Fare Thee Well Night Two: Desire & Admission


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You can read my post on the first night here

It’s an odd experience feeling disappointment around something so very special and important in my life. Some have shared my experience and interpretation, others have their own and it varies wildly. No experience is wrong.

I’ve been accused by some in the past few days of judging too harshly and being overly vocal about it. Maybe that’s true, but it seems more to me like there’s this unspoken notion that it’s clear heresy to express disappointment surrounding this occasion, to criticize any element of it. In essence, to have my own experience and voice it. It feels like going to see the Grateful Dead in 1994 and 1995 and commenting on Garcia’s playing and health. To me, something was clearly going on. It seemed like he was using again, in very ill health and the music suffered greatly. When I remarked on it at the time, there were those that suggested I was just being negative. But there’s nothing more I would have rather been doing than celebrating Garcia and this music and the band that I love. Perhaps for those who had just hopped on the bus at that time and had little previous experience to compare to, 1995 was a stellar year in Grateful Dead history and Garcia was in top form. But history has shown us that was not the case. There are very few out there now who would deny the difference, the change, the obvious.

That doesn’t mean people couldn’t still have fun at the shows, still embrace the community and even, to an extent, enjoy hearing those songs even if they weren’t up to snuff.

garcia smiles

I suppose, for me., the music has always been the most important element. There’s nothing that moves me more and it has opened doors for me to spaces that are now a part of who I am as a human being. No small feat. So after Touch Of Grey became a hit and the crowds started to swell, it seemed like there were more and more people showing up at the shows more for the scene and the drugs and less for the music. And that had a devastating effect on the shows. Beloved venues closed themselves to the band, violence broke out, crowd-control became a serious issue, the venues got larger, more difficult to manage. And the vibe changed. Noticeably. It’s not a stretch to say this most likely also effected the band and their playing.

All this is to say that there are a lot of emotions and experiences and expectations tied up for me in the Grateful Dead. I’ve been doing some soul-searching into what it is exactly I’m feeling in response to these shows. Part of me realizes that I simply wanted to hear these songs again played with gusto and energy, as well as with skill and daring. I wanted another opportunity to experience these songs anew. It didn’t need to sound like the Grateful Dead with Garcia, I just hoped it would take me down new paths the Grateful Dead had opened up. I also wanted to see the band members themselves really enjoying doing what they do best.

I suppose part of the desire is also for all those folks who have mocked me for loving the Dead over the years (and living in Los Angeles, I still get that a lot) to maybe get a taste of what was really there. I’ve been told incessantly that the Dead are “bad musicians,” that it was all a bunch of “aimless, directionless noodling,” and that the playing was “sloppy” and the harmonies “painful.”  I was hoping perhaps since these 50th anniversary shows were getting so much hype, that maybe some of those people would tune in, check it out, and be greeted with something they were not expecting and possibly get a taste of what it is that has become so special to so many. What I felt I was met with instead was almost exactly what others have complained to me about. It was horribly sloppy, the harmonies painful, and the jams aimless, directionless. To my ears, it was the worst playing I’ve ever heard these guys engage in. And that was shocking for me. I wasn’t expecting nor was I prepared for that. It was as if I were watching a really bad Grateful Dead cover band. Now I understand that I don’t have the added experience of actually being at the shows and soaking up the love and energy contained there. I know from experience that goes a long way toward dictating one’s interpretation of a show and even a performance. However, at the end of the day, it comes down to the music, for me. That’s what’s most important. And sitting home on my couch watching the shows, it was difficult. I’ve seen the boys struggle many times on stage before, but never like this.

So why is it important for me that others have a chance to possibly connect with what the Grateful Dead offer? It’s a damn good question. It certainly doesn’t change how I feel about them. I suppose, on the most basic level, it’s a human desire to share with other human beings –particularly the ones most dear to us — what it is we feel, we experience. Part of storyteller-1being a human being seems to be engaging in storytelling. We’re either telling stories or we are receiving stories. It’s how we spend the bulk of our time. Hell, even our own minds and bodies resort to storytelling in the form of dreams while we’re asleep! It’s an integral part of the conscious human experience. A large part of that journey comes from allowing oneself to feel something so intensely and honestly that you can almost quite literally “transmit” that feeling to another. Actors do this, artists of all kinds do this. And musicians do this. The Grateful Dead are amazing storytellers and they have an incredible ability and talent for allowing us to “feel” what they are feeling, how they experience and tell their stories. But they must experience it first so that we can. And when that is shared, it is an incredible bonding experience that reaches right into the very soul of anyone connected. It is that powerful, that real.

