The Dead Get Political

Band takes a stand for Kerry, prepares for fortieth anniversary

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"It's time to get registered, it's time to vote," says Dead guitarist Bob Weir. "If you ever want to vote again, do it now. I'm not telling people who to vote for. I think they can figure it out. But I will say this: If every Deadhead in the state of Florida had voted in the last election, it'd be a very different world right now."

Never known for mixing their music with politics, the Dead -- the abbreviated name for the post-Jerry Garcia incarnation of the Grateful Dead -- have taken up a cause: removing George Bush from office. The group has even been playing "Johnny B. Goode," the Kerry campaign theme song, during shows. According to Weir, the Dead's move into political activism came from a sense of urgency.

"It occurs to me and the rest of the guys that this may be our last meaningful election," Weir says. "If we continue to drift the way we're drifting, the United States will become a democracy in name only. Instead of government of the people, by the people and for the people, we'll have government of the people, by the elite and for the elite, and the people will come secondarily."

The Dead kicked off their summer-long Wave That Flag Tour at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee on June 12th, and it ends Thursday in Atlanta. The outing is the latest step in a revitalization of the band, which reunited in 2003 around the core of Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. They streamlined their organization, cutting the employee roster in half and outsourcing merchandising and ticketing operations.

This is their first tour with a three-guitar lineup that includes new addition Warren Haynes. According to Weir, differences among band members have largely been resolved. "Going into this, I was thinking maybe we were gonna need a traffic cop," says Weir. "But everybody's listening to everyone else, and Warren has made us a little more muscular."

The tour hasn't been smooth sailing. In June, the Dead sold out only three of five nights at Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheater, and they played to half-empty houses in Phoenix and Salt Lake City. But Weir says the crowds have been enthusiastic -- and young. "There are kids up front who don't mind the elbows," he says. "A few rows back, they get a few years older."

The group will celebrate its fortieth anniversary in 2005 and plans to launch a major U.S. tour next year. Rhino Records will release several studio reissues and rare live material. Asked whether the band plans to put out new music, Weir says, "I don't know if albums are the way it's going to be done anymore. With downloading, the album may be an obsolete concept. If there's some reason to put out a group of songs together, we may do that. We'll be recording all along. We've written a few new songs already."