For anyone who read my most recent posts, you know I was not a fan of the music-making that took place in Santa Clara, CA. at the Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead celebration. To clarify, my intent is not to diminish the experience of those who were there or those who genuinely loved the music. So much goes into a concert experience and these particular concerts are so very emotionally charged. I’ve not talked to one single person who was in attendance in either Santa Clara or Chicago who did not remark on the amazing energy that was present in both stadiums. Through the roof. The outpouring of love must have been tremendous. That experience in itself transcends the quality of the music-making, no question. The sheer celebration and flood of emotional and spiritual experiences. The sheer importance of this music in our lives, this bond we share through it, the journeys we’ve taken both internally and externally, the absolute life-affirming nature of the entire Grateful Dead experience.
I bought my first Grateful Dead album in 1975. Europe ’72. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting and it knocked me out. I was 12 years old. At that point, I was listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Those were my bands. My older cousin at that time had been coming off a rather intense flirtation with the Grateful Dead. In later years she rejected their music. Like many people, she was drawn to the hauntingly beautiful acoustic tones of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. But the long jams, the musical explorations… Those were not her cup of tea. Regardless, I looked up to my cousin (I still do) and knowing that she was into the Grateful Dead, I wanted a taste of what she had been raving about. I’d heard the name, everyone had, but their actual music was unknown to me.
The many worlds that opened to me that day when I first placed needle to vinyl on side 1, album 1 of Europe ’72 was something I could not have seen coming. It instantly hit something deep, something primal, something exciting. I still wasn’t sure exactly how to fully get “inside” of it, but I sensed that there was something there I needed to explore, something very different from the bands I had been listening to.
The Grateful Dead’s newest studio album had just come out and — being drawn to the very cool artwork on the cover and the thought of hearing more of that alluring music — I raced out and bought Blues For Allah. Giddy with anticipation, I couldn’t wait to close the door to my room and blast these new sounds. What I heard completely confused me. This sounded nothing like the music I’d heard on Europe ’72. It was weird, alien and lacking in the down-home tones I’d been so transfixed by. I was disappointed. But I kept on listening.
It didn’t take long for Blues For Allah to become my favorite Grateful Dead studio album, and it remains so to this day. It contains many of my all-time favorite songs. The Dead were rarely known for their studio efforts, but I still think this is one of their masterpieces.
This was to be my continued experience with the Grateful Dead. New sounds, new roads, new journeys. The band themselves were always seeking and exploring, taking risks and following their own weird and curious hearts. And sometimes I had to catch up.
Somewhere along the road, something clicked. What had sounded alluring to me initially, suddenly filled me with a joy and excitement I had never before experienced. Hadn’t even known existed. I still loved my other bands and would continue to explore other music-making, but nothing reached inside as deeply and as affectingly as the Grateful Dead. It was the live recordings that were available on a handful of records but, more importantly, audience recordings that were starting to make the rounds on cassette tape. I only had a few to start, but they were a revelation. As if the floor itself opened up and swallowed me. Down the rabbit hole I went and I’ve been tumbling ever since.
I attended my first show in 1979. I didn’t know at the time that Keith and Donna had recently left the band and I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to hear the music with them. The boys opened up with a scorching version of Mississippi Halfstep which segued into Franklin’s Tower. By the time those songs had concluded, my life had once again been permanently altered. I was lucky. This was a tight and energized show. Listening back today, it’s still one of my favorites of those I attended. It was the Grateful Dead still in a vibrant stage. Jerry was thin and dark-haired, he moved with a fierceness and energy of a man committed to pushing the journey forward like the driver of a stagecoach racing across familiar terrain in the dark and picking up speed with every turn, grinning wildly at the sheer thrill of the ride itself and the possibiliies of what lies just inches ahead. The setlist was familiar, unspectacular, but the ride was wild.
I left that night breathless, reeling.
