The Dead, Red Rocks- 7/7
FROM THE TOURING DESK: The Deadhead Defense Mechanism
For the uninitiated or the cynically inclined, the best way to go to a Dead
show is to be dragged by forcible surprise on the day of the gig. You will
have little time to comprehend it when your friend IMs you excitedly that
morning, about some shit 'bout how Santana is s'pposed to sit in, and we
should go go go and then there's a ticket for you, and there's so little
time to prepare that it seems a right Seraphimic (or, at least, alien)
language that lunges out at you when you hit the wall of cars winding up
towards Red Rocks in the hills outside of Golden, Colorado, just a short hop
from Buffalo Bill's grave, and you run into an old show friend who lugs you
hyperventilating up the stairs and smashes smack into her old tour
buddies who've staked out space in the third row, and – well – there I was,
"Forget the dead you left, they will not follow you," Bobby Weir sang on the
evening's second tune, a cover of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby
Blue." Capitalize the word "Dead," and you have one of the great uncheered
platitudes in the Dead's formidable bag. The band that performed at Red
Rocks had every right to call themselves The Dead — or, even, if they
wanted to, The Grateful Dead. One can make all the arguments he wants
against it: there's no Jerry, they've gone (gasp) corporate, etc.,
etc.. But, they're the same sloppy-ass, occasionally inspired group of guys
they've always been. The good news is that, unlike previous incarnations of
The Dead, they have something to say musically. The bad news (which isn't so
much news as a reaffirmation of what The Dead have always been) is that they
often seem to forget that fact. They're not the Dead that we left, or that
they left, but they are the Dead.
The first set, which lurched herky jerky through the Dead's catalogue, was
conducted by Weir, who used his system of hand signals and pelvic thrusts to
corral the band. With the exception of the transition into "Loser," which
tumbled with a splicing litheness that frequently escaped the Dead, the set
seem to have trouble finding itself. Most of the sets individual moments
were fine — including, oddly, one of Mickey Hart's post-Dead numbers, "Self
Defense," which pounded fusion-style like a new take on Blues For
Allah. A pair of Weir solo tunes – "Even So" and "October Queen" – brought the energy down just below the waterline.
Another reason why this band deserves to be called The Dead: 'cause that's
how people are treating 'em (at least at Red Rocks). Spread out around us,
we had a genuinely strange array of characters, the kind who lent themselves
to names. A few rows in front, we had Hans and Franz, Aryan locks flowing
gently in a skin-tight dance. Next to me was the Jelly Man, who raised his
arms in some kind of rollicking dance and shook his arms and belly with an
unparalleled spastiscity. In the row behind was a skeletal figure, who
seemed the ghost of the late tape archivist Dick Latvala, chattering
manically. And then there was the woman who approached me and asked – gently, kindly, curiously – "Are you Soft Monkey?"
"No," I said. "No, I am not."
"Oh," she said, and walked away.
The sum total was absurdity, which only bloomed during the second set. Sure,
the whole thing might seem ridiculous to an outsider: a screensaver light
show, white guys unbopping awkwardly, and these men (or maybe just Weir and
Hart) preening about on stage. But that's the beauty of it. It is
absurd. The Dead were always absurd, their clique always
unfashionable. And I think most people know that, to an extent: the band's
own '70s rallying cry of "Misfit Power" seems to hint at it, but it's an
absurdity which has come full flower in the 21st century.
To wit: at this point, portions of the Dead's songbook is nearly as old as
the folk and blues repertoire the band called on in the '60s was at the time
— and just as mysterious to me. The songs which peppered the American
Beauty-era second set – "Till The Morning Comes," "Candyman," "Mason's
Children," "Sugar Magnolia," "Box of Rain" – are evocative of a simpler era;
not just the old West that lyricist Robert Hunter invoked, but that
particular kind of nostalgia for the frontier that was the lifeblood of '60s
music. The Dead first played Red Rocks 25 years ago this week, three months
before I was born, as the first rock era crashed to a halt and punks rose
out of New York and London. For me, the end of an epoch just out of reach.
As the first set was conducted by Weir, the second set was conducted by Phil
Lesh, who barked orders into a microphone as the band's music morphed around
him. The songs were period pieces, especially "Till The Morning Comes,"
which sounds out of place amidst the grace of American Beauty, but
comes off a deliciously sunshiny relic out of context. The jams between the
songs were long and wonderful, the band playing off of one another in
glorious tandem. Band members tag-teamed with one another. One element of
having such a large band is that there are multiple moving parts. Rob
Barraco is an excellent piano player in this regard, able to keep
interesting dialogues going in the background while never being obtrusive.
Jeff Chimenti is less successful, tending to comp in seemingly appropriate
genres while other players solo — namely Jimmy Herring, who plays
masterfully outside the bounds of the songs, while remaining completely
tasteful inside the language of the Grateful Dead. And though there was an
extra vocal set-up, no guest stepped out to use it — which was absolutely
fine by me.
Finally, midway through the set, the music gave way to that great exotica
tradition: the polyethnic drum solo. On one hand, there might be little
difference between Mickey Hart's world explosions and the kind of
quasi-mystic practices of Yanni and John Tesh. On the other hand, there is a
difference: Billy Kreutzmann. Ye Gods. As Hart moved to the rack of
percussion at the rear of the set-up, Kreutzmann took an incredible solo,
which led to a wonderfully sequenced percussion spectacular which had Hart
and guest percussionist Kitaro pounding Asian drums, and Kreutzmann soloing
on the vibraphone, before Hart took to the Beam with a surgical mask,
practically straddling it, and sending massive vibrations into the Colorado
Yes, the Dead still have stuff to say musically. But they're still the Dead,
and are still capable of vast lameness. Old ways of introspective sloppiness
have given to new ways of introspective sloppiness. Phil Lesh still sings
with a choppily angular voice that is completely unique, though not always
good, but will surely mutate into something akin to the mutilated howls
heard on old folk recordings. Bobby Weir still Freaks Out like none other,
reaching yawping, spitting heights in both "Candyman" and "Sugar Magnolia"
(and, to a lesser degree, "Come Together").
And, hey, the show wasn't one for the ages, but my Deadhead Defense
Mechanism kicked in liberally, and wherever things veered off path, well, I
could always bask in the glowing absurdity of it all, of waking up that
morning without plans to see the Dead or appreciate what a perfectly weird
human being Bob Weir and see my friends and eat a three-bean veggie burrito
before zipping off through the mountain darkness back to Boulder over empty
highways and listening to Yoshimi. I dig.