Monday, June 22, 2015

Reflections On Fifty Years Of The Grateful Dead: "Once In A While You Can Get Shown The Light In The Strangest Of Places If You Look At It Right'

Asked to name my all-time favorite Grateful Dead show, I typically respond, "Which year?"
"No, which show?"
"Okay, how about May 8, 1977 in Hamilton, New York?"
"Because it was just about perfect.  The Dead had just finished recording the seminal Terrapin Station album and were unbelievably loose.  They had been on a roll all spring with nary a bad note or an off-key lyric in the half dozen or so shows I'd already seen.  The setting this particular night was Barton Hall, the Gothic Revival performance space at Cornell University.  It was acoustically sublime.   And incidentally, the show was voted the Dead's best ever in a 2013 poll in, of all places, The New York Times.
"Anyhow . . .
"In typical Dead style, they took us to amazing places during a four-hour extravaganza, elevating us to great and then greater heights, and then bringing us down ever so gently at the end as they were wont to do when everything was clicking. And although it was May, snow was falling when we walked out of the hall. The perfect touch to end a perfect evening."
Deadheads who believe it will be old times all over again, whether it be 1968, 1978 or whatever 8, when the Grateful Dead take the stage for five shows next Saturday and Sunday and early July in celebration of the band's 50th anniversary, are likely to be disappointed.   
That is not to take anything away from what
JERRY GARCIA (1942-1995)
are being billed as the Fare Thee Well shows, which the Dead say will be their last ever.  The concerts at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California on June 27-28 and at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 3-5 are bound to be great, but it's 2015 and that's where the heads of the "Core Four" --
BOB WEIR (1947-)
original band members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart -- are. 
Expect them and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio (whose band owes an enormous debt to the Dead), pianist Bruce Hornsby and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti to play many of the old favorites over those five
PHIL LESH (1940-)
evenings.  The shows are to be webstreamed, simulcast on SiriusXM and shown in selected theaters for the many of us -- hell, the millions of us -- who don't have tickets.  But Anastasio is not Jerry Garcia, nor will he pretend to be.  He certainly is likely to evoke the late, great Garcia's magic

and the entire aggregation certainly will evoke an extraordinary era in music, but that was then and now is now. 
The concerts are to be enjoyed for what they are and not what the Dead used to be.
For the record, the Grateful Dead's first show -- they were billed as Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions -- was at Magoo's Pizza in the San Francisco suburb of Menlo Park on May 5, 1965.  The last show was at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 9, 1995.  Garcia died exactly one month later at a drug rehab facility in Marin County, California.  (Alcohol and drugs were especially tough on the band's keyboard players, four of whom succumbed to causes other than stage fright.) 
The Dead did a total of 2,318 shows during those three decades, and tapes exist for nearly 2,200 of them.  I saw perhaps a hundred shows involving the band and their spinoffs, including the Jerry Garcia Band, Old and In the Way, Kingfish, Diga Rhythm Devils, Phil Lesh Band and Furthur.
As I reflected on those shows, I again realized that the Dead were much more than music.  They were a state of mind, at least to Deadheads, and there were deeply intellectual aspects to them.  I'm not kidding.
I wrote this about the Dead in There's A House In The Land, my 2014 book about a tribe of like-minded souls who lived on a farm beyond Philadelphia's far western suburbs in the 1970s:
"Like many high school kids my
age, I fell hard for soul, rhythm and
KEITH GODCHAUX (1948-1980)
blues and, of course, the British Invasion bands.  I had been introduced to jazz by way of the Dave Brubeck Quartet at the tender age of 14.  In college, Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez and Gordon Lightfoot became folk favorites, and I rocked to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in all their incarnations.  With my introduction to psychedelics, I fell hard for the usual
suspects, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd chief among them.  Then there was reggae.
"But my main men were the Grateful Dead, who I saw in concert for the first time in the fall of 1967 following the Summer of Love and many more times over the years.
"I was initially attracted by the Dead's acid suffused jamming and wordplay. 
BRENT MYDLAND (1952-1990)
Lyrics like