So as a human being, I have a desire to share my experience, my story of the Grateful Dead, with others. Not in a forceful, evangelical sort of way (I learned that doesn’t work many years ago), but instead through my own contagious excitement and enthusiasm. And I also like to return to those stories myself and feel them again and again, oftentimes through different storytellers, different interpretations. So I suppose feeling so completely disconnected from the music this time around was jarring for me. Add to that watching what seemed like Bobby and Phil arguing on stage and it all felt a tad rough (like watching your parents fight?). Now maybe they weren’t in disagreement and that’s just how it looked to me and some others. I hope that’s the case. I want them to be having fun up there. At least Phil was smiling throughout and seemed genuinely happy. That also translates to me. That’s also part of the storytelling.

deadwire29f-2-webAs for Trey, I’m not a hater. I really wanted to connect with his playing and be taken somewhere. But that hasn’t happened. Even though he allowed himself to be more front and center on night two, his playing for me feels more technical than heartfelt. Maybe for some it’s enough that once in a while he rocked out. But that’s not what I’m seeking here. For me, what Grateful Dead music does at its best is much deeper than that. Trey, at least here, doesn’t appear versed enough in this style of playing to traverse the spaces necessary. He’s certainly no slouch as a musician. His talent is clear and undeniable. But whatever it is he feels, it doesn’t translate to me. I don’t feel it. Maybe that’s on me, not Trey. It may just mean becoming more acquainted with his “voice.” But the experience also seemed as if Trey’s playing was not moving or connecting the other musicians either, and that changes everything.

Perhaps Trey’s strength is in another form of jamming that is very different from the Grateful Dead. All the songs and, most especially, the jams, felt like they were existing on one timeline. There was very little variation, very little divergence from the path. Garcia and many other guitarists who have played this music before have the capacity for moving through different musical spaces within the passage of one jam. Garcia was a pro at this. Jazz musicians are pros at this. It’s exactly why the music isn’t aimless, directionless noodling. It’s purposeful. It’s storytelling. For me, Trey simply didn’t tell a very engaging story. But that’s not Trey’s fault. Hell, it’s nobody’s fault. But that still doesn’t mean he was a good choice for these shows. Perhaps if the playing had been tight, Trey’s involvement would have been more enjoyable for me, if not as deep as I might have liked. But this feels like a band VERY disconnected. And Grateful Dead music is — at least for me — all about that connection. Thankfully for those in attendance, the audience brought enough of that connection to clearly make up for what was missing on stage. But not being there, I cannot comment on that nor can I feel it. I recognize that piece of the puzzle is missing for me. But again, I’m only commenting on my experience, sharing my story, my thoughts, feelings, desires, disappointments, etc. I have no one else’s story to tell but my own. But I can certainly hear the stories of others and, perhaps, even be made to feel that eventually through those folks as they retell the stories of their own experiences. I hope that happens.

From where I stand, now, however, much of it seems like rose-colored glasses. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with rose-colored glasses. It allowed some people to enjoy Dead shows even as Garcia was clearly disintegrating on stage. Denial also plays a part. And it’s not always a bad thing. Often it’s a survival tool. Blind devotion. Well, that can sometimes be scary. At least to me. I see it in religion, I see it in politics, I see it in various forms of witch-hunts, be it racism, sexism or simply in the media’s interpretation of the lives of others and how that often fulfills a destructive narrative many people long for. And I’m not immune to this. Not by a long shot.

When Trey and Phish fans online talk about how Trey is “killing it” and how he’s really “rising to the occasion” and “bringing the goods,” I have to wonder how much of this is a measure of blind devotion. Same for those who are claiming the Dead members are “nailing it.” As someone who has been engaging with this music almost every single day for over 40 years now, I feel mildly qualified to at least say, “Hey, this seems really off to me.” Not everyone need agree or experience that, but I’m also not interested in coloring this occasion with something other than how it appears to me simply because I wish it to be otherwise.

