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.
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 being 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.
As 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.