Sounding Board

Am I Grateful Enough For The Dead?

A young Dead novice goes undercover at a Dead & Co. show

The phrase “I was born in the wrong generation” has become something of a meme, uttered in earnest by millennials wearing $60 distressed Rolling Stones T-shirts. It’s the kind of lifestyle slogan you might find under a sepia-toned Instagram picture, perhaps alongside “#festivalvibes.” I have never felt this way. I think my neuroses are actually quite well-suited for our modern age. I am not laidback enough for free love, nor am I patient enough for a jam-band concert.

There’s been an ongoing jam-band resurgence as indie artists adopt the stylings and philosophies first established by the Grateful Dead. Chris Richards outlined the history of the indie-jam crossover for the Washington Post, citing My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Animal Collective, Real Estate, Kurt Vile, and Vampire Weekend. He wonders if these indie bands are fighting the death of rock ‘n’ roll with loose, breezy arrangements and an air of positivity. I suspect they’re trying to ward off something bigger, so I went straight to the source to investigate.

Despite the retro tie-dye trimmings, last Sunday’s Dead & Co. show at Citi Field in Queens felt firmly rooted in 2019. A sea of weed smoke enveloped the stadium’s parking lot, where white people from all walks of life were gathering to see the Dead resurrected.

According to the Grateful Dead’s Wikipedia page, which I am about to heavily paraphrase, the Dead offered transcendence via freestyle instrumental jam from the mid-’60s until the death of their vocalist and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia in the mid-’90s. Since their disbandment, surviving Dead members have sought to provide the same service, touring under different monikers with a rotating lineup. In 2015, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, along with John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge, and Jeff Chimenti, started touring as Dead & Co.

The new iteration attracts Deadheads young and old. There were shirtless old men selling mushrooms. There were middle-aged dads in baseball hats shot-gunning beers with their teenage daughters. There were Hasidic jews smoking joints. There were hula-hoop girls and steampunks and babies. As someone who knows exactly two Grateful Dead songs, I identified as a cross between the selfie-taking teen girls and the yarmulke-wearing toddler who lost his mom. The ‘heads and I shuffled en masse from vendor to vendor across the blazing hot concrete, surveying fresh grilled cheese, crocheted sun hats, and balloons filled with nitrous oxide. They call this pre-concert portion of the evening “Shakedown Street,” named after a Dead album, apparently.

Deadheads have a whole language of symbols — dancing bears, dancing terrapins, a skull with roses around its head, a skull with a lightning bolt through it — which they emblazon on everything from tote bags to cast iron skillets. One man told me that his family has an entire room in their house dedicated to Dead-themed knick knacks. But even without a reference point, the merch looks cool. It doesn’t read as old-fashioned. Like the entire event, it draws a caricature of the past. The Dead can’t die; their branding is too good. I found myself drawn to a green cap with the dancing terrapins on it. “My wife and I have been selling these for 16 years,” the vendor said, very slowly. “We used to have only one table, now look.” I looked. They had five tables.

My new hat made me feel more accepted, less of a journalist on assignment and more like a groovy gal out to do some whip-its. I looked so in my element, in fact, that a woman asked if I was a member of Deadhead Women United. I initially thought she asked if I was in line for the bathroom so I said “yes” and then she said a bunch of words that I didn’t understand. Wandering the parking lot, I bought an electric blue jello shot from a man with a cooler and a cardboard sign that read “Need zanax and adderall.” Only after I swallowed did I consider the very real possibility that this man had served me acid.

People were toting around and suckling their whip-it balloons as if it contained their lifeblood. There was a sizable crowd forming around one particular nitrous canister and a man with a long grey beard and a tie-dye sweatsuit. This man, I later found out, is considered Deadhead royalty, a special character in their world. His name is Greg Dacyshyn. He used to be the Chief Creative Officer at Burton Snowboards and recently founded his own knitwear company. Greg looked busy, so I approached the folks standing by a neighboring canister to ask some questions. They asked if I was “with the feds.” That’s fair, I thought, my sunglasses made me look like a cop and my outfit made me look like a camp counselor.

