Monday, July 6, 2015

The Last Grateful Dead Show

When I started to fool around with this blog, I said I would reflect occasionally on cultural happenings. That hasn't occurred, except as areas of politics and culture have overlapped. It is impossible, however, to not mark the final Grateful Dead concert without some reflection. It is weird, I guess, that like Ann Coulter, I'm kind of a freak because I'm a tie dyed Dead fan with die hard conservative politics.

I do not know - or more accurately cannot remember - how many Dead shows I have seen. It was surely more than all the other concerts I saw in total, and I saw many concerts. I saw my first concert at Princeton University without really knowing much about the band. According to the Dead's own website the concert would have taken place in April, 1971. But that doesn't make chronological sense to me. I had gotten into Workingman's Dead and American Beauty which came out in 1970, on the heels of the seminal Crosby, Stills and Nash album that was released in 1969. So, I think I would have been more familiar with their catalogue than I remember being (and I was not using anything mind altering) that night in the gym at Princeton. I remember being unbelievably bored during Pigpen's songs, couldn't figure out what they were doing during their improvisational jams, heard "Morning Dew" for the first time and found it transcendent. According to the Dead's website that is the only concert to have taken place at Princeton (which I also think is not accurate), so who am I to argue?

I accidentally attended the final show of the now-famous Europe '72 tour at the Lyceum in London. I doubt I had seen a show between Princeton and this one because I was still not into the band in a dedicated way. A friend and I also saw The Beach Boys without Brian Wilson at Royal Festival Hall. Tickets to The Lyceum show were readily available and I remember two things I had not experienced before at any American venue: there were bars serving beer and the floor of the theater had no seats. It was a wide open area where people danced, milled around and would wander to the front of the stage and back. There were seats upstairs, as I recall. Since it was the last night of the Euopean tour, the New Riders (who opened) gave away these circular cardboard spinners with their distinctive logo, and "One More Saturday Night" ended the show and tour with balloons and confetti, and I was hooked.

I saw the band all over the East Coast over the next few years. Capitol Theater in Passaic, the Beacon, Glens Falls, Philly, Hartford, New Haven, Madison Square Garden, Uniondale. One of the best shows I ever saw was in Englishtown in 1977. Bobby was recovering from a broken leg (I think), and they had taken a big break before this show. There were 100,000 people at this show (I tried to avoid these "festival" environments at all costs, but this was very close to where I was living), and it was astounding as the band ripped into "Promised Land" and Bobby messed up the lyrics to the first song. I listen to that Dick's Picks today and still believe I had seen the band on one of their best days. Jerry's leads were crisp, original, virtuous and he didn't seem to want to let any song end without ripping off some memorable fill that would stand the test of time.

I saw my one and only New Year's Eve show in Oakland in 1979. They played the final "Sunshine Daydream" that night, and while they played 3 sets as was their continuing custom of New Year's Eve, I knew what I had grown to love was over. Keith and Donna had left the band, and I was unimpressed with the Brent Myland addition. Keith's primarily acoustic piano fill was way more to my liking, and while I often cringed at Donna Jean's harmonies, Brent's electronic keyboards overwhelmed me and his vocals lacked any sense of subtlety.

I saw the band again in my new home of Austin, TX on my birthday in 1983. Honestly, it was hard to watch; I found the sets truncated and passionless, like they couldn't wait to get out of there. I found my way to a Madison Square Garden show in September 1987 when I found myself in New York on business. I walked from my hotel to the Garden and went to the show by myself. I was a complete
fish out of water and so was the band. Bobby played an awful slide on "Little Red Rooster" that I
couldn't wait to end. They did play "High Time" and "Crazy Fingers", two great songs which I had
not heard live in years. But those pleasures were unfortunate exceptions.

My last show was also another fortuitous  accident. I was at Spanish Bay outside Carmel at an event for Showtime Networks. Two friends of mine who worked there, Scott Kurnit and Tony Cox, told me they were driving to Shoreline Amphitheater to drop a check off to the band because (in typical Dead fashion) they were doing a pay per view telecast that night. I begged them to go, so off we went. I cannot determine from the Dead show archive exactly which show this was. I went backstage, we dropped the check off to the band's attorney, and Jerry was sitting at a round metal table, laughing and eating. I did not want to disturb him, but I knew with certainty this was a singular moment. I went over, introduced myself and departed quietly. He was courteous and returned the greeting. Later, I met Bobby and had my photo taken with him, Scott and Tony.

During the show, I was able to wander around backstage, but the first row at Shoreline was
unoccupied - perhaps it was needed for the TV cameras and would have obstructed some very expensive seats. Jerry was obviously doing well; I remember him sharing a joke with someone backstage and he seemed totally at ease. I wandered into the front row by myself (I was clearly more interested in the music than Scott or Tony) and found a seat directly in front of Jerry. It was a beautiful early evening, the seats were full and people on blankets peppered the hillside. Shoreline seemed weird to me - it felt like an industrially orchestrated amphitheater in a Silicon Valley office park. Whatever. That night - I swear - as I sat alone in that front row - Garcia was looking at me as he played and I just forgot about those years and those shows where they had lost me for a while.

I watched a terrible YouTube video of the first night in Chicago last night. It was "Franklin's Tower" and Trey Anastasio was having so much fun playing that song and it just sounded so good to me. I had seen a video of Trey playing with Phil in 2006, and the video starts with Trey in the middle of
"St. Stephen's" - he is looking at the crowd, never needing to glance at his fret board, and just ripping off these riffs that sound only like Trey. No one - absolutely no one - was better suited to help take
this band out for its final encore than this guy whose tireless devotion to playing requires him to be
doing something even when Phish is not. Love that band or hate it, it does not exist without the Grateful Dead and now, it is hard to imagine, that Trey does not pull something out of the extensive Dead catalogue he learned for the tour. Like Jerry, he eschews the trappings of fame and fashion, and he plays with Phish, his own band, Phil Lesh, Carlos Santana - his playing is impossible to fit into some tight genre defined by some Sirius/XM channel. It is impossible to not compare him with Jerry who, for example, made bluegrass cool.

Bluegrass has an authenticity that Jerry loved, that influenced the Dead's music, that continues to thrive. There was nothing that came close to the improvisational nature of the Grateful Dead. Phish and many others continue to keep that tradition alive and music has been forever changed. I loved being a part of it even at the margins.

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