I’m a weird sort of Grateful Dead fan. For years, I only really cared for two of their albums, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, and yet they’re two of my all time favorite records. But slowly over time, I’ve reversed my opinion about the rest of their material, and lately, I’ve been on a serious Dead kick, where everything sounds sweet to me. I’d only seen them in concert once, back in ‘95, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. So I was pretty curious to hear them again, and find out what the band, now a touch more grey and sadly minus Jerry Garcia, could do in 2009.
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And so I found myself wandering through the parking lot of Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum, to see the latest incarnation of the Dead, featuring Warren Haynes in Garcia’s place.
They announce their arrival with the anthemic “Jack Straw” (“we can share the women, we can share the wine”). Next, Bob Weir flubs a lyric in “Brown-Eyed Women,” prompting cheers from the crowd. They also cheer the song’s most resonant lines, like “looks like the old man’s getting on.”
A woman behind me says she’s gonna look up the lyrics to the opening tune on her Blackberry. “I have a ton of Grateful Dead songs on my iPod, I know them all. And I never heard that one.” “Jack Straw?” her companion asks incredulously.
Next to me, a dad who looks like a bit like Robert Redford, with a kid in glasses, who’s maybe 12, chats with the father and son in front of them, eating pizza, about all the shows they’ve taken their kids to. To the right of me, there’s a reporter from Time Out NY. We represent the “press section.” In front of me, four guys from the plumber’s union. It’s a community. But where are all the beach balls?
When you’re listening to the folk music of the Grateful Dead, you’re listening to some of the best lyrics in rock and roll. They play a strong part in the band’s tight connection with their audience which can’t be underplayed. Grateful Dead lyrics can make you feel alive. It’s why Phish, no matter how great musically, will never be the same thing. Also, the Dead’s music is American music. They’ve got one foot in traditionalism, one foot in the 1960s, and a third stuck in the cosmic ether, timelessness. For many of us they represent our favorite decade of being alive.
After “Brown-Eyed Women,” the Dead launch into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” a fitting song for their audience, and the Dead themselves. “Take what you have gathered from coincidence,” Weir advises from behind his mustache. Then Haynes leads a jammy “Easy Wind” and I’m suddenly very happy. “They’re great, they’re really great!” a woman enthuses behind me. “The world’s greatest GD tribute band is the GD in disguise,” I write in my notebook.
Haynes really nails it on the next one, the “House of the Rising Sun”-like blues number “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” and Weir brings it home in the song’s second half. The dudes in front of me leave, and what can only be described as a lesbian hobbit hippie dancer appears to fill the space, right at opening notes of “Don’t Ease Me In.” Well, at least now I’ve got an audio visual component. During this song, people start heading up front to get their boogie on. It suddenly occurs to me that it’d be hilarious at this point to shout “Jack Straw!” in between every tune.
For the second set, they break out the acoustics, which is, as historians will tell you, “the first acoustic segment since the second show of the tour in DC on 4/14/09.” They let loose a soulful, mellow “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” the second of three Dylan songs they’ll play tonight. At first I wonder why they’re doubling up on Dylan, and then Weir sings one line, to a roar, and it all makes sense… “Oh the hours I’ve spent, inside the Coliseum.”
Another thing about seeing the Dead live: it’s a real concert, because there are long instrumental stretches and you don’t know how a song will go at any given moment. I got a little sleepy during Drums/Space (must have been something in the air) but wake up in time for “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” where I realize that these are some of the best harmonies I’ve heard at a show in a long time.
The spirit of the missing Jerry is also alive in these songs, and he seems constantly referenced, gone but not forgotten. In “Looks Like Rain,” Weir sings poignantly, “It’s just I have gotten used to havin’ you around. The landscape would be empty, if you were gone,” and “I’ll still sing you love songs, written in the letters of your name.”
The band end with a high octane version of “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad,” which has even the ushers dancing in the aisle. The Dead still have it. To quote “Saint of Circumstance,” also sung tonight:
Got to be heaven, ‘cause here’s where the rainbow ends
If this ain’t the real thing, then it’s close enough to pretend.