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Change Rocks, Bryce Jordan Center, State College, PA- 10/13

Driving several hours with a carload of people to Paterno Country while listening to one of the Grateful Dead's Winterland shows and it's inevitable that the talk moves from a stream-of-conscious run of catching up to silly to philosophical and around and around again.

Inevitably, based on what’s blaring through the car speakers, there’s a brief discussion of the depth of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, and how you can find a line that’s wholly appropriate to life at that precise moment. It’s a welcome gift that he’s bestowed on generations of listeners.

Although Hunter did not perform at the Change Rocks benefit concert for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, he maintained a strong presence due to the lyrical content during the 15 song set by Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart with Warren Haynes and Jeff Chimenti (a.k.a. The Dead).

(For some probably complicated reason having to do campaign finance or perhaps promoter radius clauses neither act gave its band name. Instead, the evening was billed with the musicians’ names.)

Besides music, one of the intermission speakers — a Deadhead and community organizer — cited the line, "Roll away the dew" from "Franklin’s Tower" and her discovery of its meaning in the sense of a resurrection and renewal based on necessity. Conveniently, "The Dead" performed that number as part of the triumvirate of "Help On The Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower."

We were surrounded by the politics of the event, but it never seemed overbearing. In a mini-Shakedown vending area, Obama merch was available along with the usual items – tie-dyes, glass bowls, food, beer, artwork, books…

Making our way into the venue, clever grassroots action took place by having concertgoers fill out forms that gave an idea of how well early voting was going as well as picking up volunteers for the final weeks of the campaign. On the plus side, several names would be picked from the thousands of forms in order to meet band members. Inexplicably, there was no merch available inside the venue. (One rumor has it that the boxes ended up in the wrong city. Still, I imagine that if shirts or posters exist those running things would be smart enough to offer the items online.)

Inside, the only reminder that we were attending a political event came via a red, white and blue VOTE banner with an artist rendering of Obama. Later, a videotaped message from Obama thanked the crowd and the bands for their presence and encouraged everyone to volunteer and vote. Plus, he tossed in a couple artist references — "For 20 months I’ve been traveling this country from town to town and even developing a touch of grey of my own" and "And on Nov. 5 I hope to announce that we ain’t wastin’ time no more."

Some may have been disappointed by the lack of an Obama in the house, but while he appreciates the support it’s still too much of a threat to mainstream voters to be seen with an arena filled with people who are viewed as nothing more than drug-ingesting hippies. In an atmosphere where political opponents twist words beyond pretzel shapes and then pour on the sleaze, his absence was understandable.

While the political angle of the event was met with an enthusiastic response, let’s face it, what got people traveling from around the country was the reunion of Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. It was a close call back on Feb. 4 when Deadheads For Obama played the Warfield with Kreutzmann M.I.A.

But first everyone had to be patient.

Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Marc Quinones, Oteil Burbridge (a.k.a. the Allman Brothers Band) opened with a set that relied heavily on the classics — "Statesboro Blues," "Midnight Rider," "Melissa," "Jessica," "Blue Sky" – with several covers to spice up the proceedings. Warren Haynes chimed in on Van Morrision’s "And It Stoned Me" and Howlin’ Wolf’s "Who’s Been Talking," Susan Tedeschi joined in for a take on Bob Dylan’s "Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright," and a Tedeschi/Oteil Burbridge duet on the Derek and the Dominoes "Anyday."

The set list fell nearly in sync with "A Decade of Hits 1969-1979." On the negative side, no surprises. No guest spots (and I’m not counting Tedeschi who has shown up in the past) other than several brief sax breaks from Ron Holloway. But, on the positive end. MY GOD DO THEY PLAY THE HELL OUT OF THOSE TUNES!!! As much as you can complain about hearing particular numbers again, the fact is that the seven musicians are so locked in to each other’s creative mojo that it the material retains a degree of spark and freshness that they deserve. I vividly recall the encore of "Whipping Post" tearing up the structure as if the notes possessed iron claws.

Other than a quick "Don’t forget to vote" from Gregg Allman at the end of the band’s two hours onstage, the most political statement that the members of ABB offered was opening with "Revival" and the opening lines:

"People can you feel it? love is everywhere.
People can you hear it? love is in the air.
We’re in a revolution. Don’t you know we’re right.
Everyone is singing. yeah! There’ll be no one to fight."

Intermission brings on the campaign’s video biography of Barack Obama. For many including myself the well-produced film gives the type of illuminating background that pumps up supporters and attracts volunteers. A few speeches from community organizers, Penn State football players, assistant football coach Jay Paterno and an especially inspiring one from Theatre Professor Charles Dumas followed.

Cut to the "Boys" walking onstage to the type of cheers that are usually relegated for most band’s encores, the houselights going down. Louder cheers. The Obama welcome message finishes and….

For modern artists in tune to the spectacle of the rock show, the first note of the first number of the first concert together in four years would have popped up the moment the Obama message ended in an explosion of sound and light. Not in Dead land. A pause occurs, as the members are still finetuning their instruments. Then, finally, without any jamming around to find its groove, The Dead go into "Truckin’," a travelogue of America that derives its strength by moving forward each time that the Man and life throws obstacles in your way.

Like many of Hunter’s words, his speechifying is done with a soft touch. Kind of like the attitude in "Uncle John’s Band" with the line, "Come with me or go alone." In the end it’s your choice – to get on or stay off the Bus immersed in the music of the Grateful Dead, with or without chemical enhancements, and in this case, with or without the Democratic presidential ticket.

Lyrical allusions came about thanks the obvious inclusion of "U.S. Blues" in a surprising spot as the second number, followed by the mighty triumvirate of "Help On The Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower." Once again, Hunter "showed up" What really stood out mighty clear during "Help" –

"Crippled but free
I was blind
all the time
I was learning to see
Help on the way
I know only this
I’ve got you today
Don’t fly away
‘cause I love what I love
and I want it that way

The same morphing of lyrical identity is realized on "Playin’ in the Band" ("Daybreak on the land"), "Dark Star" ("Shall we go/You and I/While we can?"). The two-and-a-half hour set goes on and on to an uplifting "St. Stephen," a resonating "Unbroken Chain" and "The Other One."

Musically, the current configuration had the fluidity that built up from decades of its core working together. Still, the lack of playing together brought a few small speedbumps. The cleverness of a "Spanish Jam" inserted within "Slipknot" was never followed through and Haynes’ playing was more textural than slicing with solos.

Just as a Saturday Grateful Dead concert normally brought "One More Saturday Night," it was expected, and at this point more than a little fitting for "Throwing Stones" to appear and weave the scenario of being played like puppets by politicians, with historical references to the Black Plague and nuclear incineration. But, the uplift comes with a Jam and "Playin’ reprise" to finish the set, while the encores of "Touch of Grey" and "Not Fade Away" boost the spirits on high that’s reflected by the good feelings spread around and directed to a growing activism based on hope not fear, love not hate.

Mickey Hart then added the exclamation point to the evening, “Remember this feeling that you have now; this community that we have here tonight. Take it home. Do some good with it. That’s what this is all about.”

Anyone ready for a tour celebrating “change” in 2009?

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