Gone are the Days?
In Garcia: A Grateful Tribute one commentator lamented that not only did Jerrys death mean we lost both a friend and a fabulous guitar player, but we also lost The Grateful Dead. An accurate observation and, as Weir observed, a sad day for music lovers everywhere. But what was it about The Grateful Dead that was lost and worth lamenting? Contrary to the popular image, it was not their supposed symbolic representation as the last bastion of the 1960’s that kept us coming back and/or the band playing (any Deadhead knew better than that). It was not simply the scene. And it was not simply Jerrys charisma…though each had a place in the tapestry that was us. What kept us Deadheads returning and what kept the band playing was that ineffable it and this was something that either you got and understood (which was an invitation and ticket to get on the bus) or something of which you did not grasp the beauty, leaving you confused over the attention received and unimpressed with the music provided.
It would be an exercise in futility, as we all also know, to expound upon, try to figure out and/or explain what it was, be it magic (in Harts version) or otherwise some sort of communal Gestalt combined with masterful musicianship and the general willingness to take chances. But there are some things that can be said about it. It was groovy. You could dance to it. It was larger than the sum of its parts (audience included). It was a beautiful racket. It was funky. It was fun. It was one of a kind. Thus still, Jerrys death meant both the end of The Grateful Dead and that that trip was over.
Or so we thought.
Jerry always claimed, and took solace in the fact, that he believed that it was not reducible to him, though some of us were not quite sure if we trusted him on this one. His aw-shucks-it-aint-nuthin modesty only enhanced our skepticism. And certainly his playing was undeniably unique. But, the drummers too kicked ass, Bobs playing (we eventually admitted) was also necessary for that sound (Mickey and the Hartbeats went nowhere), and how extraordinarily lucky we were to have Phil as another of our virtuosos in this one band. The Phil Zone! It is this Phil Zone that has again sparked the specter of it raising its head again. Oh, Im sorry, you didnt catch Phil and Friends this summer? Shall we go, you and I while we can…
Listen folks. I am happy to report, it is back. Yes, it is not The Grateful Dead and if it were we should hang our heads as duped acid freaks because that would reduce it to formulae and thus a trick. What I am referring to is that groove, that funk, that beautiful racket, that fun…it is back. Hello postshowglow!!!!!
I first caught Phil and Friends with Dylan two years back and admittedly it was okay. I was simply thrilled to see him, like an old family friend, but at the time (Miami, Ohio show) he was playing with the nice fellows from Little Feat, who, while tasty musicians, simply didnt get it. This summer I was privileged to see Phil and Friends at Alpine Valley, Deer Creek, Raleigh, and Charlotte. What fun it was! Below, Id like to provide a few brief observations about these shows and what was happening in them, around them, before them and after them.
Midsummer found many of us freaks, as usual, anticipating a slate of various bands in various local, regional and national locales. News of Phil again gracing the hallowed, timbered dais that is Alpine made making the decision of which band/where to prioritize pretty easy for two friends and myself. After securing required relief from our professional responsibilities, the three of us made the trek from central Kentucky to East Troy, none having been there since 1988 (myself) and 1989 (them). Wow, had it been that long? We packed the car full of goodies, made reservations at a nice little hotel up there and hit the road. We certainly anticipated a good time but ended up getting something quite unexpected.
I had almost forgotten the inviting lodge at the top of the hill that serves as the symbolic big-tent and meeting place for our wandering tribe. And wander in wonder we did (...had to say hi to that tree). After securing the required refreshments, we made our way to our seats and settled in. What a great venue. What a great set in store for us! We were all a-giggle afterward. Without rehashing the whole setlist, allow me to just provide a few impressions. The band plugged in and fell into a nice little jam out of which emerged Viola Lee…We were tickled, as was the crowd as a whole (packed to the top of the hill…thanks yall!!). This jam exploded into a Shakedown that had us boogie-woogying and this maxed out with a – get this – twenty minute Cumberland Blues, which was eventually topped by Masons Children. We could hardly believe it. No shit. Boy, had we missed this. What fun!
The Second Set offered up St. Stephen, The Eleven, Cryptical, I am the Walrus (holy tamole!) and The Golden Road. Did we ever think wed get to hear this stuff played live like this? Warren, Warren, Warren! Molo, Molo, Molo! The hardest thing about Dead music is not just getting it but playing it like you get it. Mr. Haynes (and Mr. Herring as well) were not in unfamiliar territory and played with relish. Mr. Barraco was grinning the whole time like he knew the music was sssweeeettt! And, just to make sure we didnt forget it, the guys finished set two with the closing verse of Viola Lee. One Good Ole Grateful Dead sandwich to go please!
After the headache that was Chicago traffic, Deer Creek found us pumped. We enjoyed the weather, the scene, and many beers later we made our way in. Like many Deadshows, Phil didnt find the groove too much in the first set. Not that the playing was awkward, but more like the set list did not lend itself to conjuring up freakiness from the depths. Having settled for assuming Alpine would have to be our show of bad-ass grooving, Phil and Friends provided a mighty tasty Set Two, much to our pleasure. Morning Dew and Stronger than Dirt…no shit again. Are you kidding me? That was just the beginning. Warren ripped off two sweet Jerry tunes – Sugaree and Stella Blue, so nice I wouldnt have believed it had I not been there. Govt Mule in Lexington years back was okay…Haynes with the Brothers is butt-kicking fun, but Warren with Phil is as good as it gets these days. Trey who?
