A definition of symmetry: On May 5th, 1965, the Warlocks – a San Francisco rock band that would soon rename themselves the Grateful Dead – played their first show at a pizza parlor, Magoo’s, in Menlo Park. Fifty years later, on July 5th, I saw the surviving members of the Dead give their last-ever performance under that name – the third night of their Fare Thee Well stand at Soldier Field in Chicago – in a bowling alley, albeit one with digital scoring and craft beers: Brooklyn Bowl, the Williamsburg flagship of Fare Thee Well promoter Peter Shapiro‘s club franchise.
Unlike my satellite-broadcast experience on July 3rd at Shapiro’s other local TV-party destination, the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, the long-distance finale was more like a real gig: an all-standing night on a well-packed dance floor, inside an exuberantly participatory crowd. The screens were smaller but everywhere: 11 of them, including eight over each bowling alley. The house sound was a slightly lesser beast than the big rock-show rig at the Capitol but plenty loud and clear.
The fans were a noticeably younger, more demonstrative mix, too than at the Capitol, a reflection of the neighborhood around Brooklyn Bowl and the $15 ticket price. (My balcony seat in Port Chester was $35.) These Deadheads were also largely those who had come to the legacy via descendant bands such as Phish and Umphrey’s McGee, charter figures in the movement that mushroomed, out of grieving and need, after the death of the Dead’s founding guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. I was frequently asked, during the night, how I rated the chops and contributions of Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, standing in the late Jerry Garcia‘s ghost shoes at Soldier Field. The consensus in the room, before I even got an opinion out, was that Anastasio was killing it.
The cumulative effect, from the opening strut and glistening tangle of “China Cat Sunflower” to the double encore – a forward-through-memory sequence of “Touch of Grey” and “Attics of My Life” – was a lot like my long-ago evenings at Wetlands, the fondly missed jam-band church in lower Manhattan run at its height by Shapiro. As the Dead constantly reminded the shouters and dancers at Brooklyn Bowl on July 5th, in songs like “Built to Last,” “Truckin’,” “Days Between” and “Unbroken Chain,” life in this scene and family was designed to endure. “Gonna miss your baby from rollin’ in your arms,” the front line – Anastasio, bassist Phil Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir and pianist Bruce Hornsby – sang with ragged brio and blunt admission early in the first set in “I Know You Rider,” a folk-blues standard about the learning in roaming. But when that chorale flipped the promise in “Touch of Grey” – “I will get by/I will survive” – to “we” in the last choruses, the Bowl crowd cheered and sang along with mutual assurance.
Hymns to the Future
A notion that hovered along the edges of perception over the weekend, then came into focus as I deciphered my notes from the 5th and scanned the set lists from both Chicago and the weekend before in Santa Clara:
The Grateful Dead were the first rock & roll band that I studied with scholarly passion – onstage and shared tapes – because they were the first to promise every night, for 30 years, that anything could happen: in repertoire, improvisation and spiritual exchange. You had to pay close attention to get even a fractional map of their operating universe. The Dead that I saw at Soldier Field, on the screen in Port Chester and Brooklyn – Lesh, Weir, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, armed with the kindred spirit and performing empathy of Anastasio, Hornsby and organist Jeff Chimenti – came to play with a different mission: that everything that had passed in that space should happen again one more time. The five shows covered every era and most of the classic material but with a thematic deliberation: the return to the acid-ballroom daze of ’66-’68 in Santa Clara on June 27th; the super-Seventies blowout on July 3rd; the greatest-hits sprawl on America’s birthday; tonight’s reflective solemnity (a rapturously extended “Mountains of the Moon” from 1969’s Aoxomoxoa) and hymns to the future.
Nothing could be exactly the same as it was. The younger men evoked the imprints of the missing – Garcia and the parade of late keyboard players Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick – with their own, inevitable distance. Anastasio, in particular, summoned Garcia’s melodic voice on guitar with a tone that was approrpiately clean and precise but rounder and meatier in its treble. And the discreetly aggressive streak that shot out of Anastasio’s soloing in the guitar-crescendo center of “Estimated Prophet” was more Frank Zappa and Allen Holdsworth than ’77 Garcia. Maybe it was an illusion of the PA mix at the Bowl, but Anastasio and Lesh were the primary, conversing soloists; Weir’s eccentric, dissecting rhythm guitar, a vital wild card in the Dead’s charge and jamming, often seemed to be more backdrop than engine.
But Weir, in commitment and thrill, was the night’s vocal star, kicking aside any lingering doubts about his health and strength. He lit up the Biblical Bo Diddley of “Samson and Delilah” and threw himself into “Throwing Stones” with an ardor that was more fever than pitch – in other words, vintage Dead. It is ironic that in his full, gray beard and untamed hair, Weir, 67, now looks older and more excessively seasoned than Lesh, who is 75 and a survivor of both a kidney transplant and prostate-cancer surgery. Yet the impish, teenage zeal Weir brought to the Dead in 1965 – he was younger then than many of the runaways who descended on the Haight two years later – was still there as he led this band, in Chicago, out of the gorgeous contemplation of “Days Between,” the last song ever written by Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, into the jubilant affirmation of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
In the end, though, they left in peace – with the American Beauty jewel “Attics of My Life,” a song of gently insistent gratitude. “I have spent my life/Seeking all that’s still unsung/Bent my ear to hear the tune/And closed my eyes to see,” Weir sang, strumming an acoustic guitar. “When there were no strings to play/You played to me.” It was easy to hear, in Weir’s plaintive vocal and and the supporting harmonies of Lesh, Anastasio and Hornsby, the Dead finally, publically, saying a satisfying thank you to Garcia. It was just as easy to imagine Garcia, who wrote the song with Hunter, singing it in 1970 to a greater good: the America that slowly coalesced around the Dead’s music and outlaw idealism, then survived Garcia and his band. “When there was no dream of mine,” Weir sang before everyone went home, “you dreamed of me.”
The Grateful Dead ended their time as a working band on the very date and ground where their dream came to an unexpected halt, in 1995, with Garcia’s death. But this was not goodbye, just “See you later – and the next dreams are yours.”