Once again, Obama has raised the Dead: The remaining members of the Grateful Dead regrouped for the first time in four years at a “Change Rocks” fundraiser for Barack Obama at Penn State Monday night. Guitarist Bob Weir, babying a set of broken ribs, joined bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who did not play at the “Deadheads for Obama” fundraiser last spring, flew in from his Hawaiian holdout to join the band.
The crowd was an even mix of die-hard Deadheads and Penn State students, with the parking lot scene pretty standard, complete with tailgating, music blaring, Frisbees flying, and no hotel vacancies for 30 miles (students paid $30, non-students paid $50). The Allman Brothers started the show, giving the event a flashback to the days when the two bands shared bills at the Filmore in the late 1960s and early ’70s. However, without beer sales and zero-tolerance security, most of the students stayed out in the parking lot partying. Slowly, the seats filled as Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes traded licks and Gregg Allman worked the keys and sang with no signs of his illness that kept him offstage last spring. “It’s a beautiful night,” said Haynes. “It’s an historic night. Don’t forget to vote.”
Between sets, Obama volunteers and security wandered the floor of the sold-out 16,000-seat Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pennsylvania as a video message from the candidate played: “For 20 months, I’ve been traveling this country from town to town — even developing a ‘Touch of Grey’ of my own,” Obama said. “On November 5th, I hope to announce that we ‘Ain’t Wasting Time No More.'” After a photo opp backstage, with Kreutzmann grinning and Weir sitting with his chin pensively in his hand, the band took stage and electrified the crowd. The smoke billowed, glow sticks flew and the crowd roar crept up. For the first two songs — “Truckin’ ” and “U.S. Blues” — it seemed the band was set on giving a Dead primer, offering something everyone could sing to. Turning on a dime after two rock openers, the band suddenly jerked into weird spasms, odd jolts and spacey twangs filled with MIDI effects and dueling bass and guitar play. Pleasingly tweaked and twisted, they plunged into deep and dark waters with “Help On The Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower,” “Playing in the Band,” “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen.” They came up briefly for air with a gentle “Unbroken Chain,” and quickly sunk back into a vicious “Other One.” By “Throwing Stones” and “Touch of Gray,” the intensity lifted.
“People are just crazy nervous,” said one Obama volunteer. “There are people here that enjoy, you know, illegal things. And Barack doesn’t want to be connected to that. So, security is a little on edge.” Those worries go along with an endorsement by the Dead. The band approached Obama last year, offering their support and considerable influence over legion of Deadheads. “We’re all deeply into this, into Barack Obama and the thought of taking this country back in some shape or form, what’s left of it,” Hart said recently. “It’s probably one thing we can all agree on. It’s funny that an Obama event would do that, but that’s how important and critical this election is. It’s our call to arms, or call to music, which is the way we arm ourselves.”
Through the show, the remaining rhythm section leaned into one another and seemingly bonded once again. Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Hart gave off a sense of genuine enjoyment. But don’t get too excited just yet. Spurning whispers of a possible reunion tour, longtime Grateful Dead publicist and historian Dennis McNally has cautioned, “They just want to see how it feels.”
The Dead Set List:
“Help On The Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower”
“Playing In The Band”
“The Other One”
Encore: “Touch of Grey”/”Not Fade Away”