So we pulled into the Bluegrass State with fine stories to tell and friends to make envious. My girlfriend had planned on going (shes not a head…yet. Im working on it) but she came up ill before the shows and couldnt make it. But, having learned of the North Carolina shows and tiring of hearing me prattle on about the awesome time I had, we both decided to book time off and head toward Tobacco Road. Having friends going, plus free lodging too, made the decision all the more the easy.
We first hit the back roads for a nice leisurely trip through eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and on into Raleigh. We met our contacts, unpacked, put on our game faces and hit the show. Now my girlfriend had seen The Other Ones a few years back (she was rightfully unimpressed) so the scene of freaks was not new to her. I hunted down some supplies, popped us some beers, bought tickets and we were in. She was mainly interested in The Allman Brothers, which she couldnt be blamed for, surely. We entered the show and Phil was already on stage. We found our seats as the PLQ broke out Shakedown (one of her favorites) timed nicely to our on-coming enhanced grins. Two things immediately made me feel like Deadness had come into the arena. First was this grinning, jumping, dancing, sweating dude who just couldnt stand or sit still. That sort of trippy exuberance from an otherwise normal looking guy who was typically only found on tour. The place was hopping and everyone knew it, including the dumbfounded security guy.
You know this guy. Hes got a sort of half-redneck / half-cop mustache; blonde and brown. Wears a quasi-mullet. Yellow security jacket. Not too big or small in stature. Hes neither disgusted nor impressed, but sort of agog. A disbelieving grin flashes across his face at the madness around him, not knowing if he should like it, laugh at it, or…quit working and join in? Confusion and just holding his own dominate his mind because he really doesnt have a mental folder in which to place what hes seeing. Did you think you would see this guy again in your life? The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Phil and his Funky Friends were good sports. They didnt try to show up the Brothers or set the bar impossibly high (after all, the Brothers can hang with anyone anyway). They played a fine set, Phil thanked the crowd for our good energy and, as is now his signature, he urged us all to become organ donors. Off they went. Then the Brothers came out and rocked.
In Charlotte, the rolls were reversed, with the Brothers opening (a long, awesome set). Phil and the phellows came out with Dear Mr. Fantasy that was both deliberate and inspired. The ensuring jam walked right into Brown-Eyed Women, which Barracco sang with glee. The place was a haven of fun and great vibes. I was caught off-guard with this transition and let out a whoop I hadnt heard in years. After the song wound down I started to venture off to the lavatory but was pulled back by what I instantaneously recognized as the opening notes of Unbroken Chain. I can die in peace now…except that St. Stephen, The Eleven were still to be played as well as an incredible set ending jam that cooked into Terrapin Flyer. Oh my…Inspiration move me brightly indeed! The encores of Patchwork Quilt right into Blue Sky capped a memorable evening. Again, ssssswwweeettt! was the operative word during the postshowglow. All my pals were grinning and looking at each as if to say, Was that as damn good as I thought it was? We all answered in the affirmative.
After one of The Other Ones shows, a newbie remarked to me that they liked it but something was missing. This elicited the necessary and predictable Well…Duh! response from me. Jerrys absence was like a donut that was only the hole. What was so agreeably astonishing about Phil and Friends was the absence of Jerrys absence. He was missing only in the way a friend is missing from a camping trip…youd like them to be there, but the trip is not spoiled without them. Not once did it seem (to me at least) that the music suffered from Jerrys absence. Sure, it would have been interesting to see him jam on some of these tunes, but only in the way our favorite, idealized Jerry would have jammed, not the Jerry that made so many of us cringe in the mid-1990’s. Still, it never seemed at these shows that the music needed him there. I would bet my bottom dollar the Garcia would have grinned in delight that it was being conjured up in his absence…especially in his absence.
And there were the archetypical sights to be seen, flavors to be tasted, and sounds to be heard – the young girl tripping so hard everyone wonders if shell make it through the set (she did); the wacky dude leaving to the bathroom talking to himself, no one, everyone about the outrageous set list that just blew his, our minds; the pools of shrimp-like bodies amassed in one large groove-fest; awkward transitions between songs that stumble and then explode; the deep breath you take after a hard bout of dancing where afterward you cant remember a single thing about the first set except that it rocked your butt off; the calling of songs before they are played (I nailed Shakedown and Cosmic Charlie); that smorgasbord of smells.
And, as is expected, the shows were not without their bummers (take a boo break everyone, as Jerry suggested). Those selling bunk merchandise made their predicable presence (why is it always pretty girls selling soapium?) The unfortunately new trend of hoolahoops was ever-present (dont you folks realize you take up 10 times more space than anyone else? Who are you?). Deader-than-thou elitists whined about its not like it used to be (shut up…would you rather these shows no go on at all?) and provided irrelevant critiques of the opening bands. Cops shut down the vendors in Charlotte before the show and we were obtrusively searched before entering (does this happen to Reba or NSync fans?). Also in Charlotte, the venue wanted $7 for a beer (Uh? talk about exploiting the parched masses in mid-summer). However, from a more Phil-osophical point of view, these bummers – few that they were – only provided a needed contrast for the fun that was the music.
See you on tour.