On March 18, 1977, the Grateful Dead played two particular songs together for the first time in concert, creating a magical pairing that would go on to fuel thousands of baked road trips, launch the dreams of innumerable jam bands, and become forever known as ‘Scarlet->Fire’.
‘Scarlet Begonias’, the older sibling of the two, had a long life before it’s coupling with ‘Fire on the Mountain’. It was recorded in the studio in March 1974 and officially released a couple months later on the ‘From the Mars Hotel’ album (for the conspiracy-minded out there: the official cut happens to be exactly 4 minutes and 20 seconds long). It was first performed live in early 1974 and went on to be played 48 times on it’s own before being joined to ‘Fire’.
‘Fire on the Mountain’, on the other hand, never knew life without its kinsman. Its live debut was during the March 18, 1977 show as part of the first ‘Scarlet-Fire’ combination. It was one of the few Dead songs composed by drummer Mickey Hart, and wasn’t released until a year after it’s debut, on the semi-controversial ‘Shakedown Street’ album (which in a Dylan-goes-electric-type moment, caused long-time Deadheads to accuse the band of what was back then the worst crime imaginable: “going disco”).
After March 18, 1977, the two songs were almost always (but not without exception) played side-by-side. They appeared together in a total of 254 Dead shows. At its best, the song combo became an occasion for some of Jerry’s finest uninterrupted soloing, floating atop some of the Rhythm Devil’s most playful drumming, accompanied by Donna’s best wailing.
The transition from one song to another in itself became an object of worship among Deadheads. The Fox’s Den, for example, was a club at St. Paul’s school in New Hampshire that was devoted to a particular version of Scarlet->Fire from 1980, and had as one of it’s Four Commandments, “Thou shalt not press pause, stop, fast-forward, or rewind during the transition.” Garcia himself was aware of the magic of these transitional moments. He told an interviewer in 1988 that often “the transition itself would be a piece of music.” Although even he had to admit that after hundreds of times played together, even transitions as titanic as Scarlet-Fire lost some of their juice. “It’s not that the transitional music doesn’t exist anymore. It’s just that we’ve worn the pathways.”
Hear its debut on March 18, 1977 here:
(Why celebrate its 36th anniversary? Honestly, when I sat down to write this post I had done the math wrong and thought it was its 35th anniversary. Then my wife pointed out my mistake. I guess that's what you get for a lifetime of listening to the Dead baked out of your skull...)