Dead Best: Garcia Nails “Visions Of Johanna”

by Peter Wendel
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JerryFarewellMillman SongMango.comDebut: March 19, 1986
Total Times Played: 8
Last Time Played: July 8, 1995
Songwriter(s): Bob Dylan

Although 1995 was a poorly played year for The Grateful Dead, “Visions Of Johanna” was one of the consistent bright spots during the band’s final leg of their 30-year tour.

Despite Jerry’s declining health and faltering musicianship, he managed to consistently deliver powerfully moving performances of Dylan’s 1966 classic track about life’s futile search for the ideal (that is, Johanna). The futility of that search is something I’m sure Jerry Garcia understood all too well.

DylanBlondeOnBlondeWhen The Dead played sloppy and uninspired performances in ’95, “Visions” always seemed to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

Exhibit A is the band’s second-to-last show (ever): The overall performance at Chicago’s Soldier Field was shoddy, but the version of “Visions Of Johanna” gets a solid B+ (listen here). The Dead only performed it eight times total – and six of those came in 1995.

Jerry’s soulful, haunting vocals are absolutely mesmerizing. Lines like, “It’s so hard to get on” fit perfectly with his weathered delivery. You could hear a pin drop in the arena.

It’s always struck me as odd that Jerry could remember all the lyrics to “Visions Of Johanna” – all five, highly complex verses – yet stumble over relatively simple lyrics in songs like “Ramble On Rose.”

JG.MGThere was definitely something special about “Visions” that shook Jerry up inside.

In chronological order, here are the three finest performances I could find (out of the eight versions on record). While the version from 1986 is a stellar overall performance – including Jerry’s guitar work – the two from ’95 are all about Garcia’s riveting vocals. You can hear his soul, and it’s haunting to the very core.

VISIONS OF JOHANNA
April 22, 1986
Berkeley Community Theatre, Berkeley, CA

The COMPLETE PACKAGE! Pound-for-pound, this is the band’s best performance of the song (in my opinion). Jerry smokes the vocals, and even serves up a pretty good Dylan impersonation (0:25). In addition, the big man delivers a well-developed guitar solo (6:18) that soars – something that’s missing from some of the ’95 versions.

VISIONS OF JOHANNA
February 21, 1995
Delta Center, Salt Lake City, UT

PERFECTION! Flawless vocals from Garcia and solid guitar work make this one of the top-3 performances of all time. Jerry’s guitar solo is more developed than the version (below) from The Spectrum.

VISIONS OF JOHANNA
March 18, 1995
The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA

BEST VOCALS EVER!! Jerry’s vocals are absolutely chilling, and I mean goose-bump material. Although there isn’t much to his guitar solo, the soulful, haunting vocals make it a five-star performance (just months before Jerry’s tragic death). Ain’t it just like the night…

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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