Fare Thee Well Night Two: Desire & Admission


Grateful_Dead_Fare_Thee_Well_-_20489632_ver1.0_640_480

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.

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Fare Thee Well Night Two: Desire & Admission

10 thoughts on “Fare Thee Well Night Two: Desire & Admission

  1. El Mateo says:

    Okay, I’ve been on the hunt for a new jam to connect me to the old feelings as well. The Phil Lesh Quintet or anything like it, will do it! Their shows from earlier this year at TxR is awesome (I know the guitarist is different, but its basically the same band)

    Also give the Chris Robinson Brotherhood a chance…killer!

    1. halmasonberg says:

      I’ve been following the Phil and Friends runs at Terrapin Crossroads and they have been pretty great. Always new lineups, always interesting and daring. And I loved Phil and friends with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (PhilRAD) late last year. So much energy, so much heart. Joe Russo’s band is currently my favorite (now that Furthur has disbanded). Again, none of them sound like Garcia, but they all deeply understand the music and there is connection.

  2. Bill C says:

    Hey Hal. Nice essay – lotta meat on it. I’ll give u my impression of what I’ve seen. For the first night I viewed the show on the computer on some website that had it for free. I didn’t listen to much of it mostly bc of connection issues and the feed going out. The one thing I did like about the Saturday show was the St Steven > Eleven. That worked really nicely for me. That’s about all that resonated with me on Saturday. Now as I said, most of it (the show) I didn’t see. And I only listened to it on computer speakers on a small computer (desktop) screen.

    For the Sunday show, a friend had purchased it on YouTube and invited me and another person over to watch it. I could not get over there for any of the first set so all I saw was the second set. And the listening / viewing for it was much different than the first night (big tv screen vs small computer screen, loud speakers vs computer speakers, a few vapes vs stone sober, signal not cutting out vs frequent stoppages) – all of them no doubt bound to make me like the 2nd show more.

    So with all that said, I was pretty blown away with what I saw on that Sunday second set. The filming and editing of what camera was chosen at a particular time was something I really dug. I was, in effect, right next to Bob looking at Trey about five feet away. And Phil (and the others) right there too. I got off on being so close to the action on stage via the camera work. And like I said, I was seeing that great filming combined with the sound being produced from those players coming out real loud (in a great way).

    Songs that really impressed me were Wharf Rat (and possibly the jam outta Half Step which went into WR) > great jam > Eyes (loving everything they’re doin at this point, even liked how Phil sang it – unlike too often, he had the phrasing and the melody of the song right) > great jam > He’s Gone > drums (loved drums). I don’t remember being blown away by I Need a Miracle and I don’t like the song Death Don’t. Then despite being from a paid source (Youtube), Sugar Mag cut out (damn!). We finally got it going again in the middle of the Sugar Mag jam and I totally dug the good chunk we saw. And of course enjoyed the Sunshine Daydream. Brokedown Palace was good.

    I was totally emotionally moved by what I saw (certainly helped that I hadn’t vaped in awhile!) and knew the boys had to line up and do the arms-around-each-other bow to say good night (which they did fortunately). That was a must from the way I was feeling after that second set.

    I dug Trey a lot more on Sunday than Saturday (no doubt the factors mentioned above playing some role but just some I believe). In fact I was very impressed with him on Sunday in the songs I mentioned above that I liked. One of the things I didn’t like about his playing in the past was the tone of the guitar but didn’t mind it on Sunday. For the record I’m not a Phish or Trey head at all (in fact until these shows I can’t remember digging anything he did).

    I really dug the drummers. That’s an incredible phenomenon IMO that will be a shame to go for good after the next 3 Sunday shows (though a friend told me they may do a tour with Bob, John Mayer, Kimock, Chimenti, and a bassist who I forget). I hope they do such a tour because those drums are a show in themselves.

    Phil was awesome as usual and liked Bob’s playing and singing on Sunday’s second set.

    To wrap this up, overall I was extremely impressed with what I saw. The biggest complaint I had this weekend was the vocals. When I heard the vocals of Morning Dew, I really wished Stu Allen was up there doin it because he just kills that on vocals (and geetar). (Alligator on Saturday was another one that Stu or his drummer, Pete Lavazolli should’ve done). But on Sunday I don’t remember the vocals ruining any song and the jamming outside of the vocals was heavenly to my ears on Sunday.