From where I stand, these first two shows at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara were as much of a live music train wreck as I’ve personally witnessed. And as stated above, that comes with a whole slew of emotional reactions that I need to sift through. One of the ways I do that is through writing as I am doing here. Is it the best way? Hell, I dunno. But it’s a way and it’s how I’m choosing to do it now. And I’m gonna guess that there are those out there experiencing something very similar to what I am. And maybe the story of my journey here will connect with someone else’s story, someone else’s experience and give voice to it, articulate a part of it, allow someone to feel less alone in that experience. That’s certainly a need I feel as a human being. Again, it’s connection. And I enjoy trying to make that connection, trying to articulate my experience, my story. I do it as a filmmaker, I do it as a writer, I do it in conversation with those I most cherish and admire.

I hope the Chicago shows offer us a band more in sync, more connected, and music that translates that connection. If it doesn’t… alas, it is what it is. But I will probably comment on it. Not to be negative. But to explore. If the Grateful Dead gave me anything, it was a desire to explore, to dig deep, to not be afraid of mistakes but to embrace them and to move forward with them as part of the whole and, most especially, to trust in my own voice and that expressing that voice requires a level of vulnerability and risk. And the knowledge that there will always be those who will condemn that voice, who disagree with it, dislike it, resent it, or simply can’t relate to it. I guess my story’s for the ones that relate to it, that connect to it on some level. Like the Grateful Dead themselves. There are those that “get” them and those who do not. But their strength has always been in not pandering to those who don’t understand them, but in continuing to honor themselves, to play for themselves first. It’s the only way to tell an honest story and it’s the best way to genuinely connect with other human beings. Their legacy may be the greatest example of that in action.

Fare Thee Well Night Two: Desire & Admission

Fare Thee Well Stumbles Out Of The Starting Gate


Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 12.23.12 PMLet me begin by saying I love these guys. I’ve been a hardcore DeadHead since 1975. It was a joy to see Phil Lesh smiling and having so much fun up there on stage for the first night of the 5-night Fare Thee Well 50th celebration of the Grateful Dead with the “core-four” remaining members of the band plus guests.

For many of us, there is no Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia. But the songs themselves and Garcia’s legacy seem to be (and hopefully are) undying; The spirit of the band, the essence of the music and all that it has inspired. And the band certainly tried to capture that spirit with what might well be the most ballsy setlist imaginable for a first night gig of this long-anticipated reunion. It was a DeadHead dream come true in terms of song choices. Not a single post-1970 tune was played. The jams were long and casual. Incredible rarities like Cream Puff War and What’s Become of The Baby were played, as well as one of the most beloved trifectas of all time, Dark Star-> St. Stephen-> The Eleven (with the William Tell bridge!!!). On the surface, this looks amazing. Unfortunately in my opinion, the quality of musicianship on display could not match the clear and loving intent of all involved.

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Trey, Phil, Billy, Bobby

I hate to say that as these guys and this music mean so much to me. The weak link in all of this, in my personal opinion, was Trey Anastasio on lead guitar. Certainly talented and a mega-jamband star in his own right via his band Phish, Anastasio could not only not fill the void of Garcia (who could?), but his style of playing, his sound, lacked the emotive heart necessary in my opinion to pull this show off. The music lacked a sense of direction. It felt like no one was leading the way and Anastasio’s leads, though well-executed technically, lacked passion, warmth, heart. And the Grateful Dead were nothing if not rich in heart. They got under your skin, into your soul, and lifted you up to heights unseen, unknown, before sending you back out into the world. Last night’s music did not do that for me. The playing felt stilted and the vocal harmonies were way off (not something uncommon in the Grateful Dead experience, but this felt much harsher and more intrusive than usual). Many of the jams seemed to lose their way and most of the transitions from one song to another felt like they came out of a near collapse of the entire band before stumbling into what had been planned next. In fact, throughout most of the show, it felt to me like the band was always in a state of near collapse.

