Dating back at least to 1977, when Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Linda Ronstadt performed during Jimmy Carter’s first day on the job — and all the way up to Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez at Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony — it hasn’t been unusual for rock and pop stars to play presidential inaugurations. Still, there was nothing quite like the sight, 12 years ago tonight, of the Grateful Dead jamming for Barack Obama.
The Dead (then using the shortened name for themselves) hadn’t been randomly invited to perform at the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball on January 20th, 2009. A few months before, the band — minus Jerry Garcia, who had died in 1995 — had reunited for a Pennsylvania show to raise money for Obama’s campaign; Brian Lesh, son of Dead bassist Phil Lesh, had been working for the campaign. The 2009 version of the band — core members Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, joined by guitarist Warren Haynes and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti — was then invited to play one of the many inaugural balls, after they’d passed a prerequisite security clearance.
The ball was held at the 8,000-seat Washington Convention Center, and as Lesh recalled to RS soon after, “At that point, you know, it was just another gig. Get the sound down, tune up the instruments, get the balances right. We had about an hour. The way we were thinking of it, we could either do two songs for an hour, or do six songs and keep it down a little bit.”
In the end, the band opted for a seven-song set, opening with their version of “Dancin’ in the Streets” before moving on to “Uncle John’s Band,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Eyes of the World.” And yes, they wore tuxedos: “It was black tie, so I just went and did my black-tie thing,” Lesh said. “I remember Billy saying, ‘I’m gonna wear a black T-shirt, because I don’t want to sweat up my formal shirt.’” (See fan-shot video of part of “Sugar Magnolia” above and hear the whole performance here.)
Midway through, the Dead took an unexpected set break: During “Eye of the World,” the band was handed a note that Vice President–elect Biden and his wife Jill had arrived earlier than expected. The Bidens danced to Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” before the Dead resumed with “The Wheel,” “Touch of Grey,” and “Box of Rain.” “Pretty much we wanted to play the songs and get ‘em out there and get the groove going so people could dance around if they wanted to,” Lesh said. “Although I didn’t see too many people dancing while we were playing.”
When the Obamas arrived later in the evening for a dance, Lesh said he and his wife Jill danced together. “Romantic as hell,” he said. “Even if we maybe violated protocol or something.”
Three months later, the Dead embarked on a full reunion tour, which included a quick visit with Obama in the Oval Office. During one stop on that tour, in New York, the Dead looked back on their performance for Obama and Biden. “The inauguration crowd was pretty swinging,” Weir said. “They were in a celebratory mood. We played a few songs before I took my coat off.”
“Hey,” Lesh chimed in, “it was black tie.”