by Ryan Snyder
That didn’t take long, did it? Less than a month after pulling in a reported $52 million from the gate alone at this summer’s Fare Thee Well — the Dead’s final five performances, featuring Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, plus high-profile sidemen — it turned out the Dead isn’t something that can be so easily turned off. The Dead were supposed to be saying farewell and if this was to be it for the boys, everyone who wanted it could have their fill one last time. Fare Thee Well seemed like an apt name at the time for the so-called retirement concerts of the four core members of the Grateful Dead from cooperative performances, but hindsight says that it may have simply contained one of the most effective marketing campaigns in history, a gambit of the highest order on the chronic FOMO of its cultish fanbase.
It was hard not to see a related banner ad, TV buy or social-media insert for it leading up to Fare Thee Well, a name that otherwise carried a real sense of finality to the 50 years of the Grateful Dead story, and this was with actual tickets long-since sold out. Promotion for Levi Stadium and Soldier Field went beyond the goal of selling admissions, however. Billboard reported that more than 400,000 pay-per-view subscriptions were purchased at $79.95 apiece, a record for a concert event, as well as a slew of licensing activations by venues across the country hosting viewing parties, each propelled by their own promo and in many cases, a scaled recreation of the parking lot scene that complements performances by practically any Dead-adjacent outfit.
Fairly predictably, the band was back on the road just a few months later, minus bassist Phil Lesh so not everyone felt scammed, and with a restocked arsenal of talented sidemen that included pop wunderkind-turned-legit guitar heavyweight John Mayer on lead. As Dead & Company, its appellation remained (cementing its corporate personhood just a little more with that one), just as it had during the 2000s when the core band was touring with Warren Haynes or Jimmy Herring, as did the Steal Your Face staging accouterment and of course, the songs. The daylong parking lot party and its venerated, quasi-lawless Shakedown Street sideshow remained intact. Most importantly, so did that frothy, unquantifiable matter that glues it all together known as “the vibe.” But as the Dead trade in their vast stores of cultural capital for actual capital, the vibe itself has become more palpably monetized by the scene that created it.
On the fan side, openness and unqualified affability permeated Dead & Company’s Greensboro Coliseum stop on Nov. 14, just as it did the Dead’s Greensboro stop in 2009 and their Raleigh show in 2004, the tenor of each show’s audiences unaffected by slight variances in personnel. An informal polling of many who attended Saturday disclosed that what drew many to Dead & Company — the vibe — is some function of the community, the band and its music, plus the feeling of emancipation that occurs when that community convenes. On Nov. 14, despite the occasional hippie creepiness (the Peacemaker cult was present; don’t eat the cookies!), it manifested as grills being fired up next to lawn chairs and coolers of beer, guitar picking and hand-drumming, and two busy lanes of Shakedown Street vendors with an open-air Hamsterdam of sorts brazenly integrated within.
There was no accounting for those that just paid $20 for a spot in the lot, but they were in multitudes. For a day of drinking and premium people-watching, it was indeed a small price to pay. NC jam band Spongecake & the Fluff Ramblers, who have played a few shows locally in the recent past, held down the end of Shakedown nearest to the lot, while a crew of nitrous peddlers pumped balloons from an industrial-grade tank at the other end nearest the venue. In between, there were just-okay burgers, quesadillas, pizza and noodles for sale at marginally inflated food-truck prices. Odd, considering each vendor was supplementing their income by pouring liquor drinks and selling untaxed beers at ABC-licensed prices. You also could have tried the wooks with the less professional operations scattered about, i.e. dragging wheeled coolers around, but the offer of 2/$8 Sierra Nevadas was the same anywhere you went. The old Shakedown Street model was selling just what was needed to get to the next show; in this new era of Shakedown, cartel rules are in effect.
Five Things Overheard on Shakedown Street
- “Yeah, you’re Mike, right? I think we did some whip-its together a few years back.”
Plot twist: It was actually 20 minutes ago.
- “Ba-da-dum-bum-BUM, Ba-da-dum-bum-BUM.”
Nothing compels a group of strangers to stand around and sip beer together like two people enthusiastically beating out basic patterns on bongos.
- “Hey man, can he have $100?”
He needs it to pay for a lawyer for his bum.
- “Right there, that loudmouth, that’s the guy that’s the narc!”