There are many DeadHeads who very actively and vocally do not like Trey Anastasio. I’ll admit that his playing never grabbed me, but I admire what he does, though I have never personally been moved by him. And I need to be moved. That said, I was hoping Trey would be a great choice since he knew how to jam and had been intensely inspired by his first Dead show in 1983. One could say, the origin of what Phish became was birthed on that night.

But for me, on this first night of Fare Thee Well, Trey Anastasio felt like just another sound in the mix and not a voice with purpose. There was no intent. Perhaps this was nerves. Or perhaps Trey just wasn’t, ultimately, the right choice. As I sat there with my friends watching the show, we all began to feel that Trey was very much the wrong choice. It suddenly felt like a mistake too late to correct. Hopefully, this incarnation of the band will find its groove over the next four nights, but I’m starting to doubt they’ll find it enough to make it a worthwhile trip for me as I simply can’t imagine Trey’s “voice” lifting these songs where I would need them to go in order to feel anything more than nostalgia with a sharp edge of disappointment.

To my ears, the playing was awkward, uncertain. This felt like a band that had very little rehearsal. Which is probably the case. One of the things that made the Grateful Dead so amazing was the deep connection, both musical and otherwise, between the musicians. It was palpable, it was the essence of human connection and communication and it extended itself to the audience.

We know Phil and Bobby are still capable of making incredible, soaring music. The band Furthur, which they spearheaded, was as close to the Grateful Dead experience as I dared dream come post-Garcia. It both honored what had been, but also expanded on what was new and different, how the individuals had grown. The rest of the band was made up of extraordinary musicians who all fell in sync in that magical way that rarely happens.

John Kadlecik with Furthur.
John Kadlecik with Furthur.

The lead guitarist for that band was John Kadlecik. Kadlecik had been the lead guitar player in a terrific Dead cover band called Dark Star Orchestra. I was always wary of Dead cover bands (or any cover band, for that matter), but Kadlecik’s playing quickly won me over. Some called him “fake Jerry,” but for me he was more than that. He was someone who had studied Garcia’s music, his influences, his style… Kadlecik took this love and turned it into a sound that was clearly inspired by a musician he loved so much that he devoted his life to understanding what it was he did. Kadlecik reached a point in his understanding of this sound and this music that he is now able to channel his own emotions and his own personality through a style Garcia had brought to life. It isn’t copying, it is the very essence of inspiration, of admiration. It is the highest form of praise.

It is for this reason that I think Kadlecik would have been a far better choice for these farewell shows. Miles Davis once said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” I would guess that Trey quite simply hasn’t played this music long enough to be able to “play like himself” in this context. So what we’re left with is more of an exercise than an expression. Kadlecik, on the other hand, found that place through his love of Garcia. What greater honor is there than that? Add to all this Kadlecik’s many years of playing with Bob and Phil in Furthur, and you have a group of musicians who are already tight, who already understand one another intimately. The fact that Fare Thee Well had Jeff Chimenti from Furthur on keyboards is simply another reason Kadlecik should have been up there with them. Like Led Zeppelin reunited with drummer John Bonham’s son in his late father’s place, or Bruce Springsteen replacing the late Clarence Clemons with Clemons’ own nephew, Jake, these bands go for musicians who have an intimate connection to the original musician. They’re not reproducing what had been, but coming at it from a deep understanding of what made it what it was. Kadlecik may not be related to Garcia, but his passion, admiration and influence certainly channel something of Garcia, while still being immensely Kadlecik. He understands this music and how to play it.

Now I don’t know why Trey was chosen over Kadlecik, though there are rumors out there that the drummers didn’t want Kadlecik. True? I have no idea. On some level, if true, I can understand their concern. How does one replace Garcia? You can’t. So don’t even try. Take the next generation of jam band superstardom (Trey) and work with him. It’s a good idea on paper. But last night showed for me that it stops there. All I could think of as I watched and listened was “John would have nailed this. John would have made this soar…” We can’t get Garcia back. But we can put those in his place who have been so inspired by him that they made it one of their life’s missions to explore his music, to get inside it. Again, Kadlecik is far more than a cheap replacement for Jerry Garcia. In fact, he was exactly what was lacking in last night’s show. He would have bridged that large gap created in Garcia’s absence and aided in the heart, the spirit, and the connection of the players.