I would continue to see the Grateful Dead in concert as often as humanly possible from that moment forward until the day Jerry Garcia died. I feel so incredibly lucky to have been a part of that experience and to still have it be a major part of my daily life. Like food and oxygen.
I was aware, even at the time, that I was late to the game. I missed my favorite years for the band. Never saw them with Pigpen, never saw them with Keith and Donna. Oh, how I long for that time machine.
Over the next 16 years, the Grateful Dead went through many changes. Garcia’s addictions and poor health seemed to take a noticeable hold on both him and the band. I still saw some incredible, life-altering shows. Even hung out with Garcia in his hotel room one night in the Spring of ’84, the year I caught 53 out of 64 shows played. There were changes that were tough for me along that road. Garcia’s first coma. The popularity of the 1987 song Touch of Grey, a fun little ditty that plunged the Grateful Dead into the mainstream in a way none of us had experienced before. The scene, the community, even the music was forever altered. Not always in a bad way, but in a noticeable way. The smaller, more intimate venues and theaters fell to the wayside and were replaced by more sports arenas and stadiums. Suddenly the scene was filled with people getting way too high, too drunk, tripping too hard. That was always a part of the scene, always to be found there, but it wasn’t the main event. By the late 80’s, it seemed that more and more people were showing up for the drugs and the “idea” of what they thought a Grateful Dead concert was than for the music or what the scene had once been. Mind you, I say this with full awareness that I myself am part of a group that arrived late to the scene and altered it in our own way, probably to the dismay of many who came before.
This is something that inevitably happens to anything that gains mainstream popularity. The masses and the media decend and suddenly what was once unique and beloved becomes almost a stereotype of itself, a parody. It’s somehow boiled down to its most obvious and dramatic elements and the nuance and character that once helped define it gets smothered. Talk to anyone present in the early years of Burning Man or the Sundance Film Festival.
In the Grateful Dead universe, there were seeds of worry planted even before Touch Of Grey existed. By mid-1983, the music began to turn uncharacteristically sloppy, the band less seemingly connected. But there was still a fierceness and a vibrancy to the music. I look back at shows like Saratoga, NY. ’83. Not a tight show, one filled with flubs and miscues galore. But the sheer energy and urgency of the playing was undeniable. It was a tremendous show, now legendary.
The Grateful Dead’s 20th Anniversary shows at the Greek in 1985, though amazing from a setlist perspective (That’s It For The Other One!), the musicianship seemed to me to be failing. There was a vibrancy and a connectivity that now seemed muddled, choked. The next few years showed a steep decline, in my opinion. Only after Garcia’s coma, recovery, and relative sobriety did the band seem to find a new lease on life. By the Spring of 1990, the band was soaring high again.
But with the death of keyboardist Brent Mydland shortly after that tour, the band seemed to move ahead shaken and unsteady at at time when a break and reassessment probably would have been preferable. But financial and other constraints kept them going. There were some treats to be had in those immediate months with the addition of Bruce Hornsby temporarily on keys. Garcia almost always seemed to be rejuvenated by on-stage guests and this was no exception. But it became quickly apparent that Garcia was using again and he was rapidly becoming on stage (and possibly off stage) a pale reflection of the man we had all known on one level or another. It was difficult to watch. And oftentimes, difficult to listen to.
But many in the crowd still cheered and proclaimed the band “better than ever. Brilliant!” But for me, it was painfully clear that something quite dramatic had changed. Perhaps for those who only came to the Grateful Dead in the 1990’s there wasn’t as much to compare it to experience-wise, so they embraced what was offered without question or criticism. The last shows I saw in December of 1994 were rough. Though I heard songs played for the first time, songs I’d longed to hear (New Speedway Boogie, anyone?), the tunes had a muddled and lifeless quality to them. Like Garcia himself, they were sounding like a muted reflection of what once had been.
It was still shocking when Garcia died. Not because we didn’t see the possibility of it at almost every concert and recording from 1995, but because it meant there would be no resurrection, no comeback. The Jerry Garcia experience, the Grateful Dead experience, was over and it would never return. The mourning was widespread and deep. It was difficult to grasp.
