Full disclosure, like it’s needed. I am a Deadhead. Been one since 1971. It all began that fateful (grateful?) evening in COMO when a friend gave me a drink, took me down the basement stairs, strapped headphones on my ears, and turned on the reel to reel. Live Dead. Yep, that’s when it all began …
I was a jock. My Dad had turned me on to jazz when I was a little kid so I grew up listening to the likes of the Count, the Duke, Dizzy, Coltrane, among others. And, of course, I loved the Beatles, the Stones, and Motown. But, I had never heard the Dead before, knew just a bit about ’em, the mythology surrounding Haight Ashbury, the Acid Tests, stuff like that, but never really heard the Dead, never really listened.
Sitting in the dark that night, a few measures into Dark Star, oh, I was hearing them, I was learning how to REALLY listen … The Dead taught me that … How to REALLY LISTEN …
Fast-forward. It’s 2015. By happenstance, I happen to catch the Late Late Show, guest hosted by pop star John Mayer, featuring the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir as a guest. How cool. This should be interesting …
Despite my initial excitement, I confess my anticipation was mixed. Not so much because I have anything against John Mayer – in fact, quite the contrary, I think Mayer is an incredibly talented guitarist. And, not so much because I have an autonomic response that causes my nervous system to shudder and my skepticism to skyrocket when a famous pop musician gloms on to Grateful Dead music, ya know, ’cause it’s become so damn popular. Nope, I kept an open mind and open ears, ’cause that’s what the Dead taught me.
That night, when Mayer and Weir performed “Althea” with Bob singing the lead that Jerry used to sing with such heartfelt sweetness and soul, I admit, it was pretty damn good, especially Mayer’s playing. It was not Mayer trying to imitate Jerry’s playing at all, it had a cool twist. I liked it.
Over the course of the next two years, as Dead and Company formed and toured, I watched a few YouTube videos of their shows (performances in Boston and Chicago caught my eye) and the band seemed pretty good, though some of the songs just seemed … slower. I had friends extolling Dead and Company’s virtues and I heard a lot of positive remarks on the Sirius XM Grateful Dead channel. I became increasingly intrigued, on the one hand, but reluctant on the other. The thing that concerned me the most was not the new guys in the band – Mayer, Oteil, and Jeff were all rock solid – nope, it was the original members of the Dead, because, dagnabbit, Bobby, Bill, and Mickey were, in fact, getting older. Simply put, I was worried that their skills had withered as age has a habit of doing to us all.
Finally, in June 2019, despite my trepidation and after some arm twisting from good friends, I decided to go to a Dead and Company show at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA. As many Deadheads know, Shoreline is an outdoor venue where the Grateful Dead played many times, and I think it is fair to say that Shoreline has some of the best sound among the thousands of stages the Dead have graced. Even though it is quite big, it’s a great place to catch ’em, I surmised.
I decided to fork out $50 per day for a lawn spot, as the reserved seat prices at Shoreline were astronomical. As the June dates grew near, there were other things I worried about. I had not seen the Grateful Dead since the early 90s, and when I last went to a show I was struck with how big and unmanageable the scene had become, with too many in the audience just not emitting the authentic aura and shared positive energy I had grown to love.
I long ago lost count of how many Dead shows I’ve attended – I am guessing it is in the 100s – but that’s as close I can guesstimate. Many of those shows were in the 70s when, in my view, the Dead were at their hottest. Not that they couldn’t suck in the 70s, oh there were times they did indeed, and not that they couldn’t kick ass in the 80s, oh there were times they did indeed, but things were not the same in the 90s. It became different and not in a good way. It wasn’t just Jerry’s health, Keith’s and Brent’s passing, but perhaps most of all, it seemed to stem from the pressures of becoming SO DAMN BIG … The Dead were never about becoming big, famous, whatever. But, it happened.
So, there I am at Shoreline, June 2019. The audience is a fascinating mix of older Deadheads – yes, I swear I recognize many of them, LOL … And then, there are thousands of young … very young … kids in the audience, in their teens and twenties. These are the folks John Mayer brings to Dead and Company shows. I thought, wow, this could be cool, a whole new audience that will hear Grateful Dead music.
