't hold a jack-o'-lantern to the ghoulishly costumed crowd that haunted the Warner Theater early last night.
Even if the Dead had performed live, so to speak -- rather than in a special Halloween close-circuit broadcast from Radio City Music Hall -- they would have had some hard acts to follow.
Goblins, ghosts, witches, warlocks, creatures unimaginable and caricatures presidential all stalked the lobby prior to show time, startling each other and occasionally themselves.
For the Dead it was the last in a long line of enormously successful concerts in New York. For local fans, the Warner broadcast was the best news they'd heard since first finding out that the Dead planned to give the Rockettes a few nights off.
"Tonight is going to be special," said Marla Silver of Potomac, a self-described "Dead-head" who was one of several grim reapers draped in black solemnly pacing the floor. "I waited four days on line to see them in New York, but I'm here because I'm sure the Dead will have a few surprises for us tonight."
Carole Kline and Gwen Pollak, a couple of Georgetown students, came as painted skeletons in the hope of winning the costume contest held during intermission by radio station WAVA-FM. The prize: a trip to California and tickets to yet another Dead concert. "We can't afford it otherwise so we're dressed as the skull and roses," a symbol the Dead have used frequently in the past.
Bob Jacobs, a veteran of "75 or so" Dead concerts, took a similar approach, playing off the Dead's anemic caricature of Uncle Sam."I'm really here for the concert, though," he said from behind a grotesque mask. "Every one of them is special and tonight won't be any different."
As it turned out the first half of the show was quite different -- even for the Dead. After a rather hilarious backstage tour by comedians Al Franken and Tom Davis ("We got these passes because we're a lot more important than you"), the Dead finally made it to the stage only to find Phil Lesh's bass amp on the blink.
As a result, much of the first set was underpowered and the overall sound and visual quality of the broadcast left a lot to be desired. It wasn't until Lesh plugged into "It Must Have Been the Roses" that the crowd began to respond to the music instead of contenting themselves with close-ups of guitarist Jerry Garcia.
The crowd also cheered the winner of the costume contest: a man dressed as a 6-foot, neon orange canine who went by the name of Lester Space Dog. Friends called him LSD.
No sooner was the contest over than the Dead were back on stage sounding like themselves again. For almost any dead-head, in or out of costume, that was enough to make Halloween special. CAPTION:
Picture, Chris Mara in pumpkin gear at the Dead concert; by Fred Sweets