In the following years, the remaining members continued to play together, but not as the Grateful Dead. For a while they were The Other Ones and then The Dead. I saw some of those shows and, while admittedly fun to hear those songs live once again and to see those beloved musicians on stage playing and exploring that music… Garcia’s absence was still immense and the guitarists brought in to replace him could never adequately fill those shoes. Reinterpretations of the songs took place, a rediscovery. No one was trying to bring Garcia back. But we all knew that we didn’t want the music and the community to go away.
Sadly, those iterations of the band never got under my skin. They were fun, but for me there was something missing, something lacking and I eventually stopped seeing them when they came to town. I felt bad, guilty almost, but the music simply wasn’t stirring me deeply enough to want to return. I had my tapes, my CDs. I had 30 years of Grateful Dead to still explore and that still moved me.
Then a friend mentioned Dark Star Orchestra. They were a Grateful Dead cover band and I immediately scoffed. Why would I want to see them? If the real remaining members couldn’t quite move me, how would this group of wannabes do any better? I was pushed and pulled and eventually relented. I want to see DSO.
No, it wasn’t the Grateful Dead. But it was as close to the feel and energy of a Grateful Dead concert as I had experienced post-Garcia. And it was taking place in small theaters, not sports arenas and stadiums! Guitarist John Kadlecik, a musician I had initially spurned as a pale copy and a fake, started to win me over. Yes, he sounded an awful lot like Garcia and that was both disconcerting and a little exciting. Bob Weir played with them once and claimed that when he wasn’t looking at John, it sometimes felt like Garcia might have been standing there. Sure, part of that is sheer desire. But the other part is that Kadlecik not only vigorously studied Garcia, he deeply connected to the man’s style. The result was a musician who could express himself through Garcia’s deep influence.
When John left DSO, he was replaced with guitarist Jeff Mattson. Also a musician who had studied Garcia’s playing, there was something about Mattson’s style and interpretation that just didn’t grab me. I stopped attending DSO shows as they no longer felt transcendent to me. Fun, to be sure, but no longer a heartfelt draw.
Kadlecik was asked to play with Phil and Bobby’s new group, Furthur. Like other iterations of the remaining Grateful Dead members, I was skeptical with supremely low expectations. Furthur came to the Greek Theater in LA one night and I attended. And I was knocked off my feet. Over the next few years, I went to see quite a few Furthur shows. This felt, in many ways to me, like where the Grateful Dead themselves might have taken the music if Garcia’s health hadn’t diminished. In truth, pre-Furthur, I wasn’t sure if the remaining members were even still capable of playing tight music any longer. I had gotten so used to them being sloppy over the years that I eternally mourned the more connected band I once embraced. Understand, the Grateful Dead always had off nights, downright train wrecks once in a while, and the sheer nature of improvisation meant that not everything would be pristine. Far from it. That was part of the very life’s breath of the band and their music. But for a time there, the musical disconnect seemed bottomless to me, like something lost forever.
It wasn’t until Furthur that I realized that both Bobby and Phil still had it. In my opinion, Furthur soared. They still weren’t the Grateful Dead. But they seemed to be taking that music and allowing it to have a new life of its own. There was a magic combination happening with those musicians. Many of us saw it, felt it. This was perhaps the first time I’d seen the music playing the band again, as opposed to the band desperately trying to recapture something lost.
I was and remain very happy and honored to have shared in that experience.
Furthur eventually disbanded. That was sad, but we all knew that we’d been given a small taste again of something that hovers in the air, elusive but always present.
When the Grateful Dead’s “core four” remaining members announced that they were reuniting for a 50th anniversary celebration, I was certainly curious. Apprehensive, but hopeful.
