Monthly Archives: January 2008

Why the Grateful Dead was cool… Part I

The Grateful Dead was all about the live concert experience. Deadheads know what I mean. If you never had the chance to enjoy a live Dead show, the experience arose from many elements:

The Music – The Grateful Dead are originals, and are widely recognized as the prototype improvisational “jam band.” Think bebop jazz – John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, et al – when listening. The band pretty much played “full tilt” and because of the extended improvisational breaks, songs were never the same twice. A song that they played for 6 minutes one night, they may play next time for 10 minutes. . .

The Musicians – The Dead were a guitar fan’s “dream band.” Jerry Garcia was certainly one of the most talented improvisational guitar players in rock, and Bob Weir was and is an exceedingly creative rhythm guitarist. And Phil Lesh plays bass as if it were a guitar. (In fact, he frequently played a custom 6-string bass.)

The Band’s Attitude – The Dead were always low-key performers. They never postured, posed or pretended while they played, and a Grateful Dead audience was never asked if they were “ready to rock n’ roll.” They never had a lead singer, and all band members were talented instrumentalists. Stage lighting was dark and subdued, and typically psychedelic.

The Scene – The Dead were never a really popular band, so the people who attended their concerts were predominantly “fans.” When 20,000 people were brought together who know the repertoire and listen closely, it opens up the possibilities for great energy, great music, and a great sense of community.

The Setlist – The Dead played a unique setlist at every show, which was usually determined spontaneously during the show (at least in the early years). Songs transition from one to the other during improvisational jams. And serious fans listen for musical clues as the band builds consensus about what song they will play next. Their active repertoire was over 500 songs, and one of the reasons their fans saw so many shows was that one could go to every show for a month and rarely hear the same song twice.

The Dead had their flaws, and their fans know them. But its become a truism, there was truly nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.

My "deadhead" bona fides

I charactize myself as a deadhead – with a small “d.” I make this differentiation because I never followed the band for a tour, I never sold shirts or burritos in the lot, I didn’t count the shows I’ve seen, and rarely traded tapes. But I have been a fan of the music for a long time!

My first show was June 26, 1976 at the Auditorium Theatre, Chicago. (I was 20 years old, children.) The Auditorium Theatre is a super elegant Louis Sullivan building with fantastic acoustics. This was the Dead’s first Midwest show following retirement of the Wall of Sound and their two-year hiatus. The crowd was out of its mind, as you can well imagine. . . and Stella Blue literally brought me to tears.

The Wall of Sound – circa 1974 
© Richard Pechner (pechner.smugmug.com)  

I saw them often when they played Chicago area theaters during the 1970’s, including many shows at the Auditorium, the Uptown and the Chicago Theater. And I had many magic experiences.

I began to lose interest in the stadium shows that followed the popularity of “Touch of Grey,” and my last show was in Milwaukee at The Mecca on April 16, 1989.

My Daily Nature Break

One of the great blessings that come with caring for a dog is getting out a couple times each day for a walk. I refer to this as my nature break – and I’ve come to really depend on it to keep me grounded. . . or at least, more grounded. It’s just amazing how the natural world can put things into perspective.

Abby has a nice smile – Don’t you agree?
There are generally three ways that I walk with my dog, Abby. 1) She follows me on leash (most public spaces); 2) She walks along with me off leash (my home neighborhood); or 3) I follow her (open fields and woods). My favorite is to follow her. It’s fun to watch her as she indulges her desire to deeply smell stuff, and she still romps at times.