    I want to get that second set of Sunday on disc. My buddy recorded a good chunk of it while we were watching it and he might end up getting the whole thing from a rebroadcast he might be able to get (and record). He called youtube to bitch about something and they ended up giving him the whole show for free as well as telling him it will be available for him to view for some period of time (hopefully true and hopefully he records it).

    I forgot to say anything about Chimenti and Hornsby. For Saturday’s show, I thought H’s vocal’s were terrible (his harmonies) – his voice sounded like shit. And I couldn’t here him or C’s playing on Saturday. On second set Sunday I didn’t mind H’s vocals at all. Both of their instruments could’ve been louder on Sunday but I dug what I heard from both of them. Speaking of Chimenti, you may remember that I videotape every Jerry Day show since Stu Allen’s band plays every time. The 2014 version (Aug 3, 2014) of Stu’s Jerry Day band had Chimenti in it (Robin Sylvester too from Ratdog, whole band was great) and he (Chimenti) just killed it – plus he was cranked nicely loud that day (easily the loudest I’ve heard him in any band including Further and it showed what an incredible talent he is). Him and Stu were perfect chemistry (Stu killed it too that day). Got it all on good vid so get back to me if you want it (some or all of it is on YouTube – not mine but others – look for the Doin That Rag they did – just perrrrrfect and rippin).

    As I was writing this, somebody on the Phil Zone posted a review of Sunday’s show on a site I never heard of but his take on the second set of the show is pretty much what mine was. Here’s a link to it (from Glide magazine whatever that is):

    http://www.glidemagazine.com/138552/grateful-dead-fare-thee-well-santa-clara-ca-62715-highlights-lowlights-let-trey-bruce-sing-show-recap/

    1. halmasonberg says:

      Bill, thanks so much for your thoughts! Really enjoyed reading that. Amazing how different opinions and reactions can be. I’ve actually been showing people the EYES OF THE WORLD as an example of how lifeless the music was. Swear to god. I thought the singing on it was painful and the rhythm lethargic. EYES is a song that, played fast or slow, has a real life to it, a rhythm, a heart, but it never came to life for me Sunday night. HE’S GONE also seemed like a train wreck to me with nobody knowing who was supposed to sing which line. It all felt like it could crumble at any second. For me, it was the first time I’ve really heard these songs fail. In any context. With any band. That said, I’m glad your experience was not mine! I want people to enjoy the music and have fun. I wish I could have. I have no answer as to why the experience varies so greatly from person to person. I’ve listened and watched both shows and gone back and re-watched certain segments just to make sure and my reaction is the same each time. I cringe. It’s a reaction I hate having, but to my ears, the music never came close to finding its footing. I do somewhat agree with you on the jam after Mississippi. It was probably the best moment I saw from both nights. But for me. Trey’s playing doesn’t explore, it doesn’t take me to new spaces, it just stays in one zone and starts to feel a bit repetitive. Again, that’s just my reaction. The playing itself was fine in that jam, just not moving or engaging for me. How I wish I felt otherwise! :)

  3. El Mateo says:

    I’ll have to check out PhilRAD, haven’t given them a chance. The GRAB shows turned me off and even though I enjoyed Russo in Furthur, I haven’t looked at any of his other stuff. Edit-> The Phil shows I mentioned above were at the beacon theater with barry sless, barraco, and molo.

    i am well wishing Chicago. With only 5 shows billed this band is a limited editiion with limited playing time together. I think they are just warming up. One of my favor live shows is Trey with Dave in Dave and Friends. It brought my impression of Dave to a new level. The recording I have is Hartford, CT.

    Back to the Fare The Well Band; the jam out of Warf Rat into Eyes is what we are looking and hoping for. The drummers, Phil, and even Jeff add to it. These guys are capable of taking the music to a whole new higher level…I hope they get to play on the moon this weekend.

    Recordings are up on Soundcloud and bt.etree.org. I’ve not checked the music archive since i found these two other sources.

  4. El Mateo says:

    Update, Santa Clara shows are not up on the archive as I write, but I did find these to share

    Phil Lesh Quintet:
    https://archive.org/details/PAF2014-09-21.ForestHillsTennisStadForestHillsNY

    Phil and Friends with John K and Jeff C and Larry C.
    https://archive.org/details/phil2014-04-05.flac16

    Phil and Friends at Cap Theater with Sless, Molo, Baracco, and Haynes
    https://archive.org/details/PhilLeshandFriends?and%5B%5D=year%3A%222015%22

    I love all these shows. My work is done here, enjoy!

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