The argument of Anastasio or Kadlecik has been raging on the internet since the announcement of these shows. Though I clearly lean toward Kadlecik, I was genuinely excited at the prospect of what Trey might bring to the band and this music. I did not go in with an attitude that this was going to be “less” because of the choice the band made. I stood behind their choice and embraced it. But for me, the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and last night’s pudding had something mixed in that just didn’t compliment the flavors already inherent.

As for the rest of the band, I felt that having two keyboardists was overkill. Between the two drummers (both musicians I adore) and the two keyboardists, the sound felt muddy, crowded. There was no room to breathe. In my opinion (I have a lot of those, I know), either Hornsby or Chimenti, as wonderful as they both are, needed to go.

Santa Clara, CA - June 27:  performs on Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of Grateful Dead at Levi Stadium on June 27, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Santa Clara, CA – June 27, 2015

The intense light show and immense stage set up, while beautiful and impressive, represented a bloated level of showmanship not often associated with the Grateful Dead or their music. And in this case, since the music couldn’t rise to the occasion, it felt like hyperbole and excess. It only helped highlight for me what was missing.

I truly wish I had enjoyed the show more. I wish this could be a glowing review. And I’m sure there will be many of those out there to compensate for my personal disappointment. But I cannot in all good conscience praise last night’s show despite my heartfelt desire to do so. I would be lying to myself and anyone reading this.

I applaud the effort of all involved and I hope that the level of musicianship improves over the next four shows and that what Trey lacked last night he suddenly makes up for later. That would put a smile on my face.

And again, I have to applaud the pure experimental bravery of these musicians and the set list they put together that defied any commercial expectations and came straight out of love and a deep understanding on the part of the “core four” of what it is they did that resonated for so many over 50 decades and counting. Again, it was a dream setlist offered by musicians who understood why. I applaud them for this and my love for them knows no bounds. And in all honesty, if they walk away from these shows feeling satisfied and happy, then nothing else is needed. Perhaps for them it’s all about the fans, I don’t know. But for me, it’s all about them. So while I can’t give last night’s concert a good review on the actual energy and performance of the music itself, I can still celebrate other elements and, most certainly, a deeply heartfelt intent. After all, that’s also part of the Grateful Dead experience: the shows that never quite click, but are made by those always trying, always reaching… And then trying again.

Set One:

Truckin’
Uncle John’s Band
Alligator->
Cumberland Blues
Born Cross-Eyed
Cream Puff War
Viola Lee Blues

Set Two:

Cryptical Envelopment->
Dark Star->
St. Stephen->
The Eleven->
Turn On Your Love Light->
Drums->
What’s Become Of The Baby->
The Other One->
Morning Dew

Encore:
Casey Jones

Fare Thee Well Stumbles Out Of The Starting Gate

Observations on Cinema vs. the Capitalist Feeding Frenzy


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Filmmaker William Friedkin was recently interviewed for a piece in The Telegraph titled “Superhero movies are ruining cinema, says Exorcist director William Friedkin.”

I agree with Friedkin’s sentiment and I would take it one step further and say that it’s not “Superhero movies” that are ruining cinema, but that those films are a product of what has so dramatically changed since the 70’s.

The corporate greed and the paint-by-numbers mentality that has now driven cinema for many decades is, in itself, a product of a state of mind that has been vigorously taught, conditioned, indoctrinated and embraced in the U.S. Its impact is reflected in all aspects of our lives socially, culturally, politically and, yes, artistically…

The good side, as Friedkin points out, is that there will always be a place for storytellers to go and tell their stories. Right now it’s television and the internet, not the cinema. I’ll miss the cinema. Maybe it will make a comeback one day when the powers-that-be usurp more control over TV and internet. They will. But artists will always find a place to express themselves. And the capitalist dream will always find a way to make bank on it, thus watching the very thing itself dissolve like sand through their fingers. It’s a self-mutilating, cannibalistic approach.

The best artists, however, will find a way to stay one step ahead. They need to because the desire to express and share is too integral a part of the human experience to be eliminated or permanently suppressed. But know that the conglomerates are right behind you, sniffing you out, feeding off the scraps you leave behind, your trail of breadcrumbs.

