We were late to the throng of hundreds of people waiting outside the Wells Fargo Center. As I stepped out of the car, all my anxieties about getting through to our seats and missing part of the performance ended. I relaxed into the flow of the concert: beer bottles strewn across the sidewalk, the noise, the smoke, and the push and pull of the crowd. Everyone was there for the music, from the smelly middle agers from the 60s and 70s sporting long beards sporting tie-dye t-shirts to the college students, like myself, who were relatively new to the cultural phenomenon that is the nearly mythic band the Grateful Dead.
The Grateful Dead, formed in 1965 while living in a communal house at 710 Ashbury Street in San Francisco, emerged as a stand out performance in the local music scene and built a large fan base on the now-legendary public LSD parties and “happenings” prior to the drug’s criminalization. By the end of the 70s, the Grateful Dead had created their own distinctive sound and aesthetic, establishing themselves as a national psychedelic rock sensation and the ultimate cult band.
The Grateful Dead broke up in 1995 following the death of singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia. Dead & Company was born 20 years later in 2015. The latest associated act features original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, joined by the former Grateful Dead keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and newcomers Oteil Burbridge (of the Allman Brothers Band) and guitar prodigy John Mayer filling the role of Jerry Garcia. Due to their immediate success, Bob Weir is considering passing the entire band onto a new generation.
My dad, who was born in the 1960s, grew up with the Grateful Dead. He saw them tour in their heyday and has seen them several times during their latest revamp as Dead & Company. He had wanted to bring me to a Dead show for some time and finally, there we were, standing in line for the show.
“I think what’s incredible about the Grateful Dead today is their complete mastery of their music. They have continued to improve over decades, and they’ve brought in incredible talent to complement them technically, energetically, and spiritually … they’re brilliant,” he said.
As we walked through the interior hallway of the stadium, my dad suddenly turned onto a passageway that led into the stadium. We ducked through a veiled entryway and found ourselves standing backstage. We looked down through the pillars of the set onto the band. They were playing a cover of “Dancing in The Street” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and beyond them, beneath a soft haze of smoke and lights, the crowd swayed to the music. We stood in silence for a few moments, reveling in the treasure we’d stumbled upon. Had my dad known where he was going? He stood apart from my cousin and me, entranced by the music he loved. He probably had an inclination. As we walked down the aisle towards the stairs, intending to approach the stage from behind, a voice spoke out of the darkness right behind us saying we had better get out. We turned out the next door and continued around the stadium past hitched merchandise shops and food stands towards our seats.
We eventually ended up at our seats located around half court on the left side of the stage. From eight until nearly half past eleven, the band jammed and grooved, playing a total of twenty songs through two sets. I never really understood before the concert, that the Grateful Dead was meant to be a live act; their studio albums seem to lie in the shadow of the limelight. Instead of following the guidelines of their records, the band played freeform. They challenged the linearity of their songs, often returning to a chorus after ten minutes of instrumental riffs.
For me, Chimenti’s keyboard solo during the “Uncle John Band” and John Mayer’s overall performance of “Truckin” including several unbelievable guitar riffs, were the highlights of the show. Additionally, during a brief intermission between the two sets, Mickey Hart performed a drum and synth worldbeat fusion piece, combining international cultural influences. Hart’s work with drummers around the world incited an interest in the mythological role and spiritual capacity of the drum, producing a deeply moving performance of wild, meditative noise that seemed to grind and tear at my insides. Overall, the experience was unlike anything I’ve seen before. The way the band seemed to flow from song to song, instrument to instrument yet still maintain their distinct sound was, in my dad’s words, brilliant.
While I was at first hesitant about the addition of John Mayer, primarily due to his more folksy singing style, by the time he stepped back onstage for an encore of “Black Muddy River,” I was all in. Mayer and Weir together command the stage and the audience, a blend of new and old, bringing the Dead back to life in a way few thought possible.