:: The Dead ::
:: Pepsi Center :: May 7, 2009 ::
By Ryan Lappi
Photos by Soren McCarty/ http://www.sorenmccartyphotography.com
It’s a hand-me-down
the thoughts are broken.
Perhaps they’re better
If there’s a lesson to learn from the Grateful Dead, it’s to listen to the possibilities that are waiting to be discovered in every moment. It’s a motto inherent in their relentless search for the weird, in the structure and composition of their songs, and it is an essential ingredient to the musical conversation that has now spanned over 44 years.
While most bands that have survived so long have resorted to wearing the polka-dotted bikini of nostalgia, The Dead (as they are now called, absent of the “Grateful” Jerry Garcia) continues to attract the restless and often insatiable hordes that crave the adventure and the spirit of the former band. The Dead is nostalgic in the same sense that a 44 year old bottle of wine is nostalgic. Yes, they are old, dusty, and their product was packaged a long time ago. They have been sitting on the shelf for far too long (five years since we last checked), and their label hasn’t changed all that much.
But like any bottle of wine, no Dead concert is ever the same, and very few are “just exactly perfect.” Both can be wildly inconsistent, some elements in the mix overpowering others, occasionally leaving a taste that can be too bitter or acidic. But what’s really important is how all those old elements react when the bottle is uncorked, how the ancient terroir mingles with the purifying air of the present, how something altogether new is created as old and new worlds instantly merge, offering nothing less than the potential for transcendence.
I don’t know,
don’t really care,
let there be songs
to fill the air…
If the newly animated Dead’s May 7 performance at Denver’s Pepsi Center has proven anything, it’s that the past can remain a dynamic, vital force when it’s given time to breathe. A five year hiatus has certainly given the individual band members ample time to reflect, as well as nurture their idiosyncratic styles. In fact, The Dead seemed eager to add some new flourish to just about every chapter of their vast repertoire, now totaling around 120 different songs on their 23 show tour. For some fans, this has led to a slightly anachronistic, if not vertiginous, feeling. For others, it’s time travel at its finest.
Either way, it’s an enormous feat for any band, let alone a group known for being so, well, spacey.
But for this group, space is the key. With Warren Haynes stepping in to the role of lead guitar, the newest incarnation of the Dead has been whittled down to a “lean” six members (Jeff Chimenti returns on keys), offering more room, less clutter, and an evocative, familiar presence to the music. Yet it’s a familiarity that comes less from imitation. Haynes, in particular, seems to focus on his individual character and deep knowledge of American roots music, emulating Jerry in approach rather than technique, evoking a similar sense of place while sounding altogether different. While he is less buoyant and abstract than Garcia (the band, in exchange, has become noticeably weirder), he can certainly dig his feet in the soil, a solid anchor for a band that often finds delight in drifting out to sea. And unlike Garcia, he seems eager to tackle the staggering catalogue of songs, which, aside from the sheer number, also includes many of the more intricate compositions the Grateful Dead often avoided.
There is a road
no simple highway
between the dawn
and the dark of night
After paying $41 at the box office for a last minute ticket, I found a seat roughly 15 rows behind the stage, lending a perfect “band’s-eye-view” of the audience, a remarkable sight considering the palpable energy and enthusiasm being sent by the crowd. Interesting enough, it also allowed me to see the band at work within this spectacular cauldron of tripped out energy, the drummers behind their kits and the sprawling percussion “beast,” the teleprompters picking up where the brain cells left off, and even the lights reflecting off of the expanding horizons of Bob Weir’s bald spot. Yet whatever is lost in nature’s unwelcome intrusion into physical appearances and mental faculties was made up by the emotional impact of these ephemeral experiences, expressed through an enthusiastic outpouring of love, which is to say “yes, we’re still here.”
Apparently the band got the message. The opening “Feel Like a Stranger” was hot right out of the gate, perhaps inspired by Weir’s unabashed utilization of his mid-80’s era pink guitar, harnessed by a pink zebra striped guitar strap. At 62, donning a full beard and mustache, he certainly looked like a stranger, but he sounded oddly familiar recalling the disco infused days of his swinging bachelorhood. In fact, with the combination of the aforementioned pink guitar, Warren’s spot on Jerry effects, and Jeff Chimenti’s spacey keys, Bobby didn’t have to say anything. This was going to be a “long, long, crazy, crazy, night.”
The band barely missed a beat before going in to the classic “Casey Jones,” the first Garcia song of the night. Weir and Haynes split the vocals, a diplomatic if not disjointed approach that has high “train wreck” potential, but also helps split the lyrical load. This version, along with the “Loser” that followed, was executed powerfully, with Haynes offering solid contributions that offset Weir’s Dylan-esque vocal contortions. The “Easy Wind” that followed solidified the feelings that this band has a command of the classics, the country and blues that formed the backbone of the Grateful Dead’s most prolific years. Still, this version of “Easy Wind” had a new feel to it, a new groove and some powerful jamming that highlighted Haynes’ southern-fried roots.
The more contemplative, lilting “Crazy Fingers” was the perfect complement to the driving energy of the previous songs, though the vocals, again split by Weir and Haynes, left much to be desired. Both sang poorly, reading the lyrics off of the teleprompter rather than singing with the passion of Garcia. The outro jam, more in tune with the early 1975 versions rather than the mystical Spanish style jam of the later Grateful Dead years, was powerful, with Haynes again utilizing his diverse palette of effects, which brought the song back to the present moment, creating a beautiful, colorful atmosphere in the arena before petering out with a clumsy segue into “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance. The combo was perhaps the most authentic “Grateful Dead” moment of the evening, again returning to the 1979 era that started the set, bringing out the best in Weir. He sung the songs with passion and vigor, capping off an excellent set of music.
Would you hear my voice
come through the music?
Would you hold it near
as it were your own?
After a thirty minute set break, the band came out with their acoustic instruments (except for Phil, who couldn’t seem to put down his new Ritter bass, which, with its glowing L.E.D. fret dots, appears to have come out of a science fiction movie) for a short set of laid back numbers: “Deep Elem Blues,” “Me and My Uncle,” a very rare “Whiskey in the Jar,” and an inspired yet botched version of “The Weight.” It’s always a treat when the Dead play acoustic, as it highlights their conceptual abilities freed from sometimes deceptive nature of sound effects and “ear candy.” It’s a true test of one’s musical abilities, and Haynes, in particular, rose to the occasion, showing off his soulful, acoustic prowess. And the crowd was happy to sing along, converting the Pepsi Center into a 15,000 person barroom.
At this point it should be mentioned that the crowd was indeed a seventh member of the band. Just about every lyric sung that night was enveloped by the warm embrace of the masses. They kept the singers on pace, creating an organic “auto correct” system for the vocalists when they sang outside of their ideal range. And even when the band added their own vocal stylizations, the crowd kept true to the songs in their original form. This addition lent the tunes the sentiment that was lacking without the Dead’s fallen leader, lifting his aging brothers from the ground, forming a kind of communion between the past and present, and somewhere in that ether where the music and the crowd met in unison , Garcia seemed to be peeking in.
If you should stand
then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way
I would take you home
Or maybe it was all of us peeking outward. It is difficult to imagine going from a laid back, song-oriented acoustic set to the outer dimensions of the universe, but as most of the band left the stage, some strange sounds began to emanate from the back of the percussion set up, “mission control” for these psychedelic travelers. It began with a big swooshing sound, almost like the distant crashing of waves, except these waves came from the heavens. As percussionist Mickey Hart explains on his “Touring the Universe of Sound” website, these are sounds of just a few of the millions of celestial events that occur in our solar system and beyond. Silenced by the vacuum of space, they are nevertheless vibrating all around us, and, when filtered through the medium of a radio telescope, they do indeed create breathtaking sounds, and really trippy ones at that.
Ever the pranksters, the band has utilized these phenomena for their own musical purposes, as a backdrop for the free improvisational conversation that has developed over the last thirty years, simply titled “Space.” I will refrain from describing what sort of musical shenanigans occurred in that playful piece – I wouldn’t want to scare the kiddies – but, after about ten minutes of sound-without-gravity, I realized that the venue itself began to take on the uncanny appearance of a U.F.O, a giant Gravitron that was not spinning, not unless you count the music and the people that it housed. After about fifteen minutes, though, the music again began to take form, this time in a melody familiar to deadheads and non-deadheads alike – the “happy birthday” song, dedicated to drummer #1, Billy Kreutzmann.
As the band played the first notes to “Ramble on Rose,” I knew that all my preconceived notions of how the second set should be constructed had to be thrown out the window. As weird as it was to go from an acoustic mini-set to deep space to a classic Americana song usually reserved for the first set, it was liberating to know that this band was not intent on doing everything the old way. And as I warmed up to the notion I realized that I had found the aroma of this particular bottle of wine, how the elements fit in to this peculiar and precarious American cultural landscape we now inhabit, a living history in the throes of reinvention. Perhaps that is why I became overwhelmed with emotion for the first time that evening, as I heard a verse that had traveled through my ears a thousands times before, yet had failed to ever make a pit stop – “Goodbye mama and papa / Goodbye Jack and Jill / The grass ain’t greener / the wine ain’t sweeter / either side of the hill.”
Just as the sing-a-long had ended, the band was back to business. The pounding drum beat leading into “King Solomon’s Marbles” added another twist in the mix, and as they tore into the song, they proved that they had really been practicing. By Grateful Dead standards, this was the closest thing to Progressive Rock that was ever attempted. Though dormant for over thirty years, it emerged from hibernation with new life, pushed forward by the rolling thunder of the rhythm section. The intricate construction gave way to the second experimental section of the evening, which I will label as “Drums 2.0.” In actuality, this particular piece was modeled around a composition from Mickey Hart’s Global Drum Project album called “Funky Zena.” Contemplative and mystical, the ascending and descending xylophone melody created a peaceful space that was the perfect springboard to “China Doll,” a break out on this tour, and perhaps the most exquisite song of the evening – stark, pensive, and haunting – and a perfect fit for Warren Haynes.
The last two songs of the set, “Cumberland Blues” and “Not Fade Away,” were played so well that it was unfortunate the band had to stop. “Cumberland Blues,” another song traditionally allotted to the first set, was played in second set terms, with high energy yet a subtle experimental flair, as the band stretched out the jam and explored the song inside and out while maintaining its driving rhythm. “Not Fade Away” proved how far the group mind had developed over the course of the tour. The music played the band and a lyrical thread developed as the band members completed each other’s melodies in the same way that a married couple might complete each other’s sentences (not in a cutesy way, though), developing into a rocking climax that brought thunder from the audience.
Like any good wine, the relationship of the diverse elements in a Dead show can be summed up in its finish, and in this case, the complexity of the concert merged into a ragged, slightly flawed, yet soul soothing “Ripple,” leaving a lasting tingle in my musical palette. A Dead concert, after all, has always been known as Dionysian, and more than a few of the old gods have been known to show up at their shows. Despite some of the quirks and inconsistencies, the Dead has proven that they are still worthy of great venues of their glory days, especially when they act like conduits, rather than impediments, to the great orchestra of the cosmos.