They can’t help themselves.

But we get to decide if we’re running from them, or leading the way.

Observations on Cinema vs. the Capitalist Feeding Frenzy

Maggie Gallagher and the Simplifying of “God’s Plan.”


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I suppose this makes me intolerant. As “articulate” as Maggie Gallagher, author of a recent article in the National Review titled Why I, Unlike Senator Rubio, Would Not Attend a Gay Wedding, is attempting to be, what I am left with is the damaging horror that is so many religions. The fact that Gallagher believes that attending a gay wedding “would be witnessing and celebrating your attempt not only to commit yourself to a relationship that keeps you from God’s plan but, worse, I would be witnessing and celebrating your attempt to hold the man you love to a vow that he will avoid God’s plan,” is immensely disturbing. Not surprising, mind you, but deeply troubling nonetheless.

Continue reading “Maggie Gallagher and the Simplifying of “God’s Plan.””

Maggie Gallagher and the Simplifying of “God’s Plan.”

Does “SELMA” Shine A Light On More Than Just Its Story?


selmaI liked SELMA. And I thought it suffered a bit from the usual standard biopic pitfalls of not digging more deeply into the complex areas inherent in its story and characters, as well as not trusting actual events to be powerful enough of a story to not have to alter history to create extra drama or to paint a more “desirable” picture. That said, I still found the film effecting and it stayed with me longer than either THE IMITATION GAME or THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, the other 2 biopics from last year made in a similar mold.

For me, these kinds of linear tellings of stories with historical beats that need to be hit always feel too manufactured to me. Which isn’t to say they don’t have impact or are not good films. Many are, and this one is. But there’s a deeper level of human experience, the human condition, that these types of films never quite manage to reveal for me. More often than not, this begins at the script stage. These films often feel like the events themselves were strung out in a line with index cards and the characters’ personal struggles inserted to up the drama instead of revealing and exploring the many layers and complexities of the human beings and their struggles being portrayed. For me, the film MR. TURNER was the only biopic I saw from last year that transcended this issue. Perhaps because the filmmaker/writer, Mike Leigh, knows that it’s the characters’ inner journeys that dictate the “events” that unfold and not the other way around.

Continue reading “Does “SELMA” Shine A Light On More Than Just Its Story?”

Does “SELMA” Shine A Light On More Than Just Its Story?

“NOT THE GRATEFUL DEAD” Even More Cynical Than I


thedeadpicI post the below article written by Stewart Sallo in the Boulder Weekly titled LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, NOT THE GRATEFUL DEAD not because I agree with it, but to represent part of the experience Dead-Heads are having. This article is far more cynical than I am. I would prefer to believe the remaining members of the Grateful Dead had the best of intentions here in trying to satisfy the many needs involved. And I think it turned out to be a far greater beast than any of them anticipated.

Perhaps that’s naive, I dunno. I can certainly see it as an opportunity to both celebrate the Grateful Dead’s 50 years AND make some money. This is, after all, one of the ways in which these guys earn their living. And they’ve hit retirement age now. They still play music, but they no longer tour and they rarely cut albums. So yes, this was also a chance to make some money. I hold no grudge with that. It’s just unfortunate that this event has also created much heartache and disappointment for many.

Continue reading ““NOT THE GRATEFUL DEAD” Even More Cynical Than I”

“NOT THE GRATEFUL DEAD” Even More Cynical Than I

Puerile Endeavors: Netanyahu’s Speech


Republican Frat Boys

Republicans are fond of being the first at things. The first to invade a country that didn’t attack us. The first to undermine a sitting President’s authority by inviting another world leader to speak before Congress AGAINST the U.S. President’s foreign policy initiative in the midst of negotiations…

Like most things these oversized children enact, it failed miserably. Were they trying to win the Jewish vote? They probably succeeded in the more orthodox sectors, but they already had them, so it’s not quite a win. Anyone else with open eyes and even the slightest sense of politics can see just what a disastrous idea this was. Disrespectful, yes. Damaging, dangerous and irresponsible? Absolutely.

Continue reading “Puerile Endeavors: Netanyahu’s Speech”

Puerile Endeavors: Netanyahu’s Speech