Monday, July 6, 2015

Dead Last? Nope...Dead's BEST!

By Peter Rodman

Hey, man..
Just got back from a Grateful Dead show!  
Oh, yeah…the LAST Grateful Dead show.
But no, I wasn’t at Soldier Field in Chicago...

I was in somebody’s living room, here in Nashville--with about a dozen earnestly appreciative and lively people of all ages, at a 'watch party,' for the pay-per-view 'live stream' of their very last concert.  
And I’m writing this blog for a number of reasons…all good. 

First: I cannot remember actually convening for such a thing in quite this way--spread around a great stereo, enjoying the vibe of unexpected solos and perfect arrangements, sharing a beer or a coke with a bunch of disparate souls there to pay homage--since…well, you’re really not gonna believe this:  

June 1, 1967.  
That was the day ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was
released…and since Louie Feldman had the best homemade speaker system in town, that was where we all decided to gather for the great unfolding (literally) of the Beatles’ most elaborate and wildly innovative LP cover (and music) up until then. To say it was a mind-blower would be a serious understatement.

But I digress...
Here at Craig’s place, we eventually migrated from the living

room (with the 'BIG' TV) a few steps down, to the LISTENING room...with its wide array of speakers, high ceilings, feng shui perfection, and a decidedly small TV screen (compared to his other one, a postage stamp) to witness this humble bit of history:
Yep...The Grateful Dead’s very last show.  
(This, you can be forgiven for describing as a "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Ask fans of The Band, The Who, the Eagles, and even…yeah, yeah, yeah...the Beatles--who miraculously exhumed John Lennon in 1995, for one last record…and then…WHOA!...another one.) 

The mysteries of this 'historic' era of ours abound, as we all know.
Meanwhile back in NearSouth Nashville...
It took about two hours, before everybody got downstairs to actually LISTEN to the show, and several
This is us in Craig's living room, earlier tonight--June 5, 2015.
...NO it isn't!  This is the crowd at a Grateful Dead show in
Boulder's 'Folsom Field,' during September of 1972.
Photograph Copyright 1972/2015 by Peter Rodman.
aspects of this experience floored me--the first being that 15 year old kid inside me, who emerged fully formed this evening--in a room full of people I knew only about as well as I knew Louie Feldman’s friends, 48 years ago.
Next was the utterly unexpected magnificence of the music--some of which I’d heard/seen on YouTube the previous night and in recent days--but none of which came close to the stellar interplay between the players, on this, their final night.
It actually took ’em this many 'Fare Thee Well’ shows to completely perfect the vibe they were going for…and if you ask me, the Grateful Dead hit it out da park, Sunday night.
It was a walk-off grand slam.  

And it unfolded like a precious piece of origami, well beyond the 'bar tricks' skillset of any of the Chicago bartenders undoubtedly standing there in Soldier Field, actually watching them in person.

 Not to be too reverent about it... there were, of course,
Until tonight, this is the girl I saw every single Grateful
Dead show with, from '68 to '82 or so. I know what
you're thinking: Was she blind, or what? 
How she ended up with me, I do not know.
But call me sexist: every Dead Head needs a
Dead Head Babe...and quite frankly, it was
she who turned me on to them, with 'Anthem of the Sun,'
back in '68. That's some pretty amazing stuff! 
(...the music, too.)
several points of humor to be found…and although me and my friends kept the snark to a bare minimum, a pan-and-scan view of those gray-hairs dancing at field level drew the biggest spontaneous eruption of laughter, on this particular night. 
“It’s so nice of them to play a nursing home,” I quipped.
And then I zipped it.

Because great music, well rendered, perfectly mixed, and brilliantly edited leaves not much room for anything else but awe.
(And I swear, this thing looked like a completely edited movie already …amazingly so!) 

I’ve seen the Dead more times than would be fair to mention.
Honest, I'm not tryin' to "one up"'s just that you get old, and what the hell other advantage does that give you, but "I was there in '68?"   So forgive me, but the highlight reel starts there.
Getting rained on for six or
seven hours straight was almost like
an Initiation Rite, for Deadheads.
By 1972, I felt like a Charter Member!

They include the Fillmore East '68 show (Anthem of the Sun!), Boulder in '72 (See pics...I still call it 'The Bertha Tour'), Red Rocks (it was the '70s,, I don't recall the actual that okaaay, or what, maaan?) and 1980...when they literally did have only "A Touch of Grey."  