Dark star crashes
Pouring its light into ashes
Reason tatters
The forces tear loose from the axis
from "Dark Star," a modal vamp that
could run to 20 minutes or longer and had a profound effect on my youngish sponge of a mind even if I did conclude later that the words were
VINCE WELNICK (1951-2006)
pretty much off the cuff nonsense.
Then there was the Dead's bluegrass side and their wonderful catalog of Americana songs (think "New Speedway Boogie," "Jack Straw" and, of course, "Truckin") that grew out of Jerry Garcia's collaboration with Robert Hunter, who is as good a songwriter as the gods of Tin Pan Alley. . . .
"Life can be messy and so were the
Dead. Unlike many stars, Garcia did not seek out fame. At heart an unassuming man who just wanted to play music, fame found him. And despite a long career as an extraordinary composer and guitarist that brought him adulation, gold records and eventually wealth,

happiness remained elusive. He was never able to get the addictive drug monkey off his back for very long once it climbed on. Technically, heroin finally killed him, or rather his heart, but I believe that fame w
as the real culprit.
"But for a while, and that very much included the 1970s, things were good. The Dead’s sound was so technically sophisticated, with an unheard of clarity and purity, that it took other bands years to catch up sonically. The Dead's concerts were so popular that their front office set up a system through which their most devoted fans had first dibs at tickets, the band would only play in cities where arena managers and the police would permit camping, and they tithed a considerable amount of their profits to charities.
"Not unlike the farm, the Dead's success was accidental and at the same time preordained because of the times. Garcia liked to call their popularity a "miraculous manifestation." I call it synchronicity. Then there was my favorite bumper sticker of the era: Who are the Grateful Dead, and why do they keep following me?"
Things were especially good in 1974.  The Dead always were sonic trailblazers, and although it makes me sound like a purist who prefers vinyl to MP3s (which I happen to do), there never has been a finer concert sound system than the Dead's legendary Wall of Sound, which made its touring debut at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on March 23, 1974 and blew its last mind on October 16-20, 1974 during a five-show run at Winterland Ballroom, also in San Francisco, and captured in The Grateful Dead Movie.
The Wall of Sound was an enormous public
address system designed -- and, according to lore, paid for -- by Augustus Owsley Stanley III, a one-time underground LSD chemist known as "Bear" by the Dead and their fans and the inspiration for the band's dancing bear motifs.
Owsley eventually was busted.  After he got out of prison in 1972, he, three members of the Dead's sound crew and three Alembic Sound wonks cobbled together six independent sound systems using eleven separate channels to deliver stunning high-quality. Vocals, Garcia's lead guitar,
Weir's rhythm guitar and Keith Godchaux's piano each had their own channel and  speakers, Lesh's bass was piped through a quadraphonic encoder that sent signals from each of the four strings to a separate
channel. Another channel amplified drummers Kreutzmann and Hart.
Because each speaker carried just one instrument or vocalist, the sound was exceptionally clear and so free of distortion that it could be heard up to a quarter mile away, which is where wind interference began to be a factor.
The system was assembled behind the band so the Dead could hear exactly what their audience was hearing.  Owsley and Alembic designed a custom microphone system to prevent feedback with matched pairs of condenser mikes spaced 60 mm (about 2.4 inches) apart and intentionally run out of phase.
The hardware that comprised this 75-ton monolith was mind boggling: 89 300-watt solid-state and three 350-watt vacuum tube amps generating 26,400 watts of audio power, and 604 speakers (586 JBLs and 54 Electrovoices) powered by 48 McIntosh MC-2300 600-watt amps for 28,000 watts of continuous power.  I was so enamored of the sound that I saved up and bought two identical JBL speakers, which I hung in the farm's kitchen.