Meanwhile, the skeptical side of my brain kept nagging … But Geno, what if this becomes something that is really not about the music? What if the performance confirms my worst fears? What if this audience is just a bunch of sycophants and pretend Deadhead wannabees who don’t really care about … really listening? Yep, I was setting myself up for disappointment, my skepticism was taking hold.
Then, the music started. I don’t remember much of the first set. To be succinct, it was nondescript, nothing I heard in that first set moved me in any way shape or form. In fact, it was boring. A good friend of mine who was there with me described it as, “music played like paint by numbers.” Frankly, I could not wait for the set to end. I was not impressed. Shit, my fears confirmed. Yet, thousands of others in the audience either were impressed or they were just so glad to be there, they didn’t seem to care that it was less than inspiring (oh, I know, so harsh can I be!).
But, I have learned some lessons in attending all those Grateful Dead shows over the years. Being patient is one of them. Lord knows, I have been to Dead shows where I left thinking, that’s it, they are done, the magic is gone … only to be snapped back out of my senses at a subsequent show and thinking, damn, they still got it! With Dead and Company, however, I was not so sure.
Then, onto the second set and I started to notice some things. For one, Mayer and the great Dead and Co keyboardist Jeff Chimenti (pronounced keh-mentee for those who still struggle with this) seemed to take more control of the show, and this was a good thing. When they transitioned into “Morning Dew” I started to feel that bolt of shared energy down my spine, and pretty soon, dammit, tears of joy filled my eyes. I don’t remember any of the songs that followed but my feeling was, yeah, they could do it, it was really good.
I was glad I went to the Shoreline shows. I enjoyed a good part of them, though honestly, not in the sustained ecstatic way that I was often able to reach at Grateful Dead shows. Yep, Dead and Company are good, but their goodness seems more episodic and … slower … than the Grateful Dead. That’s not surprising, it’s the way it is.
With all of that said, here’s the whole for me that is probably greater than the sum of its’ parts, when it comes to my feelings about Dead and Company:
- The cost of a ticket. My goodness, $50 for the cheapest seat is just not cool. Dead and Company grossed over $40 million for their 2019 tour. I don’t begrudge them for making money, even though they don’t need it, but for chrissake, don’t charge so damn much.
- The large venues. One of the big drawbacks of continued popularity is
Dead and Company continue to play big arenas and amphitheaters. Gosh, I wish they could play small theaters like the old daze, theaters with really great sound and intimacy. Maybe that’s just not feasible anymore.
- That dang old age thing. There is no question that Bobby, Bill, and Mickey have slowed down, so much so that some of the songs the Dead used to rock out on or take to the stratosphere no longer have that feel. At times, some tunes are painfully slow. It may not just be the age thing, some of it may also reflect Mayer’s slow blues leanings, but I don’t think so. My sense is they slow down so that the three originales can keep up. I think it was Michael Jordan who once said, “It’s good to retire at the top of your game.” I can’t say that Bobby, Bill, and Mickey are at the top of their games anymore, I do believe it is time.
- On a very positive note, the members of Dead and Company do seem to like playing together, there is a real sense of shared enjoyment. I love seeing that.
- Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I love what Dead and Company have done in terms of bringing the music to a new legion of fans. That is a great thing.
That’s it for now. For all those who think I am being unfairly critical of Dead and Company, so be it. Remember, I did enjoy a lot of what I heard. And, despite their graceful (grateful) maturation, I am glad that Bobby, Billy, and Mickey are still playing. Bless their hearts, I will always love them. But, I don’t think I will go see them again. I think it’s time for them to let the new kids take over – man, would I love to see Mayer, Chimenti, and Oteil create a new band to keep moving the music forward.
But, what do I know? As the song goes, “well, I ain’t often right but I’ve never been wrong, it seldom turns out the way it does in this song … but once in awhile you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right …”
Here’s to all the great Grateful Dead music in years to come!