This Fourth of July weekend, the Grateful Dead is the music and mythology that I cannot shake.
I love this band to a point that feels like self-indulgence, much as, while playing live, the band could be self-indulgent with meandering and unfocused jams as they collectively felt their way through to moments of shared inspiration. But then I can say in the same breath that the band’s approach is the antithesis of self-indulgence, as a disciplined and authentic channel for a life force, both in the concise Americana format of their first sets and the dark, psychedelic explorations of their second acts.
The chance to see the Grateful Dead’s final three concerts from Soldier Field in Chicago on streaming video for free at a bar was more than I could resist. This is like the World Series for me. I watched the first show from start to finish, communing with chance friends and losing myself in the ecstasy of the electronic maelstrom. Then I paced myself the next two nights, limiting myself to first sets to maintain some semblance of familial obligation while also meeting professional responsibilities.
Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand/ Everybody’s playing in the heart of gold band, heart of gold band.
It was never so much about the scene at the concerts for me as the songs and what each member of the band invested in them to make a whole greater than the sum of each individual contribution. By the time I was old enough to go out without adult chaperones I had embraced the dissonance and angst of the punk era as a rebuttal against ’60s idealism. I had to reject the music of my parents’ generation to carve out my own identity.
After all, my dad turned me on to this band by playing Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty on vinyl for me when I was 6, and he showed me a snapshot he found of Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin in the Haight-Ashbury apartment he inherited from Big Brother & the Holding Company during the Summer of Love. I went to my first Dead concert in Cincinnati at the age of 10 in 1985. “He’s Gone” from Europe ’72 was the soundtrack of my tears when my dog, Star, was hit by a car and killed.
But by the time I was old enough to cultivate my own tastes, the drug-fueled communion of the concerts struck me as an illusory copout. And yet much as I wanted to deny this band, over the years my immersion in their music has been like a rising flood.
I really love that Bob Weir, the band’s surviving guitarist, told Alec Wilkinson for a June 8 article in the New Yorker that with the Dead “the playing was done in the service of the songs.”
The quote continues: “We all inhabited the stories. If we weren’t singing, then we were telling the story with our hands. If I was singing, then I wasn’t even there. I stepped out of my body and let the character own it. There’s a lot of playing being done, but it was the drama of the event, the parade of characters that came out and told their stories, that held people’s attention.”
Weir, forever the kid in the band, has now assumed the grandfatherly gravitas of Garcia, taking lead vocals in at least two of his late bandmate’s songs during the three-night run in Chicago, including an affecting encore of “Ripple” on the first night and a creaky rendition of “Stella Blue” on July 4.
How perfect that the band opened the first night with “Box of Rain,” sung by Phil Lesh, the band’s bass player and third vocalist. Its first line is an invitation — “Look out of any window” — serving as a reminder that the Dead was more or less a band of co-equals, needing no star or frontman.
Fittingly for the holiday weekend, they followed with “Jack Straw,” a song rich in American iconography — outlaws and desperadoes, freight trains and dusty, Western towns. One of the most sublime songs in the band’s vast repertoire, it slyly slips in two verses sung by Garcia as a wry counterpoint to Weir’s rallying bravado. No one can ever fill Garcia’s shoes, but Trey Anastasio admirably stepped into the role with modesty and natural facility, playing Garcia’s lead guitar parts and singing his verses.
The band’s music is a gift to the ages; the song belongs to whoever commits to it.
Leaving Texas/ Fourth day of July/ Sun so hot, clouds so low/ The eagles fill the sky
Catch the Detroit Lightning/ Out of Santa Fe/ Great Northern out of Cheyenne/ From sea to shining sea.