Add to that a few one-on-one interviews--most notably with Bob Weir, an affable and easy goin' guy (who unfortunately tends to stiffen up a bit, once the mic is turned on) and there you have it.
I never considered myself a ‘Deadhead’ per say, but I guess my bona fides are as good as any but the craziest fanatics, whom even the band couldn't really stand being around, for very long.* See interview clip, at the bottom of this page.
Folsom Field~ Boulder, Colorado, 1972
Photograph Copyright 1972/2015 by Peter Rodman.

These kids actually quit their jobs to live in vans, surf friends' couches, and bathe (if they bathed at all) in local streams from coast to coast, just so they wouldn't miss a single lick of Jerry’s guitar brilliance…which was NOT always brilliant, but was always adventurous--although you couldn't convince his most spaced-out acolytes of anything but that he was a God.
Then they'd black out at the show, essentially missing the whole thing they swore they'd never miss! 
And this wasn't just a few people was a known fact, the 'Medic Tent' at Dead shows was always busier than any 'merch table' you've ever seen.  Dozens and dozens and dozens of casualties, ranging from simple dehydration to serious drug overdoses.
Even Bob Weir found this aspect of their fan worship disturbing, back when we first talked in the '70s--and he worried aloud that Jerry Garcia (already an uncomfortable icon, then) might eventually succumb to the whim of some disturbed (or even 'overly generous') fan. 

Let me be brutally honest with you.

I loved the Dead before they 'went commercial' (with Workingman's Dead-- their 1970 bow to Crosby, Stills and  Nash--and the first Dead record with concise songs, detailed harmonies and a semblance of structure) which, at the time, enraged their hardcore fans. 
And I liked 'em even better after that.
But as me and my girlfriend became older--after college, after group houses, after our 'experimentation' phase gave way to watching All in the Family and telling Sting I had to wrap it up early, because I wanted to go home to bed--well, those "live" Dead audiences became a nuisance I was just a whole lot less interested in being near. 
In fairness to me, please understand--Boulder was the Hippie Capital of America, in the early '70s.
And running a groovy record store 'On the Hill' in that town--which had become the specific 'Mecca' for druggies, misfits, dreamers, and street people--it got harder and harder to want to stand around smelling piss and body odor, while some guy puked next to you, and another guy had a bright gold beard, inadvertently spray-painted while he huffed his way to oblivion.
I no longer wanted to stand for six hours in a seat-free football field covered in a plastic tarp that retained every drop of rain to protect the field--but not you--during a day-long downpour. No thanks, man!  Even the array of braless or bare-breasted young women 'space-dancing' nearby lost its appeal for me, when their armpit hair was thicker than mine.  
Guess I got 'old,' right about then...

I never blamed the band; why would I?
I just got sick and tired of patchouli oil, which makes me wretch, to this day. 
Did I ever leave the music? 
Not really...although on the air, I'd sometimes resist catering to the stoners who incessantly requested one Dead song after another, sometimes calling 20 times in a row, as if they had no record player at home, and forgot all about their previous 19 calls.
Again, not my thing...sorry!

But the Grateful Dead's music was always cool.
And backstage, these guys were 'just a band'--as much as any group of folks who've got a big gig, but still just wanna have fun. 
There were feats of musical brilliance along the way.  

At some point, for example, Bob Weir became quite an adept lead player, to compensate for Jerry's indulgences or indifference...and then, they'd trade roles again, depending on where they each were in their lives. 
It went like that.  Each tour, another couple guys in this band 'stepped up' and took charge, musically--and their 'jam band' reputation gave everybody onstage permission to fail. 

That was key.
Overall, they succeeded more than they failed; I can attest to that.

Fast-forward to Sunday night, in my friend Craig's listening room.

Having watched Trey Anastasio with Hornsby and Lesh and Kreutzmann and Hart (and oh yeah, sometimes Bobby) I gotta say, this "Dead Last" concert was the perfect culmination to it all.
The big surprise was that none of it was 'concise,' but all of it made sense, musically. More than probably any Dead concert I've ever been to, these were purposefully elevated, sophisticated jams--not just aimless noodling in search of one brilliant moment.
It was at once a blessed moment in the band's history and a great summation, but also an adventurous high-wire act all its own (though a lot less shaky than they used to be), quite worthy of their legacy.
But most of all?  

My reaction was...“You coulda fooled me!” 
This was LIVE???
That, to me, is the mind-blower here. 

Despite the laughably horrid pre-show ticket mess-ups, all the obvious 'age jokes,' and the turbo-charged marketing (you could pre-order the box set of this weekend’s shows before they ever happened--a rather unprecedented bit of hubris)…
They actually pulled it off!