The Grateful Dead have a huge Jewish following. I know this because at Hebrew school they would sometimes have us sing a prayer to the tune of “Sugaree.” As it would happen, I ran into five of my Jewish friends and their Jewish friends and their Jewish friends’ friends. We all went to a friend’s friend’s girlfriend’s dad’s tailgate. The scene reminded me why I stopped going to summer camp. “My dad kind of brainwashed us,” the friend’s friend’s girlfriend told me when I asked why she likes coming to these shows. “Also it’s just a fun festival vibe.” Another friend said the Dead made “good background music to listen to at work and stuff.”

The bygone bacchanal of a Grateful Dead concert morphs into hedonistic consumerism when you try to reconfigure it in a 21st century baseball stadium. Layers of absurdity unfolded upon entering Citi Field as I watched a woman collapse while waiting in line to buy waffle fries. I was nowhere near that level, so I decided to purchase some drinks. And fries. And nachos. There’s something about being in a stadium that makes me want to binge. Maybe it’s all the people bingeing around you. Or maybe it’s out of boredom and impatience, passing time until the ninth inning or waiting for Dead & Co. to finish a 20-minute song. All I know is I single handedly finished an entire plate of nachos. It was very hot and skinny jeans were a bad idea.

Deadheads spun in circles about the concession stands. This is a traditional Deadhead dance, I was told, performed by “spinners.” They reminded me of the Whirling Dervishes, who whirl in circles to reach higher spiritual awareness. It felt like apocalyptic revelry and looked like this:

 

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When Dead & Co. comes to NY.

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The band played two very long sets. The length makes sense given the improvisational spirit of the group. What I never understood is why people like it. Sure, these musicians are immensely talented, but, personally, I need hooks. I was eager to change my tune and get into it, but Dead & Co. played on (and on) and the most I could muster was a “Wow!” and a “Good for them!” My body and soul were unaffected, but the Deadheads were grooving hard, responding to every note and noodle.

Fifteen minutes went by. They were still playing the first song and I sensed a mild restlessness as chatter grew to a low rumble. This probably worked better when people had longer attention spans. As if the evening was prearranged to expose my inability to live in the moment, I noticed a ketchup stain on my shirt and barreled out of the crowd to fix it. A man offered me his water bottle, which I promptly poured on my chest. He leered and giggled, so I walked away without returning it.

I thought smoking weed might help me “get it” or at least make me feel less curmudgeonly. After a few hits from a vape pen, I took out my notes and wrote, “John Mayer is very good and also cute.” He was playing Jerry Garcia’s famous “Wolf” guitar, I was told. I amused myself with an imaginary scenario where I was ostracized for wearing a T-shirt that said “John > Jerry.”

Psychedelic skulls wiggled and burst with color on the gigantic screen, hypnotizing the audience as the sky darkened. I took a few more vape hits and there were three spooky John Mayers when I looked back up. His image echoed and multiplied in front of faded red flames on the side-stage screens. The Johns seemed to tower over us, playing funky riffs and making wild facial expressions. This was fine by me. I was ready to accept John Mayer as our demon leader.

For Deadheads, these shows are communion, a place to block out the chaos of the world and worship an intangible energy, a vision of the past. There’s an unspoken, almost blissful “end of days” attitude, one that feels especially relevant today. “This is one of the last places in America that you can really have this kind of fun, you know, considering the political climate and so forth,” the Dead’s Mickey Hart said in a 1991 PBS documentary. “The transformative power of the Grateful Dead is really the essence of it; it’s what it can do to your consciousness. We’re more into transportation than we are into music, per se, I mean, the business of the Grateful Dead is transportation.”

A squirrel somehow wandered onto the field, momentarily puncturing the simulation. But, aside from some brief jittering, the crowd remained absorbed in the spectacle.

SETLIST
(Set 1)
01 “St. Stephen”
02 “Cold Rain and Snow”
03 “Samson and Delilah”
04 “High Time”
05 “They Love Each Other”
06 “Ramble On Rose”
07 “Sugaree”
08 “Jack Straw”
(Set 2)
09 “Terrapin Station”
10 “Althea”
11 “Scarlet Begonias”
12 “Fire On The Mountain”
13 “Drums”
14 “Space”
15 “The Wheel”
16 “The Other One”
17 “Morning Dew”
(Encore)
18 Brokedown Palace