When it was announced that they’d be playing three stadium shows in Chicago, I knew I would not be there. The best Grateful Dead experiences for me have never been in stadiums. Not that there hadn’t been some good stadium shows over the years, but those venues were far too reminiscent of the declining years of the Grateful Dead for me, the bloated showmanship and nostalgia that tried to fill in the gaping holes left by the ever-failing music. Yes, if Jerry were to return from the grave and play three stadium shows, I would be there. But without him, this scene felt far too big for me, far too commercial. It felt more like a potential celebration of the years I did not miss, the period in Grateful Dead history that left me yearning and a little sad.
When they decided that Phish frontman Trey Anastasio was to step in as the lead guitarist, I was even less interested. Not because I don’t think Trey capable or talented, but simply because, try as I might, I was never able to connect with Phish or Trey. I admired them greatly, mind you. I was just never moved.
When the added Santa Clara shows were announced and my cousin got me tickets (a different cousin, believe it or not), it seemed more realistic to attend since I could drive there. I accepted the invitation but was, in truth, more exited to see old friends and family than I was to see these guys perform in a stadium.
As it turned out, my beloved dog’s failing health demanded that I stay home. He’s been my best friend of 12 years. I wasn’t going to leave his side. Not for anything. The shows would have to take place without me. I allowed myself to be excited about watching them at home.
So now we’ve come full circle. My friends and I watched that first night with mouths agape. Despite an incredible set list, the musicianship was far too reminiscent of the Grateful Dead in their final days. The soul was missing, it felt directionless and awkward, struggling. I believe with all my heart that being there dramatically altered and improved how that music was received. But from my perspective, it was very difficult to watch. It was impossible to celebrate. My friends who came over that night, years-long devoted DeadHeads themselves, left early, disappointed, sad.
The following night didn’t prove much better musically. This felt very much like a band that was nowhere near ready to be on stage in front of an audience. For what it’s worth, I still don’t think Trey was the right choice, Not because he’s not talented, but because he wasn’t well-versed enough in playing this music to be able to come in with very little rehearsal and be part of a tight, connected band. It was an impossible task that no musician in his shoes could have pulled off. So yes, I mourn the choice because there were so many wonderful musicians out there who were already vested in this style of music, these particular songs, even playing with these particular guys. Not just Kadlecik, mind you, but many others. Some sounded a lot like Jerry, some not at all. But they had both the chops and had put in the time to be able to step up on short notice.
I long ago gave up trying to recapture Jerry. I have the recordings for whenever I need that (which is often). But just hearing the old songs was never enough for me. I was also looking for something that the Grateful Dead had introduced me to. Transcendence through music. This was not something they themselves invented, but more something they tapped into and, at times, it seemed they were as awe-struck and surprised by it as we were. It’s a special combination of musicians coming together that allows this to happen. A connectivity, an understanding, a short-hand, an open and willing vulnerability. And just because they got together didn’t mean the magic was gonna happen. Other factors played into it and it’s one of the reasons so many of us followed this band around hoping to be present at the shows when this kind of energy was manifested.
But the individual listener also plays a huge part. I’ve loved shows others were disappointed by and vice versa. There is a huge part of this experience that is quite simply subjective.
As for the combination of musicians that played Fare Thee Well, my understanding is that they had very little rehearsal –if any– as a whole band. One or two musicians here, two or three there… There was very little opportunity to come together musically beyond sheer desire and will. Why this is, I don’t know. Busy schedules, laziness, over-confidence or just the last-minute nature of the whole affair. Whatever it was, I have no doubt that the best of intentions were present. I know Trey put in some serious rehearsal hours trying to get this down and to become more fluid playing this music.
I also know that many who love Trey see him as doing no wrong. I’ve read a lot of comments about “Trey saving the day” at these shows. Particularly in regards to Santa Clara. That wasn’t my experience at all. I thought Trey was quite reserved in Santa Clara and the result for me was a lack of presence in the lead guitar slot. But no one was “on” for me those nights. And as much as I love the Dead, I am clearly not someone for whom they can do no wrong. I’m a critical listener. I’d prefer to be satisfied and excited, but if I’m not, I’ll say so. As I am here.
