The Dead, no longer Grateful

By David Watts Barton,  The Sacramento Bee, June 29, 2004 

The Grateful Dead has always been great in theory: stylistically omnivorous, loose, improvisational and radically democratic, never doing the same show twice.

But the band has at times gone to the down side of those ideals: unfocused, self-indulgent, rudderless, and sometimes just musically inept.

Sunday night, returning as The Dead (the “Grateful” discarded in honor of singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995), the band delivered on the theory. Its first show in the Sacramento area in nearly a decade was a triumph.

During two sets that added up to more than three hours of music at the Sleep Train Amphitheatre in Marysville, The Dead quickly dispelled any doubts about its viability. This band hasn’t just survived death and more than a touch of gray, it is thriving.

Part of that is likely due to the addition of three fine new members, guitarist-singer Warren Haynes, guitarist Jimmy Herring and keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, late of Sacramento.

Even more, the band is thriving due to the devotion of original members Bob Weir (guitar and vocals), Phil Lesh (bass and vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart (drums and percussion), who have continued playing with their own bands in the nine years since Garcia died.

And more than anything else, The Dead is alive and well because it is needed. The crowd of approximately 8,000 fans who danced and sang and partied and talked among themselves for the entire show clearly needed the band to carry on. The love and devotion of the fans – the Deadheads – is a phenomenon that, like any long, good relationship, glows with warmth and gravity as it deepens with time.

No longer just for the young and hip, a Dead show is about something more. Community. Music without boundaries. Joy. Being at a Dead show just feels so damned good.

While the Deadhead phenomenon has long been the object of scorn and condescension, the spirit of a Dead show transcends criticism.

Which is not to say Deadheads are uncritical. The average Deadhead knows more about the band than the average fan of virtually any other music group. And many among them, who have seen dozens, even hundreds, of Dead shows, admit the band can be hit-and-miss.

But Sunday night, the band was determined to reassert itself and easily maintained the crowd’s attention.

Giving a rollicking demonstration of the art of America’s mongrel music, the band hit the stage with a series of three opening songs – “Cassidy,” “Built to Last” and “Cumberland Blues” – that was so passionate and musically coherent that, at its conclusion, bassist Lesh blew a kiss to each band member in turn.

And they were just getting started. The next song, “Hell in a Bucket,” had an almost Stones-y drive, the band cranking hard on the changes, and it was followed fast and loose by “Alabama Getaway,” which had a Little Feat-like Southern boogie groove that had many in the audience dancing with abandon.

Part of the fun of a Dead show is not knowing what’s next, and with a current repertoire of 200 songs, the band (which uses teleprompters to keep the lyrics of all those songs straight) can keep it fresh for everyone.

As with other stops on the tour, Sunday night’s show held its share of surprises. Old Dead songs such as “The Golden Road (to unlimited devotion)” and “Viola Lee Blues,” both from the band’s 1967 debut and rarely played live, were greeted with shouts and renewed dancing. And when Haynes started a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” in the second set, the crowd was clearly delighted.

The band is still an acquired taste and has its flaws, as even this performance demonstrated. While drummer Kreutzmann keeps the band centered, second drummer Hart serves a percussionist role that is auxiliary at best. And Hart’s singing was indefensible on “Self Defense.”

This is a band that could trade in both of its drummers for one good one and be much improved. But then, it wouldn’t be The Dead, and the rather indistinct – call it fluid – bottom end of the band is part of its flavor.

The band took extended forays into the unknown at several points, moments enhanced by a terrific digital light show, which was fitting since they were one of the first bands to introduce visuals into rock music. The jams were not uniformly fascinating, but they did give the band chances to explore, and the audience was willing to follow.

The three new guys in the band fit well, adding their own flavors, but doing so in ways that honored Garcia (and past Dead keyboard players) without aping them.

While Haynes is a great guitar player, he was upstaged on Sunday night by Herring, who has speed, agility and imagination to burn, which he used on “Viola Lee Blues” in particular. Likewise, Chimenti shone on the B3 organ during an atmospheric cover of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”

But the band is not about any one player, which is why it has survived Garcia’s death and a tepid rhythm section. The Dead is about group dynamics, locking into an uptempo country groove on “Dire Wolf,” getting funky on “Shakedown Street,” or shouting out the unison chorus on a smoking cover of the R&B chestnut “Samson & Delilah.”

All of which and more the septet did Sunday night, creating once again the magic for which they are known and loved. Garcia may be gone, but The Dead is alive and well, and will most likely be making its joyful noise as long as there are Deadheads to enjoy it.