Again, Sunday night's show was as good as any I ever saw the original band do.  In some ways, better.
In fact it was so good, it actually made me sad that this band-- having finally found their 'legs' with Anastacio and Hornsby after Garcia’s death (it only took, what...21 years?) are not gonna continue performing, with this configuration.
Because they really should.

Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh--pictured here 43 years ago, in Boulder Colorado during 1972--closed out their career as The Grateful Dead on Sunday night, along with drummer Mickey Hart (not pictured)--on July 5, 2015 in Chicago's Soldier Field.
Photograph Copyright 1972/2015 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.
Here's my Big Statement:
Their final show was in some ways, their best ever.

And the video! The flawless on-the-fly video direction was as spectacular as any riff played onstage. Whoever the director was, he or she deserves an Academy Award--because although it was happening in real time, what we saw was on par with the best rock concert movies ever made.
I can only guess they all knew it would be good, but had no idea it would be this good. 

Oh, I'm sure they hoped...and you know they prepared.
They most assuredly outlined and mapped things out, pretty well in advance--unlike the old daze.  They set certain musical boundaries, signals, and sound checks in advance…sure.  Even a few 'dry runs,' in California, and two shows earlier in the weekend.
All that.
But NOBODY could have pre-printed a recipe for the kind of perfect musical conversation and in-the-pocket sound mix we saw Sunday night.
Trey Anastasio's Gretsch was tweaked to perfectly replicate Jerry Garcia’s sound, but...he added a concise 'crackle' all his own. 
Bruce Hornsby was only 'showy' when it was called for, and both keyboards wove magic with the guitars, all night long.  Phil Lesh’s six (or was it 8?) string bass played a central role…and at one point during Mickey Hart's percussion showcase, my friend Craig turned up the sound system, to emphasize the moment for his guests:
“This is his LAST solo!”

I’ll admit, I came into this affair as much for the great chili and camaraderie, as anything else.

Normally, the thought of  watching anything on TV with a group of people is enough to send me out to make an appointment for elective orthodontia work. (“Sorry, can’t make it--I’m getting’ a whole new rack o’ chompers, tonight!”)

But I left this event feeling we’d all witnessed history-- not even so much for the occasion as for the pinnacle of a performance between some risk-taking players who, in the greatest Grateful Dead tradition, essentially pulled off a musical ‘Man on Wire’ stunt for all who saw the show, either in person or at home.
Bravo, Grateful Dead!

Now, if I may…my only other snarky line of the night:
It came as I studied Bob Weir’s 'grizzly bear' beard, and watched his workmanlike (but rather joyless) gait, in direct contrast to Trey Anastasio or Phil Lesh or Bruce Hornsby or Bill Kreutzmann or Mickey Hart, who seemed utterly blissful throughout.  Not that he wasn't good--without that amazing voice, this night would not have been the same.  But it was surprisingly, uhhh... minor, to the over all picture.
In fairness, Bob’s had a tough couple of years, health wise.
Okay, to the giggle...  

What cracked me up was his shirt.
It was just a sort of dirty, unadorned, plain green undershirt.
Whether or not he’d had it on all week, I don’t know.  But at some point it occurred to me, this guy had to get up this morning (or afternoon, as the case may be) and actually say, “I think I’ll wear this one, for our last-ever show.  Yeah.  Perfect.”
Peter Rodman and Bob Weir...May, 1979...Boulder, Colorado.
Photographs Copyright 1979/ 2015 by The Peter Rodman Radio Archive.

For some reason, that thought cracked me up. And despite myriad opportunities to change it (he left the stage for at least a half hour during Hart's drum solo) he never did.  "No, no...this shirt is perfect."
It kinda was.

The album (and the DVDs, which I can attest will also be perfect) are out November 10th, in at least six or seven separate configurations--and can be pre-ordered now, at the band’s website.    Highly recommended.

Too bad for you, though...
You cannot pre-order Craig’s home made chili.
But it, too, comes highly recommended. 


This Opinion Column Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman. 
All Rights Reserved.
Here's the Bob Weir chat from 1979.
Please, NO "sharing" of this COPYRIGHTED sound recording.
It is not legal to edit, reuse, or broadcast, share or transmit in ANY way, without express written permission from me--which you ain't gettin'. Just enjoy it here, okay? Thanks! =)
BOB WEIR talks to PETER RODMAN--May 19, 1979.
WARNING: Copyrighted material!
This sound recording is Copyright 1979/2015bySNPR/ThePeterRodmanRadioArchive. All Rights Reserved.

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