That said, I’d like to come to Bobby’s defense for a quick moment… There’s been a lot of talk, particularly among Phish fans, about Bobby trying to stop Trey’s jam during Hell In A Bucket. Bobby has always — ALWAYS — been in charge of when the jams in his songs ended. Now he and Jerry would miss each other’s cues once in a while, but the idea was that Bobby was the engineer of his own songs. While I agree that the Bucket jam was more exciting given a little room to breathe, I don’t think it’s quite fair to accuse Bobby of trying to “control” things in an unusual or selfish way. That said, if he was, in fact, being a tad more aggressive than usual (and I don’t know that he was), the band had definitely been struggling by that point in the show and it felt to me like someone desperately needed to try and steer that ship away from the jagged rocks it had been smashing up against.
Onto Chicago… My friends that had been with me for the Santa Clara shows were now flying out to the final three shows, a bit reluctant, but hopeful and committed to having fun even if the music never reached the heights we all hoped it might. .
And then it happened. That first night in Chicago seemed like a completely different band. Trey was more front and center, the band energized, shockingly tight. Wow! This was something to celebrate. I had some new music to listen to and be excited about, and my friends and family members present were getting something special. In some ways, I felt like I could proudly share this music with others who had never really connected with the Grateful Dead and always thought of them as a tired, sloppy band that noodled endlessly and harmonized like dying cattle (yes, that was said to me once). They clearly didn’t know the Grateful Dead I knew. But on this night, Trey was able to give us a real taste of what he was capable of, of what this music with these guys could sound like with Trey on lead. Wonderful moments and, for me, surprising moments. After Santa Clara, I had prepared myself for the worst so Chicago had suddenly become a very welcome treat.
While I maintain that the singing itself still suffered considerably, the musicianship had taken a very welcome if not unexpectedly positive turn. I rejoiced and looked forward to writing a new blog post celebrating the Chicago shows.
The second night also proved energized and joyous. Particularly the first set, in my opinion. By the second set, things started to get a little wonky again, but the band had already proven its worth and even the Grateful Dead at their peak couldn’t deliver the goods every night, all night. And again, it was subjective. What felt a bit like struggling to me would absolutely feel beautiful and glorious to someone else really keyed into what the band was offering.
The third and final night felt more like a return to Santa Clara for me. The band came out of the gate strong with an energized China Cat Sunflower-> I Know You Rider. Then an unexpected first set Estimated. But somewhere during the Estimated jam, the energy started to wane. As the night progressed, Trey started to seem as if he was getting a bit lost, miscues abounded, the music started to sound muddled again, disconnected. Regardless, the energy of the fans and the event carried the experience through. My friends that had been with me on that first night of Santa Clara raved about the energy of the place, the incredible vibe. But on that final night in Chicago, they were frustrated by the music that was taking place. As is the way with such things, others raved and rejoiced and embraced the music as glorious.
I was at home watching and hoping that the band would find its groove again. But it didn’t happen for me. Beloved songs like Terrapin Station and Unbroken Chain never attained that level of connectivity, the band seemed to be struggling again. I also thought the setlist was rather unremarkable for what was being billed as the final Grateful Dead concert. But hell, these guys have always played what they wanted to play when they wanted to play it. They seemed to make it their mission not to pander to the audience and it was one of the things I loved about them, even when it resulted in a show that was less thrilling for me perhaps than for someone else. I certainly couldn’t fault them now for sticking to their guns.
