Public Service announcement: For long term Deadheads, here is a quick synopsis in Deadspeak so you don’t have to read anymore: picture a museum exhibit set up and roped off to depict what a fair to middlin Bobby driven 1974 mixed with a 1995 show of the past would look like-tempos running at about 45-50 bpm for most of the tunes and a maddeningly mundane, predictable and soporific setlist. Never actually hit lightspeed once. Whatever ‘IT‘ is…..or was-it looked like ‘it’, but it wasn’t ‘it’. The bus came by and I got on; but there was no cowboy Neal at the wheel, and the bus to Never neverland? Never mind that, it doesn’t even say Furthur on the front anymore. If you thought this summer’s Trey led reunion was a bit far from the ‘real thing’, then this version is even yet further away from that. If Trey’s tour was a blurry snapshot of the Dead, Mayer’s version is more akin to someone going to a xerox machine and making copies of a copy until it blurs into a barely recognizable blotch of the original.
This summer, Deadheads got a nice but short farewell 50th anniversary treat from the band. Two shows in Santa Clara at the end of June were the precursor to the final “Fare Thee Well” three night run in Chicago for the 4th of July weekend. Trey Anastasio of Phish fame stepped into the ‘Jerry Garcia’ role for this tour, as he joined the remaining original members: Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzman. Supplemented by Jeff Chimenti on keyboards (who does a very nice fake Brent) this unit was a passably good imitation of the Dead. The 50th anniversary vibe and the limited amount of shows gave this run the air of a real Dead tour. Opening night in Santa Clara’s setlist was a wet dream for the long term Deadhead-the debut LP, Aoxomoxoa, Live Dead, Anthem of the Sun-a value pack of little heard full blown psychedelic chestnuts including the nitrous drenched Whats Become of the Baby-never before performed live. The next four shows inclined straight down successively towards an unplanned faceplant on the final night in Chicago. The Grateful Dead laid an egg to finish up their career? Not a really huge surprise-and really a fitting end for those who had witnessed disasters more than they care to remember onstage in the 80’s and 90’s. I had thought the 2009 run of the originals with Warren Haynes was far more authentic with Haynes huge guitar and gritty vocals taking some of Garcia’s songs further than Jerry had ever done himself. Still, Trey acquitted himself nicely, solid on vocals and providing an interesting study on guitar, able to hybridize his prodigious noodling skills with a more tempered ability to harness them in Garcia-like short bursts. Regardless, this was the end of the road we were told.
They lied. The money seemed too huge to ignore. Which brings us to Fall 2015 and Dead and Company. Exit Anastasio and enter John Mayer in the Jerry role. This was was a head scratcher for many. The brilliant and overly talented bassist Oteil replaced Lesh. His bass skills have been lauded for decades by musicians and fans, yet his stylings are….not really Dead-like. Despite his myriad of skills on bass, he struggled mightily to force his active playing to sound more like Phil, and only hit it a couple of times. Mayer worried me. It was with trepidation that I attended a November show to witness what a 2015 Dead show would look like.
First up, I have to address the recently increasing greed that seems to drive the once family driven Dead organization. (see comments below) Like Chicago, seats for this tour were sold behind the stage, with zero view of the action. Okay, I get Chicago, folks were flying in from all over the world. But in this run? Not exactly a friendly move. (I have never sat in my actual seat in all of my 70 or so Garcia Dead shows, but was forced to buy a seat behind the stage and moved into a nice view of the stage for this one). Still, who sells tickets BEHIND the stage? I will only say a quick online search will reveal many complaints about the prices of recent Dead CDs and vinyl ($225.00 for a six lp box set? A more recent example-the 3 lp Fillmore East lp released this week-12/12/15, hit the shelves at an lofty $119.99, or FORTY dollars per lp-most triple lps clock in at around $45 per set ) The pre-release prices in June for the box sets of the Chicago shows before they had even been played were a bit astronomical and a bit insulting-nobody even knew what was going to be played yet. The AmEx sponsorship of the Halloween shows in New York? ‘Nuff said.
A passable Cassidy opened the set hopefully until a string of “hey let’s go get a beer” songs ensued: Row Jimmy, Ramble On Rose, Big River, Peggy-O all plowed along in very similar torpor inducing tempos, much like what happened to the band in the final two tours of 1994 and 1995 when all the faster songs headed to a single shuffling tempo. The second set showed some signs of life with an Estimated Prophet and Terrapin that almost could convince you it was the Dead. Mickey single-handed tried to recreate the magical ‘space’ section (the thunder machine of Merry Prankster days is still ensconsed to shake the rafters) but leaned a bit more towards some of his world beat ethnic solo material, a nice change of pace. A couple of surprises in the one two of Dear Prudence and Get Out of My Life Woman (Allan Toussaint had passed away that day) led towards a spluttering Going Down the Road Feeling Bad and and a restrained encore of Ripple.
All Dead songs, yet not. John Mayer has to shoulder a large part of the blame. His playing is far more improvisational and fluid than many would guess, but he just wasn’t….the right choice. Too clean vocally, too clean as a guitarist, too clean in general. Look at the photo above-a jacket straight from a Prince photo shoot with….shoulder pads? Someone in the Dead wearing shoulder pads? I know this may seem like a quibbling detail, but I found it symbolic of much of the lack of thought that went into this very hurried sequel to the reunion. A perfect example was Uncle John’s Band. I had heard this song on every Dead tour from 1982-1995. Not ONCE did they play it right. Some nights they blew the chord changes, some nights they stopped dead in the middle of the song, utterly lost. Harmonies were white knuckled car crashes as the vocals of Jerry, Bob, Phil and Brent struggled mightily to find some harmonic center. Weir forgot the words to it nearly every night. Jerry would sing the wrong verse on top of Bob’s different verse. “Oh Oh all I want to know, how does the song go?” was more than a lyric in the song, it sometimes marked a moment when they’d look at each other and silently acknowledge ‘hey we really don’t know how this goes.’ It sounds stupid, but that was made the Dead such an endearing proposition, you would never know what was going to happen next–and neither did they. On this night, the well rehearsed and versatile vocals of Mayer, Oteil and Chimenti left a locked in frequency for Bob to slot himself into-it was flawlessly executed. And dammit–that’s not what is supposed to happen!
The appealing trainwreck aspect of the band is gone, and near perfectly executed covers of the Dead is what is left. Removing the distinctive bass runs of Lesh has removed a larger part of the Dead magic than they might have guessed. The game Jenga comes to mind-how many important pieces of a monolithic tower can you remove safely before the tower can no longer stand?
Things were quite different on the summer tour of 2016. Read about that here.