I finally caught up with Dead & Company live. It was at the Forum in Los Angeles for two nights closing out 2015. I’ve been watching and listening to the band’s entire tour online and have been incredibly impressed with the energy and communication happening up on that stage.
My experience of being there was pretty great, over all. AND it made me really miss Jerry Garcia. What I love about John Mayer’s contribution to this music is his profoundly contagious joy. This is a musician clearly having the time of his life and that spills out onto every member of the band and flows endlessly from there thru the audience. It’s an incredible thing to witness.
What makes the experience different for me from a Grateful Dead concert is Mayer’s lack of Garcia’s emotional depths. I don’t mean that as a slight against Mayer in any way. He is an extraordinary musician and has transformed this music into a whole new realm that is personal for him and allows the other musicians the incredible opportunity to re-explore this music in yet another context. One they are clearly relishing! And so is the audience! And so am I!
AND, at the same time, Garcia took us not only to those contagious, joyous places of sheer joy, but he also took us into those very quiet spaces, the dark spaces, the melancholy, the uncertain, the questioning, wondering, wandering, deep exploration spaces. Mayer doesn’t go there. That’s not him. At least not yet. But as Mayer said before the final night’s encore at sometime after 1 a.m., this experience has changed him forever. And I believe that. It seems clear in watching and listening to him. It will be very interesting to watch where this journey takes him.
The first night of the two nights at the Forum in Los Angeles was super fun. I was with a couple of friends. One who was a Dead Head, the other who never much cared for the Dead, but was open to having this experience. We were seated far away and that always has a very distinct impact on the music and the show in general. At least in my experience. We were pretty much eye-level with the rafters. Above the stars. The music from up there was thankfully loud and clear and, especially during the second set, was able to drown out the drunk talking and yelling of the obnoxious and wobbly ladies seated behind us. That’s something else you get up in the rafters. More audience talking. It’s easier, I guess cause the music is taking place somewhere “over there” and it’s not as strong of an all-encompassing sensory experience as being closer is.
But my non-Dead Head friend, a very smart guy and a lover of music, really seemed to like the show. More than he was expecting, I think. But he also said something I found quite interesting. He talked about how, for him, music is very personal and very internal and that this Dead & Company show felt very “external” to him. Which, at first, seemed a bit odd as my personal experience of the Grateful Dead is immensely personal and internal. More internal than almost any other music I’ve ever come in contact with. Grateful Dead took me places and internal spaces (and continues to do so via live recordings) that are as deep and profound as anything I have experienced as a human being. It is one of the most profound elements in my life that gives me faith in humanity, that leaves me in awe of our immense abilities and just how unique, confusing, and emotional our human experience is, both on an individual and a communal level. So to think of this music as more “external” seemed odd to me. And yet… I think that is part of what John Mayer brings. Unlike Trey Anastasio — who played the Fare Thee Well shows that felt quite detached and messy to me — Mayer’s qualities offer an experience I really dig, even if it isn’t the Grateful Dead experience, per se. But it is an element of it and a good element at that! But it is also a bit more “performance-based” than the Grateful Dead and noticeably less diverse. It’s not as deep a journey. At least not for me.
Many of Mayer’s licks are more classic rock and blues, whereas Garcia’s styles reached so far and wide and was so incredibly deep and profound and unlike anything else out there, that it simply took the band to places they have never been able to return to. Now understand, I’m talking about the Grateful Dead in their best moments. Anyone who followed their trajectory knows that by late 1991, the band was pretty much over. Not that there weren’t some good shows to be seen, there were, but Garcia’s mental and physical health demise had a profound effect on the band and communication between the players dropped away almost entirely. There was little-to-no joy, nothing holding the musicians or the music together beyond second-nature. No new paths were being tread, very few real musical conversations being had. A pale reflection. That was never the Grateful Dead for me. And it was somewhat painful to witness after so many years of knowing and understanding what the Grateful Dead were. They were immense. They were groundbreaking. They were true artists pushing boundaries. And we were all part of that. How lucky we were! How honored!
The second night at the Forum in Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve, was a much better, richer experience for me. My girlfriend, Emily, came along. She’s not a Dead-Head at all, though she likes a few of their songs. But concerts are not her thing and the Dead at New Year’s is an even longer night than usual. But for me, she rose to the occasion and joined me for the celebration and that made all the difference in the world. I know the music doesn’t do for her what it does for me, but having her there with me and being able to share some element of what I love so much with her was incredibly special for me. Unlike the night before, I was able to sneak us down to incredible seats just off the floor and we found ourselves surrounded by some terrific folks and the sound and view were just about perfect. What a difference that makes. SO much more immersive.
One odd thing I noticed was that on the first night, from so far away, the light show seemed too much, overkill. I felt like the light show was bigger than the music itself. It was distracting. Close up, however, the light show felt immersive and appropriate (okay, maybe a tad big, but SO much better). The large screens showing video of the band were also far less distracting close up and gave more of a sensory addition than an informational one. Which I was thankful for. I’m not a fan of the swaying, twisting, moving dutch angles and the silly video effects that constantly remind me of MTV in the early 80’s. But being close somehow minimized that annoyance for me and I was able to more or less block it out as there was so much else going on.