Some of my friends left that final show feeling confused, let down, even a little resentful. Other friends, however, raved about the show, the energy, even the musicianship. For myself, as a couch spectator, the last night was a disappointment. Try as I might, I became less and less connected to the music that was being made. Part of the difficulty for me, aside from watching the musicians stumble more and more as they tried to navigate their way through the evening’s set list, was hearing Phil Lesh sing so many soulful Garcia tunes. I hate saying that as it’s a mixed bag for me. Phil is 75 and has earned the right to sing whatever songs he damn well pleases. And he clearly enjoyed doing it and that makes me very happy indeed. Watching him grin ear to ear is one of life’s true pleasures. But Phil’s voice is — how shall I say this — very particular. And while it certainly serves specific songs and various harmonies, I’ve never thought Phil could capture the grace and soulfulness of many of the Garcia songs he chose to sing. Mountains of The Moon, Terrapin Station, Eyes of the World… Again, I get that Phil isn’t trying to be Jerry, but instead bringing his own style and flavor to the songs. But sometimes for me, from a purely vocal perspective, Phil’s voice didn’t always serve the music and would make it that much more difficult for me to connect. I wished in those moments that those songs had been given over to Trey or Bruce Hornsby, singers I thought could take the songs to a deeper place.
Truth be told, one of the biggest disappointments for me was that these shows were being billed as the final Grateful Dead concerts. You see, initially they weren’t. On the Late Late Show with guest host John Mayer months before these gigs, Bobby stated, “I think the Grateful Dead, you can’t [use that name] when half of those guys are pushing up daisies. You can’t call it that.” And I vehemently agree. Perhaps I would have found those rough musical moments less disappointing had the media and fans not embraced this as the final Grateful Dead concerts. For me, they weren’t. That already took place 20 years before. And despite the pall that draped itself over that final show lo those many years ago, no matter what took place here, this wasn’t a chapter that could suddenly be tacked on to reimagine or reinvent the “final show.” For me personally, this just isn’t the Grateful Dead, but a celebration of Grateful Dead. To my mind, there’s a big difference, though I have been criticized by some friends for making this distinction.
Bill Kreutzmann was quoted recently as stating, “We’re not a cover band. We are the band.” I so wanted that to be true. But for me personally, the Grateful Dead’s music has often been better served post-Garcia by a handful of those cover bands. Not always and certainly not all. Not by a long shot. But a few of those bands felt more committed to the experience. And certainly more prepared to attempt it, ballsy as it is. Had this Fare Thee Well lineup put in the time to really come together as a band, to sow the seeds of musical and personal interconnectivity, then yes, they might have achieved something truly remarkable that no cover band could touch.
So how will these shows be remembered? Well, as I mentioned before, sometimes I’m the one late to the game. For example, it took me many years to appreciate and discover the music the Grateful Dead made in the Spring of 1990. I had written off a bulk of the music made during that final decade. It wasn’t until the two box sets were released that I really discovered the actual music that was made there at that time. I even learned to appreciate songs that had otherwise evaded me over the years (Corinna, Victim or the Crime…). Hell, I was one of the people who, years earlier, had rejected songs like Shakedown Street and the Dead’s mid-70’s rendition of Dancing in the Streets as “disco-Dead,” as many still refer to them. Those songs eventually became among my all-time favorites.
Most of the best art in my opinion deserves and demands at least a second viewing, if not three or four or more. Especially when it covers unexplored ground. So I will revisit these Fare Thee Well shows and see how time and familiarity may shift my perspective on them.
In the end, I had friends who returned from Chicago after that final show feeling like they never wanted to see Phil and Bobby perform again. How sad. How unfortunate. How unnecessary. But I understand it. I still want to see them perform. But not in stadiums. And not under the misleading moniker of the Grateful Dead. And not without enough rehearsal. Other friends walked away satiated and fulfilled and I’m tremendously happy that was a real experience, too.
And I will continue to celebrate that moment in time on July 3rd, 2015 when this band seemed to find itself for a moment and allow us a glimpse into something a touch more worthy of the Grateful Dead title (or at least a Grateful Dead celebration). And I look forward with immense anticipation to the 30 Trips Around The Sun box set coming out in September (thank you, Dianne and Robert!!!!). That will be my personal way of celebrating the Grateful Dead on this, the 50th year since they came together and forever changed the world.