I have never attended a Grateful Dead concert, I never jumped into this world and crowd for some reason, and the closest I have ever been was an encounter with a large meeting of hippies and deadheads when I was in New York in the early 90’s. It was probably a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death, the Dead was playing the Madison Square Garden and the 7th avenue had been invaded by herds of barefoot, flower-in-the-hair, weed-smoker people wearing long skirts and scruffy hairs… What was this about? Didn’t Woodstock happen a very long time ago, I thought at the time? I was too young when it started but I am not young enough to have ignored the Dead phenomenon, they were around till 1995, but I have never seen the Grateful Dead live. I got the chance to see Bob Weir at the Wiltern on Monday, and in a way I am hoping this is going to compensate a bit for my years of ignoring the Dead culture.
If I am generally surrounded by youngsters at concerts, last night, the Wiltern filled up with sexuagenarians still wearing their rainbow dyed shirts and long skirts, to be honest the crowd was including several generations, but the 50-60-70 something were obviously represented to some unprecedented proportions. Lots of people were already smoking abundantly before getting in and they continued throughout the concert, it was clear they were here to celebrate the good old times. The doors opened at 6:30 pm, a very early time, and since no opening band was announced, I was predicting to get home early? I couldn’t have been more wrong… The show started a bit after 7:30 and the concert lasted, lasted, like an epic episode à la Bruce Springsteen, there was a first part, an interruption, a second part, some special guests and an encore, and it finally was over shortly after 11:30 pm. Bob Weir may be 68, he may look like Santa Claus with his white hair and beard, but he still has the endurance of a young green man, who injects new life into old songs while playing his excellent own material with intricate guitar and a strong commanding voice, but certainly a lot of serenity and grace.
The first part of the concert was all about the new material from his new album ‘Blue Mountain’, his first release since Ratdog’s ‘Evening Moods’ in 2000. He played a few by himself, alone with an acoustic guitar, but also treated his fans with stripped down Grateful Dead covers, a bluesy and punchy rendition of ‘Loose Lucy’ while smoke was emerging from the crowd… However, these new songs were not at all the idea I had of the Dead’s music, they sounded like cowboy lullabies, space-y and wild-west-inspired, opening wide landscapes and evoking quiet sunrises, totally in synch with the beautiful movies and images of mountains, big skies, roads and rivers of the American west that were projected in the back of the stage. A fire was burning on the screen at one point, and a lot of stunningly beautiful nature was on display, perfectly accompanying Weir’s campfire country songs, whose complex textures often reminded me the atmosphere of some of Daniel Lanois compositions. But from this peaceful cosmic contemporary Americana, from a rework on Applachian music, he happily jumped into a cover of this old-time-y tune, ‘El Paso’ written by Marty Robbins and frequently covered by the Dead, before going back to one of his new songs, the whipped gallop of road-trip tune ‘Gonesville’, which once again sounded closer to alt-country version of a Johnny Cash tune than my idea of the Dead’s extended jams. All these new songs were inspired by Weir’s stay in a ranch in Wyoming before he co-founded the Grateful Dead, but they sounded astonishingly modern and multi-faceted.
After a rather long interruption, which gave the time to all these people to grab a beer and stretch their legs – as I could tell from the shirts, many of them had already spent the weekend at Desert Trip! – the second part of the show got much groovier, the background changed from peaceful landscape to multicolor acid trips, more smoke emerged from the crowd, and I realized we were treated for the Grateful Dead part and a few covers made famous by the Dead. If the first part was all about these cosmic cowboy songs of regular length, it was now time for 15-minute long psychedelic jams while geometric flowers were blossoming in the background,
The big surprise (to me) was the apparition of John Mayer on stage, playing side by side with Bob Weir, ‘Jack Straw’, then ‘Morning Dew’, ‘I Know You Rider’… they were also joined by Matt Berninger on vocals and a bunch of The National’s members, transforming the show into a sort of generation-gap filling. It was not the first time Mayer was stepping in, I have even seen one guy wearing a ‘Weir & Mayer ’16’ shirt as if they were to new running mates! I know it is common place to bash Mayer’s own material, and I have never liked it myself, but he was quite at ease on stage, sharing guitar solos with other special guest Steve Kimock, who was getting on his knees while shredding through the parts. I heard one of the deadheads saying he was, at first, not very happy to hear about the collaboration between this ‘pop star’ and Weir, although he was now recognizing it was working quite fine. After the three last songs of the second set, Mayer even came back out for two more during the encore, and Berninger said ‘I’m not going anywhere’. This was how much they loved being on stage with Bob Weir, someone who, as Mayer said, ‘dedicated his whole life to music’.
I said I have never attended a Grateful Dead show, but the result was as close as I could have imagined it could be, a series of songs with interminable guitar solos played through a smoky haze of weed, we were not at the ranch anymore, or may be the ranch had swallowed a few mushrooms. However, we briefly went back to Bob Weir the rancher during ‘Ki-Yi Bossie’, just before an epic ending with the timeless tunes, ‘Peggy O’ and ‘Ripple’, and once again Mayer, Berlinger on guitar and vocals.
I was seeing a lot of people proudly wearing their Desert Trip shirts and talking about Roger Waters’ very political treatment of his set over there: he trashed Donald Trump and paraded a giant pig balloon reading ‘Ignorant lying racist sexist pig…fuck Trump and his wall’… Waters doesn’t turn around the pot, but in these very political times, it was never question of anything close to Trump and political campaigns during Bob Weir’s 3-hour show, there was very little talk as a matter of fact, it was just about music, about the Grateful Dead’s music and the unavoidable nostalgia that comes with it, and the closest I got to politics was when I read someone wearing a shirt ‘Make America Grateful Again’
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Loose Lucy (Grateful Dead)
Lay My Lily Down
Only A River
El Paso (Marty Robbins)
Me and My Uncle (John Phillips)
Jack A Roe
West LA Fadeaway (Grateful Dead)
With John Mayer and Matt Berninger on vocals
Jack Straw (Grateful Dead)
I Know You Rider
Ripple (Grateful Dead)
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