Grateful Dead Week – Day 4: On Seeing and Feeling the Dead Live


Okay, by now you get it – I love Workingman’s Dead and I love the Grateful Dead. My passion isn’t so blinding, however, that I can’t accept that this distinctive body of work isn’t for everyone. But it cannot be ignored.  Between the studio albums – unsurprisingly I find certain virtues in all of them (yes, even Go to Heaven) – and the availability of an overwhelming catalogue of bootlegs and officially released live recordings there is much to listen to, which is a big part of why the Dead will continue to attract new fans. In fact, after all the media attention of the fiftieth anniversary shows in Santa Clara and Chicago last year, and the robust touring habits of the surviving “core four” members, it’s fair to say that all things Grateful Dead are enjoying a new wave of popularity.

As the saying goes, there really was nothing like a Grateful Dead show, and to some degree I think that applies equally to shows from the late 1960s and the ‘90s – the sound of the music had changed, but the music’s ability to possess those open to it remained the same.

I’ve wondered quite a bit about my personal tastes while pouring over these songs and extrapolating from them ideas that complement one another and fill in a mosaic that is as much about late twentieth century America as it is about a rock ‘n’ roll band. When it comes to why I dig the Dead, there is one question I can’t get away from: Would I be so fanatical if I hadn’t attended shows? If I’m honest about it, the answer is probably not.

I was at the Philadelphia Spectrum for the first performance of “Unbroken Chain” on March 19, 1995, a song famously never played live after being released in 1974 on Mars Hotel. If you listen to the bootlegs that circulate you can hear the audience’s excitement mushroom cloud from Oh my god is it? to Holy fucking shit it is! pandemonium. I’ve been to Carnival in Brazil and the French Summer Solstice celebration Fête de la Musique. Both were astounding experiences of sharing music with throngs of people, but the explosion of collective, pure, radiant joy during those not even seven minutes in Philadelphia, for me, can never be matched.

The music had already grabbed me before I ever saw the Dead, and when I did first see them, in 1993, the band was well beyond their prime. But experiencing those songs live changed me – there is no better way to say it –to the extent that I suddenly felt connected to all those shows I’d listened to from before I was born. Audibly, they sounded the same, but, somehow, they felt different, I felt different.

The dynamic qualities of a great Dead show shine through on live recordings, but where they fall short is in conveying what Deadheads call the “x-factor,” all the variables that unexpectedly rattled things up, from a bolt of lightning hitting the stage at just the right part of a song to subtle gestures made by the band that the audience latched on to, reshaping the atmosphere. There were countless of these out-of-the-blue moments turned magical, and while you can hear and see some of them on recordings and videos, you can’t feel them in that visceral way only possible from being there.

In October 1989 the Dead played their greatest improvisational vehicle, “Dark Star,” for the first time in five years (and the song had been played sporadically and unremarkably only a few times over about fifteen years). When I hear that crowd erupt at the first notes being played I know their excitement, feel it as if I were there. Those who never saw the Dead can certainly get lost in this “Dark Star,” or any of these other moments, but I don’t know if it is internalized in them the way it is in me.

It’s curious. There is so much that we know, but can’t fully explain. And I guess that’s what it comes down to for me. I know how much the music of the Grateful Dead means to me, and, ultimately, that’s all the really matters.

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