Their tensions behind them, the Dead play their first show in four years
Posted Nov 13, 2008
The first call came into Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center in mid-
summer: A concert promoter asked venue officials to hold some dates
at the school's indoor arena in the fall. The promoter wouldn't
identify the band and didn't until he called back to ask if October
13th would be available for a Barack Obama benefit with Bob Weir,
Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. "We went, 'Wow,' " says
Bernie Punt, director of sales at the venue. "We knew right then this
was going to be unique."
Within minutes of the announcement, Deadheads had snapped up all
15,000 tickets for the first show in four years by the surviving
members of the Grateful Dead. On the night of the October 13th
concert, which also included the Allman Brothers Band, fans from as
far away as Stockholm whooped it up as the Dead launched into the
trademark shuffle of "Truckin'." Joined by Allmans and Gov't Mule
guitarist Warren Haynes and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti from Weir's
band Ratdog, the reunited Dead resurrected standards like "Touch of
Grey" and "U.S. Blues," as well as spaced-out jam classics "Dark
Star" and "St. Stephen." "It was great fun," Weir says. "We speak a
language no one else speaks, and we have intuitions about each
other's approaches that no one else can have. It's there it doesn't go away."
Yet the fact that so much time had passed between Dead shows is an
indication of the rupture the band suffered with the death of Jerry
Garcia in 1995. Weir, Hart, Lesh and Kreutzmann eventually reunited
first as the Other Ones and, in 2003 and 2004, for tours billed as
the Dead. But despite pulling in almost $18 million, the 2004 Wave
That Flag Tour was strained onstage and off, as the bandmates
attempted to work out their post-Garcia roles.
"It spawned all kinds of petty disagreements," says Hart. "There was
a lot of intertribal weirdness." Adds Kreutzmann, "When people are
having a hard time with their personalities, it goes without saying
that the music's gonna suffer also."
Tensions within the band only deepened the following year, when
infighting broke out over concert bootlegs posted by fans on the
archives.org Website. "They take advantage of you," says Kreutzmann.
"They give your music away for free, and then they sell advertising."
The band insisted the recordings be pulled, but Lesh disagreed and
went public with his thoughts. The site was eventually allowed to
stream free soundboard recordings, but by then the four men were
barely on speaking terms.
The fence-mending began with business. In 2006, Grateful Dead
Productions reached a licensing agreement with Rhino Entertainment to
handle the group's entire musical legacy; with that, some of the
friction over money was reduced. Then, in February 2008, Lesh, with
the help of his son Brian, organized an Obama benefit at the Warfield
theater in San Francisco. He invited the other members of the Dead,
and Hart and Weir accepted (Kreutzmann had just returned home to
Hawaii from a long trip). Together, the three played Dead classics
like "Sugaree" and "Playing in the Band," and, tellingly, the
Beatles' "Come Together." "It broke the ice," recalls Hart. "We were
able to let some of these skeletons in our closet just fall away."
Around the same time, Weir was asked by a senior official in the
Obama campaign if the band would be willing to re-form for a
swing-state benefit closer to the election. "I said, 'Well, I'll
try,' " says Weir. The calls went out, and in September, the Dead
reunited at Weir's rehearsal space in San Rafael, California. The
revived Dead spent two days dusting off songs they hadn't played in
years. Everyone was careful not to push too hard Hart says the
group "tried to keep it as relaxed and open as possible. People were
not stepping on each other. They were trying to cooperate."
As the band admits, the set was far from flawless. Weir forgot a few
lyrics ("I had a senior moment it's gonna happen"), and Lesh's
"Unbroken Chain," from 1974's From the Mars Hotel, was so tricky that
the group was still practicing it during soundcheck.
Yet the band reconnected over its shared musical heritage. "During
'Dark Star,' it went wild, and I forgot where we were," says
Kreutzmann. "That's great. Mickey and I are getting along better now.
The egos are out of the way." After the show, Lesh was overheard
raving about Weir's singing a sign itself of lessening friction
and the bandmates toasted each other backstage.
"We wanted to play uncomplicated, easy stuff, just have a nice time,"
says Hart. "Did we play our best? Nooo. Did we play our worst?
Absolutely not. It was a healing ceremony." Further shows, including
a possible spring tour, are now being discussed. "It felt good, and
I'd be way the hell up for it," says Weir, echoing sentiments of his
mates. But if more concerts do occur, the Dead face their biggest
challenge: holding themselves together after the most tumultuous
years in the group's existence. "This isn't an easy thing," says
Hart. "To be honest, I thought the odds were not in our favor. The
only way it would happen is if we came together and liked each other
again. We're ongoing now, but I don't know where we're going."
[From Issue 1065 November 13, 2008]