It should go without saying that hearing music live is not an objective phenomenon, but I'll say it anyhow.
Like I said, I have heard the Grateful Dead and their various spinoff bands in live performances a hundred or so times beginning in 1967 and most recently in 2011 in one of their post-Jerry Garcia incarnations.  The original Dead was a band of legendary unevenness.  The great shows were truly awesome and the off shows not that bad.  And all of them social as well as aural events.  
The last time I saw the original Dead -- at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1990 -- is memorable not so much for the show as a lesson learned that in retrospect offered insight into why music can feel so
JERRY'S LAST SHOW (July 9, 1995)

I thought the show was only okay, but as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel on the ride back to a friend's home in North Jersey, a guy in his early 20s riding in the front seat turned to me and, breaking his silence, said that while he had gone to church much of his life, it did not begin to compare to what he had just experienced -- his first Dead concert. 
An experience I found to be kind of meh was, to this guy, "mesmerizing," "electric," "profound" and most of all, "spiritual."  He said that he had wept at one point.  While our views of the show differed (and not being a spoilsport I kept my view to myself), I understood because there had been times -- always toward the end of  the Dead's endlessly layered and jam-infused second sets -- when I had wept, too.  Not many times, mind you, but enough to understand I wasn't losing my mind (okay, probably not) but was feeling a oneness and intimacy, as well as the sensation that everything in my life had been predestined to lead me up to this moment.  It was very much a satori.

"Eyes of the World," the Grateful Dead classic and stuff of many extended concert jams, has been an anthem of sorts for me since I heard it all over again for the first time while camping many moons ago at Big Sur on the California coast, a beautiful area that seems especially connect to the song. I've always felt that "Eyes" for written for me -- and for you.
Please take a few minutes to read the lyrics or listen to the song.
The Grateful Dead themselves had this to say in an online letter about the Fare Thee Well shows:
Ours wasn't just a long, strange trip — it was a very long, very strange trip. We weren't sure what it was going to be like to put a punctuation mark on the end of it. None of us anticipated the overwhelming outpouring of love and interest following our initial announcement of
the shows at Soldier Field, and we were blown away by the response.
We have tried to do the right thing
wherever we could for the Chicago shows by honoring the roots of where
we came from, while dealing with the realities of the current times. But that’s hardly comforting when you’re shit outta luck for tickets and your only option is inflated prices on secondary ticketing websites. That would piss us off too.
From the moment these shows were first talked about, we have been
thinking about what we could do to honor the roots of our Deadhead experience, even in the face of changing technologies. (Remember: Ticketmaster didn’t even go online until we got out of the game.) These shows were always intended as an expression of our gratitude, to both the music and the fans, so it’s important that we get things as right as we can.
We have always been proud of our
in-house mail order ticketing process, and the phenomenal way our fans have built a tradition out of turning a standard envelope into a frame-worthy piece of art. Some 60,000 mail order tickets were issued for the Soldier Field shows by the good folks at Grateful Dead Ticket Sales — yet we were still crushed to see how many of your beautifully designed envelopes did not get tickets. . . . 
We will not be adding any more Fare Thee Well shows. The three Chicago shows will still be our final stand. We decided to add these two Santa Clara shows to enable more of our fans to celebrate with us one more time. But this is it.
We love you guys more than words can tell.
Legendary rock impressario Bill Graham, whom I met a few times on backstage rambles (I actually preferred being out front), was hard as nails but adored the Dead.
"They're not the best at what they do," he liked to say in introducing the band, "They're the only ones who do what they do.
Amen, and thank you, guys.
“They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” - See more at:

“They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.” - See more at:"They're not the best at what they do," he liked to remark. "They're the only ones who do what they do."Amen.  And thank you, guys.



Ron Beasley said...

I must admit I was never much of a fan of the Dead. I loved Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones Cream. But the dead not so much.

Unknown said...

loved this post. It covers so much more than the TMV post. Loved the Miles Davis poster. Would die to travel back to see that...

Shaun Mullen said...

Yeah, I love that poster, too. I own it, and it's on long-term loan to a local music venue. The show itself must have been a mindblower -- presuming that Miles wasn't having one of his grouchy nights.

Anonymous said...

As the "Fare Thee Well" or whatever they're dubbing it, I'm mulling whether I want to shell out for one or both of the weekend pay-per-views. I don't think I want to sit in front of my computer screen to watch a show.

And I'm torn, too, about whether I really need to see the gang trying to conjure up Garcia through the fingers of Trey Anastasio. He's a good player, I know, but still.... I saw The Other Ones years back with Warren Haynes, and that almost worked, but he's a far more diverse guitarist than Trey. And there was the added bonus of hearing (and, maybe especially, watching) Joan Osborne. But we as well as the surviving band are all much older now.