If there’s anything narcs are notorious for, it’s trumpeting their narc-iness openly. If there’s another thing narcs are notorious for, it’s that you have to be extremely high to spot them.
Oooooooh, I think I hear a snake!
The Grateful Dead faithful as a whole, through all the band’s various approximations over the post-Jerry years, have been fortified against veritable eons of extra-musical evolution by collectively pursuing the vibe only native to this and select other musical communities. When there are sea changes in it — a newly introduced quantity, for instance — it’s felt by all; it’s debated upon, dissected and viewed with unearned skepticism. In this case, it was the heartthrobbish Mayer sliding into the space next to Weir once occupied by Garcia and most recently, Phish frontman Trey Anastasio.
The skepticism about Mayer had died down some in the run-up thanks to inter-community chatter. If you could create a bubble chart of all the opinions about Mayer sight unseen, “I just don’t know, man” and “I hear he’s been killin’ it” would occupy equal, prominent proportions. Mayer’s cornball origins aside, he’s done plenty to inoculate himself against trivialization. Otherwise, vocalized concerns among crowd chatter that the Dead would venture into pop territory with their 12-minute jams were equally bereft of perspective; there’s a wealth of literature on Garcia’s fascination with the Beatles. Mayer remains possibly the only member of Dead & Company with the benefit of a personal stylist, as his collarless blazer and bandana twist had him looking something like a modern day Roman emperor.
Standing beside Mayer onstage was bassist Oteil Burbridge, whose presence presented an argument that this was a stronger band than the lineup with Lesh. Burbridge, who’s intimately familiar with the Dead catalog through membership in drummer Kreutzmann’s solo band, shares kinship with Mayer as unabashed fusion nerds. He was more versatile than the hard-driving Lesh, as his bubbly scat bass attested on the second set’s cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” (all set lists, amusingly enough, are listing these songs as covers). Not to venture too far into the agonizing exercise that is a straight ahead review of a Dead show, but as tired as that song is, he and Mayer clearly had fun flirting with a deep disco-house groove. The audience responded accordingly.
(Side note: Reported attendance for this show was around 12,000, despite the fact it looked really full, even with a quarter of the room cordoned off. The Coliseum’s all-time most attended show, Phish in 2003, claims almost twice that. Is it time to start calling that figure into question?)
Not that a Dead show is ever without things to look at, but Mayer-faces are well covered and a few were also made available. Among them, there was the Clinton (biting bottom lip, squinted eyes; epitomizing the disconsolation of “He’s Gone”). There was the Peck (just feeling that groove of “Shakedown Street”). There was the Shakeface (a loose-y goosey response to “Me & My Uncle”; established as a subtweet to the ladies in the building during his Battlefield Studies tour). There was also the Crapper (just trying to get us out of this “Drums > Space” rabbit hole). Word is that he brought out the Room for Squares version of the Clinton at the Atlanta show.
Five Suggested Alternate Names for Drums > Space
- Mickey Hart and Friends Goodtime Proto-Dubstep Jamboree
- Guys, There’s Better Drone Music Out There. Have You Heard of Kyle Bobby Dunn? I Would Suggest Ways of Meaning to Start.
- Drums > Bigger Than My Body > Space
- Pure Moods Vol. 2
- Bet You Thought That Acid Had Worn Off
Mayer was, by all metrics, really good. He was reverent to the material but impetuous enough to really make the songs feel a little untested. Let’s leave it at that. The amount of discourse that still occurs in the pretext — just talk to anyone at a Dead show and you’ll get a dozen different opinions on how one song sounded — is almost exasperating, and to participate feels like giving up. For a band that hasn’t released an album since 1990, it’s in monkeys/typewriters territory, and those monkeys are getting arthritis. But it’s an exercise not without logic or roots.
The steady, single-minded consumption of one thing is the sort of anti-consumerist ethos amidst which the Grateful Dead took shape. In an age where there seems to be more music and more forms of entertainment and more derivatives of each available at any given time then it any point in history it’s commendable that such a large group would maintain that single-minded dedication. But if you’ve ever been to a party with a Deadhead involved and the evening’s playlist included three or more versions of “Attics of Our Life” from a single run, then it’s clear that watching from the outside is preferable.
The people-watching never, ever gets old.