Dead & Company At Irvine Meadows

It was analog in a digital era.

Same as it ever was except the audience had mobiles.

To paraphrase that great philosopher Max Yasgur, it’s a great world where nearly ten thousand people can get together and have a night of fun and music and nothing but fun and music, and I God Bless them for it!

It was the eighties Deadheads. With a patina of oldsters and youngsters thrown into the mix. They were worse for wear, bodies were imperfect, hair was long but scraggly, but they were all smiling, bonding with their brothers and sisters, and enjoying the mellifluous music of the latest iteration of the Grateful Dead.

The Other Ones were good, ever listen to their double CD package from the nineties? It’s a keeper. But despite Fare Thee Well and the varying Furthur and Lesh/Weir combos touring this century, there was no path forward.

And now there is.

Credit John Mayer, for injecting vitality into the group, bringing the others along on this freight train to the future. Having blown up his own career and time passing him by Mayer executed a masterstroke by uniting with this entourage. He doesn’t look like Jerry Garcia, he doesn’t play like Jerry Garcia, but the assemblage with him included is much more together, functioning on a higher plane than the old Grateful Dead ever did.

You can’t replace Captain Trips, but you can fill the hole and march into the musical wilderness in pursuit of fulfillment and happiness.

Garcia was a passive leader. Mayer doesn’t really lead at all, but emits such sparks, such energy, that the whole enterprise levitates, as well as the crowd.

It’s not like other shows. It’s not about the hit. It’s about the experience. And isn’t that what it’s all about these days? Signifiers are less about what you own than where you’ve been. And if you were there last night you experienced a tribal rite so rare in today’s world, one in which the music mattered and everything else did not.

The Democratic Convention might as well have been held on Mars, this was the California of the sixties, disconnected from the rest of the country, on its own trip of freedom.

And rather than utilize your mobile to surf, you used it for pics. You wanted to document the experience. There was no crowd huddled with their faces down, mesmerized by their screens, this was about participation.

And participate they did.

With tons of bad dancing, inspired by the music. You could see all the way back to 1965, how the Dead got started. It wasn’t about hits, but party, vibe, letting the music take you away. And their tribe got bigger and word started to spread and suddenly, the Grateful Dead were a touring operation that turned into a juggernaut, all based on the show instead of the record. It got to the point where there were no records. New material existed on bootleg tapes at best. You see you had to be there.

And in this era of phony processed music, people clamor for authenticity, that which is real, that which is human, that which they can connect with.

Can you play?

That’s not even a question anymore. Someone else plays. And oftentimes it’s not guitars. Concertgoers expect perfection, it’s all shiny and impenetrable. But last night… A few bum notes were hit, the vocals weren’t always perfect, but sheer truth emanated from the stage. This is what happens when you get a bunch of people dedicated to the music, who follow it wherever it will take them, who are not looking to expand their brand, just to journey down the endless road.

And I can’t say everybody was in thrall the whole show. There was a constant buzz, of people talking. At some points the music was merely background to the party. It was so different from that overpaying prick who talks to his date the whole show, here it was about community, and if you asked someone to move, they did, and while some were speaking, some were singing and…

I don’t know where else you get this.

There was a jam band scene a couple of decades back. But whatever stars there were faded, and if they still exist play to a hard core audience and that audience only. Whereas the Dead is multi-generational with recognizable songs. I defy anybody to go and not know a few, whether it be last night’s encore “Johnny B. Goode,” “Fire On The Mountain,” “Jack Straw” or the Jerry Garcia classic “Deal.”

This is the new American songbook. These numbers have penetrated. They might not be Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” but they represent the heartland and the coasts and everywhere in between. Deadheads populate this entire nation of ours, and they’re all coming out to see the Dead & Company.

I know, I know, makes you wince. Weren’t the Chicago shows supposed to be the end?

But Phil’s 76 and been through the Big C and does he really want to traipse across the nation, visiting far-flung outposts to satiate the faithful? Better to visit them in Port Chester.

But what appeared a dash for cash at the outset has morphed into something completely different. The act is not stultified, nor are the shows, they live and breathe.

And they’re different every night. Which is revelatory in this world where the gig is synched to machines and runs like clockwork. It’s different in every city, and I lamented I missed “New Speedway Boogie” at the Gorge, made me want to go.

Everybody on stage was fired up. Oteil Burbridge plucked with a fire that transcended his work with the Allman Brothers. Jeff Chimenti smiled and tickled the ivories like the road would go on forever, that he was not destined to die in the chair like nearly all of his predecessors. And Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann… They definitely looked worse for wear, but their playing was solid and the drum solo segment was curiously intriguing, not a moment for a bathroom break. Watching them you could see all the way back to the beginning. When no one expected fame, when touring was an adventure without scrutiny, when you could drug and screw and nobody would know. This is the only thing they know, and they’ve ridden it for decades, ain’t that the American Way, where what you love fulfills you.

And then there was Bob Weir, the youngster of the group.

Now he’s 68. But he’s still the voice, he’s still the same person. His whole life has been consumed by rock and roll, we remember when we wanted to be him, when we all wanted to play in the band.

And when you’re on stage, looking out at the assembled multitude, you get a hit of energy and appreciation you just cannot get anywhere else. Write an app, make billions, fly around the world on your private jet. That doesn’t compare to the love and attention you get from a crowd of acolytes, who are there because of your rep and will go wherever you want to take them.

And where the Dead & Company go next I’m not sure.

John Mayer can return to pop, but I don’t see why. The scene has moved on, it doesn’t need him. And it’s so regimented, you can’t BREATHE! But unlike his brethren who are already in the rearview mirror, Mayer has found a way to wiggle out of the straitjacket. When it looked like he was through he found something new.

It wasn’t nostalgia.

It was more like a family reunion. But one in which not only did you catch up, but you marched on, to new places.

Things went down you won’t understand, unless you were there.

We spent a little time on the mountain, we spent a little time on the hill, the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre that’s about to be torn down.

But one way or another, this darkness has got to give.

It’s not so different from the sixties. You have great swaths of people who feel disconnected from and discarded by the mainstream. They’re looking for sustenance elsewhere.

And last night they found it.

You too can join Uncle John’s Band.

You can pick up an axe like John Mayer, and perfect your playing, see where it takes you.

Or you can be a listener, familiar with the material, wanting to get closer.

Everybody’s invited, everybody can come in.

But no one is better than their neighbor, we all look out for each other.

And we’re all subservient to the music.

You see the music gives us something to live for.

And the music sets us free.

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