The setlists both nights were pretty terrific, the second night being my personal favorite. I also think they played better on night two. If I may geek out just a little more, I will say that I wish they’d replaced DEAR PRUDENCE with MORNING DEW and left out TOUCH OF GREY. That’s just a personal Dead-Head geeky thing that some will understand, others not so much. And many would disagree. I love the classic combination (like so many do) of SCARLET BEGIONIAS into FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN and have never been a fan of the SCARLET BEGONIAS into TOUCH OF GREY combo. Takes a bit of the wind out of the sales for me. Always has. I was there when the Grateful Dead first combined those two songs and I wasn’t crazy about it then. TOUCH OF GREY is also a song that forever changed the Grateful Dead and the Grateful Dead scene, so it embodies a lot of different feelings for me in what it conjures up. As a stand-alone song, it’s a fun-enough little ditty, but it is one of my least favorite Grateful Dead tunes, despite its wonderful sentiments.
Like I said, that’s all nitpicky and of very little importance. The Dead have always played what they wanted to play and that’s part of the deal. I fully accept those terms. :)
As always on New Years, midnight is always a spectacular celebratory and immensely sensory experience and this NYE was no different (see video below). A true celebration in every sense of the word. I was thrilled to be sharing that with my gal and so many other people. Like at the best Dead shows, I met and connected with some truly incredible people starting with an entire family outside waiting to get in. Parents and kids together excited and ready. They seemed like an remarkable and warm family and both Emily and I just loved their energy. The people seated around us once inside were also extremely nice and giving and I loved where we were sitting. During the second break, I went to the bathroom in the VIP Forum Club restrooms (thanks, Adam, for the wristbands!!!!!) and, quite literally at the urinal, engaged in this really terrific conversation about the Dead over the years with a guy who shared my enthusiasm and love for the Grateful Dead. Despite the potential awkwardness of peeing together, it was a terrific connection and one of the many non-musical highlights of the evening for me. It was a true Grateful Dead moment. We talked, we hugged, then went our separate ways to prepare to ring in the almost-upon-us new year.
By the end of the evening, When I asked Emily if the experience had been bearable (she feared it might not be), she proclaimed that the experience was “better than unbearable” which, coming from her, is high praise indeed. I personally, had a blast, even with that little trace of nostalgic longing and missing Jerry always present. It’s a nice combination, actually. Joyous and melancholy. I’ll take it.
Before the encore, John Mayer gave a very sincere and touching speech thanking the crowd for allowing him into their “home.” It was nice to know how much he truly “got it” and so wonderful to see people’s lives changed in profound ways due to the music and experience of the Grateful Dead. That felt like a real moment.
Anyone who’s been a Dead Head for any length of time knows that the Grateful Dead elicit many reactions from people and a lot of those reactions are negative and judgmental. I’ve been mocked a lot over the course of my life for loving the Grateful Dead. But no where more than here in Los Angeles, a town that I have never felt was particularly open-minded and oftentimes openly scoffs at anything approaching real “art-making” or “daring” of any kind. So it was nice to be in Los Angeles and surrounded by many people who weren’t there to mock, but to engage, to celebrate, to share this musical experience together.
For me, the Grateful Dead were always about the music. The community aspect was always wonderful and continues to be in many ways. But it’s the music that allows everything else to happen. My sense is that for a lot of people who joined the band late or even post-Jerry, a lot of the allure was more in the community aspects than the musical aspects. And, to some extent, that was part of what I saw as the separation between certain eras: when the “scene” overtook the actual music. So for me, those moments when the band more directly address the audience, like the first night’s LOVELIGHT when the band seems to work extra hard at audience participation, it always feels a bit forced to me, un-Grateful Dead-like. Back in the day, Pig Pen had a way of doing it that seemed to work so well because of his personal style and sensibilities. But for me, the Grateful Dead are at their best when they are riding the energy of the audience and one another as opposed to trying to control or manipulate it. That always feels like another kind of concert experience. One more appropriate to Bruce Sprinsgsteen who probably does it better than anyone else on earth. Bruce is a preacher whose words are as important as his songs. AND he does it all with a joyful and exuberant sense of having his tongue planted firmly in cheek. When the Grateful Dead or Dead & Company do it, it has a slightly insincere quality to it, more of a rock and roll pop star quality (which Mayer’s presence actually enhances). Oddly enough, while those are the moments that engage a larger portion of the audience, they’ve always been the moments that pull me out as opposed to pull me in. I want to feel what the band is feeling. Those are my favorite moments, moments of shared artistic expression flourishing. When the band steps outside itself and addresses the audience more directly, a quality is lost for me. It’s still fun, no question, but just a little more self-conscious than I like and never as daring as I know they and the music are capable.
All in all, however, hearing this music again live is such a welcome experience and hearing it articulated a bit differently is also welcome as we all know that what Garcia brought could never be replaced. Ever. It’s like the Miles Davis Quartet without Miles Davis. Still great musicians, great music, but without Miles, well… Whether it’s Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Jerry Garcia, those kinds of musical voices can never be replicated or replaced. They are too unique, too personal, too extraordinary. Once they are gone, something goes forever with them.
But I’m glad something also still remains. And I’m thrilled and honored to be an ongoing part of that.
Happy 2016, everyone.
Here’s the midnight celebration with Dead & Company: