The Dead
at the DCU Center,
Worcester, Mass.
(19 April 2009)

We always recall where we were and what we were doing when we first heard distressing news. Because I spend a lot of time in my car, it's often the dashboard radio that clues me in. On the morning of August 17, 1977, for example, I was headed to class at a college in southeastern Pennsylvania when the newscaster announced that Elvis Presley had died. On October 13, 1997, I had just pulled away from a friend's home in Columbus, Ohio, when a woman's voice told me that John Denver's plane had dropped into Monterey Bay. And on August 10, 1995, I was driving up to a bank teller's window in a Chicago suburb when I heard that Jerry Garcia was gone.

I was saddened, even though I wasn't an ardent fan. While I waited for my money and broiled in my Dodge Shadow -- for that was the year of the infamous killer heat wave -- I began to think about the one and only time I had seen Jerry and the Grateful Dead in concert, on another exceedingly hot summer day.

It was July 8, 1990, just five years earlier. Crosby Stills & Nash opened for the Grateful Dead at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. I can admit that my companion and I were in attendance solely for CS&N and not the main act. We had seen the trio several years earlier and very much enjoyed their harmonizing. (I've seen them more than a handful of times, since.) And sure, we were both casually familiar with the Dead. I owned a copy of the album Skeletons from the Closet, bought specifically for the song "Uncle John's Band." How I loved that sound! Obviously I like performances with some a cappella choruses thrown in. I was hopeful I would hear some on that day from both bands.

The concert was scheduled to start at 4 p.m. (according to the stub of my $25 ticket). Organizers must have thought that the heat of the day would have begun to dissipate by that time. Wrong! We were already sweating buckets as we wove our way through the carnival atmosphere of the parking lot surrounding the stadium. That alone was an experience. Of course, we had heard about the Deadheads, the camp followers. But the resulting extravaganza is the kind of thing you have to see for yourself to be believed. I bought a macrame choker from the woman who wove it. We could have bought much more, outside and inside the stadium. Some of it was even legal.

If we thought the macadam of the parking lot was hot, we were unprepared for the heat inside the stadium. Yee-hah! Down on the floor level, two hydrants were open on either side of the stage. People were dancing in the water spouts down there, even before the music started. Lucky them. We were trapped with tickets for seats in the upper deck. We watched with envy as others refreshed themselves below.

I don't remember what songs Crosby Stills & Nash gave us that day. I do remember being a tad disappointed in the performance. They played just one set. Maybe it didn't even include "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes." And as the final chord was struck, one of them waved off doing any more and stormed off stage, seemingly in a huff. (David? Stephen? The passage of time blurs the image.) There was no encore. Surely it must have been hot down there, too. Part of the audience was already resting in blissful shade. But the stage had been set up on the eastern inner edge of the oval, and the performers looked right into the sun. Yikes.

After a break, the Grateful Dead opened with "Touch of Grey," a song I actually knew. In an instant, the crowd came alive around us, even in the upper deck. People were singing, dancing, delighting in life. It was fun to watch. But it was also something that we were not a part of, something that was somehow beyond us. It wasn't as if we were concert neophytes, and it wasn't as if we were immune to the beat of the music or the intent of its message. It was just painfully obvious that we were not Deadheads.

Of course, others who were in attendance at Three Rivers that day have since posted the set list and impromptu reviews online. According to them, the Dead followed "Touch of Grey" with "Greatest Story Ever Told," "Jack-a-Roe," "New Minglewood Blues," "Row Jimmy," "Mama Tried," "Mexicali Blues," "Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Let It Grow." After the opening number, I recognized none of the tunes. Each one seemed to last an eternity. And in true GD fashion, no one introduced the titles or spoke to the audience between numbers. When they left the stage, my companion and I began our cautious climb down the high-pitched concrete steps. We had had enough of the sun and the music, and the guys we really wanted to see had already gone. But the Deadheads were still hanging out in and around the stadium. We assumed they had some reason to spend the night there.

Only much later did I realize that our departure was timed with the Dead's intermission , and not the end of the concert. (No wonder we were the only ones leaving.) According to the online sources, we missed the second set of "Samson & Delilah," "Eyes of the World," "Estimated Prophet," "Terrapin Station," a drum solo, "I Need a Miracle," "Wang Dang Doodle," "Black Peter," "Throwin' Stones," "Turn on Your Love Light" and an encore cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Now that last one, I would have liked to have witnessed. But at least I didn't accidentally miss "Uncle John's Band." They didn't play it that day.

The online reviewers claim the musicians were "on fire" back then, and that the 1990 Three Rivers gig was one of the best shows they'd ever attended. Alas, the only fire my companion and I experienced was the remnants of sunburn we both dealt with over the course of the following week. But at least we could always tell people that just once, we saw Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead in concert.

• • •

Fast-forward to today, 19 years later. Jerry Garcia is gone. So is Three Rivers Stadium, for that matter: imploded eight years ago and replaced by Heinz Field and PNC Park. The remaining members of the Grateful Dead now bill themselves as merely The Dead. And my companion for this concert will be one of their tie-dyed, hard-core followers, even though she was born half a generation late and until this tour had never seen them in person. She made the arrangements and I agreed to accompany her. Just to keep up, I borrowed a library copy of The Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics (Free Press, 2005) compiled and edited by Alan Trist and Deadhead librarian David Dodd. I paged through this hefty tome ahead of time, hoping it would help me identify all the songs I wouldn't recognize during the actual performance. At least, that was my intention. I also got out my vinyl Skeletons from the Closet album, plugged in the old stereo and reacquainted myself with the songs, especially "Uncle John's Band." What would be my chances of hearing it, live, this time?

• • •

We get to the DCU neighborhood early enough to eat a leisurely dinner and take a stroll down "Shakedown Street," the nearby lot taken over by Deadhead vendors. We don't buy anything, but it is fun to look. Crystals, T-shirts, anti-everything bumper stickers, incense, brownies of dubious origin. I'm wearing the old macrame choker and the only tie-dyed shirt I own, a CS&N concert tee from 2000. Still, I'm out of place here, and once again, I'm sure it's painfully obvious. After we enter the arena, a DCU usher makes small talk with us. When he learns that I'm going to write a review of the concert, he replies with wide grin and a voice revealing his Caribbean roots. "Tell me then, what can you possibly write about this group that has not already been written?" Good point. He sees the quick look of confusion on my face, then guffaws at his joke, playfully grabs my elbow and encourages me to put my own spin on my write-up of the show. That makes me feel a tiny bit better.

It may sound trite to say that a Dead performance is not a concert, it's an experience; but you can't deny that truth. Once the music starts, it's not just the notes that hit us. It's the whole spirit and energy of the place, generated in a large part by the audience: us and the people around us. The arena is filled with a sweet smoky air: a mix of pot and patchouli clouds that seem to collide, then blend into one overwhelming aroma as the evening progresses. (It would take at least a week for me not to remember it each time I took a breath. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Four of the six musicians on stage are the same ones I'd seen when I saw the group in Pittsburgh: Bob Weir (rhythm guitar and vocals), Phil Lesh (bass guitar and vocals), Mickey Hart (drums/percussion) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums/percussion). The place where Jerry would have stood among them has been deliberately left empty. Joining the core are Jeff Chimenti on keyboards and Warren Haynes on lead guitar and vocals. Haynes comes from the Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule and has much to do with the way things sound tonight. Turns out that I'd seen him perform with the Allmans a few years ago and had been awed by him even then. More on that, in a bit.

The guys open with "Here Comes Sunshine," offering a casual beginning for a crisp spring day in New England. It is followed by a cover of the old Sonny Boy Williamson blues tune, "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," to which Warren adds his own punchy pickings. He steps up to the mike to sing "Alligator," and again lays intricate guitar licks into the arrangement. He and Bob alternate vocal verses for "Deal," a shuffle I don't know but immediately like. I recognize "Hell in a Bucket" by Bob's midway repetition: "At least I'm enjoying the ride." "Cream Puff War" is next. And the first set concludes with a wonderfully fun dance tune from the 1960s: a cover of the Young Rascals' "Good Lovin'." Several of the musicians take a turn at a solo verse or two. If anyone in the crowd is still sitting down, I don't see them. "Don't go anywhere," Phil tells us, as the band leaves for intermission. This time, I obey.

I get the next 45 minutes to look around at our assorted concert-mates -- at 51, I'm probably at the upper end of the middle of the representative age range -- and to do some thinking before the band returns. My friend trots off to join the line for the women's rest room. So I'm left alone in my seat with nothing to do but think. And I realize then that prior to this evening, I had often equated Grateful Dead with Crosby Stills & Nash. Not just because I once saw them perform on the same bill, but perhaps because they both had that infamous psychedelic California influence of the 1960s. Both groups kind of straddled the line between folk and rock in a way; at least, at first. They could sing in close harmony. I knew that Jerry Garcia provided the pedal steel on "Teach Your Children." I assumed they were all friends. And I guess based on that sketchy information, I just filed them together in the same musical mailbox.

Tonight I can see that my old classification was wrong. The Dead aren't like CS&N at all. They have a sound and a style that are closer to what we know of the Allman Brothers. Even more so, now that Warren Haynes is with them, adding both his voice and his fingers on the frets. Duh! Now it all makes sense! That's why he's here. How could I have been so clueless?

As if to help me and to confirm my sudden epiphany, the Dead return with a second set that mirrors if not the Allmans, then some other accomplished bluesy, improvisational band. They begin with "Scarlet Begonias," a song that eventually segues into a total of nine other numbers. In the GD style, the music moves seamlessly from one notion to another, never quite finishing a complete thought, never quite attacking a new beginning. And it keeps the crowd guessing, listening intently, so each person can try to be the first to name the next tune and cheer wildly with recognition. It is instrumental surrealism at its best, living up to the smoky atmosphere thickening the inside of the arena. Wayne sings the lyric for "Fire on the Mountain" before Mickey and Bill pay homage to their craft with "Rhythm Devils." Their percussive extravaganza gives way to something I think sounds otherworldly, like the backdrop to an old science-fiction movie. Yes, it's called "Space." And just when my eyes are rolling back into my head, wondering when this particular weirdness will end, a familiar bass line wanders into the fray. Before we know it, we're all up and dancing to a cover of the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Who needs Mick and Keith?

After that lovely surprise, the band fades into "Born Cross-Eyed," followed by "Slipknot!" and "Let it Grow." Growing ever more confident with my conclusion about the Allman-Dead connection, I seem to hear echoes of "Revival" or "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" in the guitarmanship of "Slipknot!" I can't decide which one it is. I'm still considering the possibilities a song later when another familiar lick is woven into the mix. I cannot believe my luck. Can it really be? It is! It's "Uncle John's Band!" I turn to my friend, who's dancing a few seats away in our near-empty row, and I give her a big thumbs up. She smiles and nods. She knows that it's the only song I was hoping to hear tonight. And the guys did not disappoint me. The piece is so much richer, more intricate and (of course) longer when they do it in concert. I am happy to be here to witness it. Almost too soon, it's over. The continuous stream of musical consciousness concludes, aptly enough, with "The Wheel." "You can't let go / and you can't hold on / You can't go back / and you can't stand still / If the thunder don't get you / then the lightning will." After earning maddening applause for that 10-song marathon, the group ends the second set with "Turn on Your Love Light."

Of course, there has to be an encore. Tonight they choose to come back with their version of the classic spiritual, "Samson & Delilah." "If I had my way / If I had my way / If I had my way / I would tear this whole building down." Huh. Figuratively speaking, I think they did just that.

And now I can say I've been to two Dead concerts. Well, really, one and a half. While it was a good experience, I doubt I'll do it again. But I heartily recommend seeing the Grateful Dead or The Dead at least once in one's lifetime. Their performances represent something pure in the music world. They include no special effects, other than what the audience members themselves create. The musicians play as if they're noodling around in a practice session in someone's garage. The thousands of pairs of nearby ears are just eavesdropping in on the rehearsal. (And it's a polished rehearsal, not a working one.) Don't bother reading the myriad sociological studies that have been written on the GD culture: just GO. You'll hear good music, and you can still have a good time, even if you don't know all of the songs. Me, I'm suddenly in the mood to listen to the Allman Brothers. Where's that greatest-hits cassette I used to drive around to?

by Corinne H. Smith
9 May 2009

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