.Still Dead After All These Years

Dead & Company swinging for the fences at Oracle Park

After eight years, Dead & Company is calling it quits. Oracle Park in San Francisco will be the home of the band’s last hurrah for three shows July 14-16.

Don’t fret. 

There will still be ample chances to see Bob Weir’s The Wolf Brothers, Phil Lesh and Friends, Billy Kreutzmann and The Kids and whatever weirdness Space Lord Mickey Hart comes up with. For a band whose motif is death with the possibility of resurrection, it’s no wonder there have been, and continue to be, so many incarnations. This time around though, for Dead & Company, the farewell is final. 

Cheer up. 

Never before in the history of the band has there been so many chances to hear good old Grateful Dead music played live. And maybe that’s the point, the music lives on. 

When Jerry Garcia died in ’95 his spirit splintered into thousands of fingers across the globe, and manifested as an army of Jerrys. There’s zero chance of the music ever being lost to time. Legend status is achieved through endurance and the Grateful Dead, after almost 60 years, have surely crossed that threshold.

They’re a Band Beyond Description

In almost every state in the country, there are numerous spin-off bands. According to Grateful Dead publicist, author of A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead and a wonderful mensch, Dennis McNally, there are over 800 Grateful Dead cover bands in the USA. 

“The Garcia Birthday Band guitarist is superb. I also love JRAD (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead),” says McNally from his home in Marin. 

Currently, polishing his tome, The Last Great Dream, about the underpinnings of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, McNally is staying busy.

 “I interviewed all the Dead bands for Skull and Roses,” he says, citing the recent Skull and Roses Festival in Ventura, CA featuring 32 Jerrys from dozens of states, each band putting their unique thumbprint into the swirls of the music. 

 “Their stories about how they found the music of the Grateful Dead all had similar themes. They heard some Dead, began to seek out others and soon found like-minded musical individuals. 

The music is a language all of its own.

 It’s a good thing. My favorites at Skull and Roses were bands that no one outside their hometown knew. I liked the all-female, Brown Eyed Women, who hail from Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania,” McNally said. 

It’s encouraging there are younger musicians out there ready to take over the chasm Dead & Company leave in their wake, but why is a monolithic touring band stopping now?

Don’t Send Me to Rob That Bank Again

It’s partly age. Bobby Weir is 76, Phil Lesh is 83, Mickey Hart is 79 and Bill Kreutzman is 77. Money? There is a lot of speculation that Bob Weir has become one of the highest paid singers in the world with upwards of $60 million in one year, from just ticket sales. Everyone in the band has earned their dough so it’s not about the money. I can hear the ghost of Bill Graham in my ear saying, “It’s not about the money … it’s about THE MONEY!” 

McNally points to the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts as the turning point, where the members of the band realized the skeleton cash cow had a few more years to earn. 

“A little bit cynically, I knew Fare Thee Well would happen,” says McNally. “Because frankly, there was way too much money to be made. It would be un-American for a bunch of musicians who aren’t getting any younger to turn down multi-million dollar paydays. I thought the Deadhead phenomena would dribble away, all things must pass and all that. Contrary to my expectations, and looking at in hindsight, a huge majority of Deadheads having the Dead ritual (at Fare Thee Well) in Chicago (and San Jose) collectively said ‘It’s not the band that’s the thing, it’s the music.’” 

The Music Never Stopped

On a good day the Grateful Dead takes you further into other worlds. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the Oracle with 42,300 other spinning tie-dyes or if you attend Grateful Dead Sundays at the Felton Music Hall where Matt Hartle brings in the best of local and Bay Area players to make the night continually vibrant and fun. The music can hit you just right, wherever you are. And, it’s not just about the music, for many, it’s also about community.

“I loved the community of friends inside the shows. But for me it was always about the music. Community was a close second. I was a Deadhead,” says Santa Cruz celebrity, humanitarian and beloved Banana Slug String Band member Larry Graff.

At the Fare Thee Well concerts, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio played the role of lead Jerry guitar, but for Dead & Company, it’s heart throb John Mayer. Some people don’t like John Mayer.  He’s young, tall, good looking, super talented, has a sparkling watch collection and dates famous actresses. What’s to like? But for some, Mayer is their personal, beloved, gateway into the music.  

“I know older Deadheads, some, that are going to shows and they love it,” says the colorful Graff. “They love John Mayer. Let them all have fun. It’s great. With all my heart, I want people to experience joy. But if they’re smart, they’ll find their way back to Jerry. I just listened to a ’75 show and the influence of John Coltrane and Miles Davis on Garcia’s guitar playing is superb. I was blown away. Garcia was also an amazing composer in the mid-1970s, writing the music for Terrapin Station and Blues for Allah. It matches composers like jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Bill Evans.

“Garcia’s phrasing is unique and iconic. Anyone that is a musician’s musician knows. And even if they didn’t like the Dead, they had to respect Jerry,” says Graff. 

The Bus Came By and I Got On

Eugene and San Francisco might argue, but Santa Cruz, in many ways, is Dead Central. We have The Grateful Dead Archives at UCSC. We boast ground zero of the first acid test, with the proto-Dead, the Warlocks, at Merry Prankster Ken Babbs’ spread in Soquel. 

And where else can you walk down the center of town and get to hold Neal Cassady’s hammer at daughter Jami Cassady’s street booth? 

 So no wonder, Santa Cruz has their own Dead bands. Graff, who sometimes plays with Hartle, is also in Painted Mandolin, whose new album features original tunes. “It’s a great time of evolution for us,” says Graff. Painted Mandolin, along with China Cats, Aardvark, Shady Groove and until recently, Slugs and Roses, bring the music of the Grateful Dead to life every time they hit the stages in Santa Cruz. 

What is so compelling about the music and scene that it is as vibrant now as it was when Jerry Garcia was alive? Grateful Dead historian and Scotts Valley resident Nicholas Meriwether speculates on some of the connections between Deadheads of the 1960s, 1980s and the 21st Century. 

“My first show was Fall of 1985 and one of the things that catalyzed my generation, my cohort, as demographers would say, is that we were coming of age in the Reagan 1980s,” he says.

 “During that time, there was a deliberate repudiation of the ideals and the idealism of the 1960s,” says Meriwether. And for us, growing up back then, there was a sense of powerlessness. So, looking back to the 1960s, was looking back to a time when young people actually had power. They had agency. They changed the course of the country for grace and ill, as Robert Hunter would say. And in that sense of having a voice and having a role, the Grateful Dead had always had a really strong component of citizenship. 

Although it tended to be bohemian and somewhat inward looking, they certainly weren’t telling their fans who to go out and who to vote for. But they were saying there was something about the American dream—about the right to live and the way you want to live. And if that meant basing it around community and friends and celebration and music, there’s nothing wrong with that. Garcia alluded to that in a couple of later interviews where he said, ‘The Dead offer a sense of adventure.’”

And all that holds true today. With the current resurgence of fascism and endemic political corruption, this is part of the backdrop within which Deadheads are finding camaraderie. Things have never been stranger and, according to Meriwether, all this is pushing young people to seek out authentic experiences. 

Let’s Get On With The Show

“Today there is even greater appreciation for the idea of an authentic experience, something that is not mediated by massive corporatism. Something that is not processed, preplanned and programmed,” says Meriwether. 

“The average stadium show today is programmed down to the millisecond. Dead & Company are still playing improvisatory great music. And kids are absolutely right to want that experience and to value it and appreciate it. I think the reason young people are paying ridiculous amounts of money for tickets is because this is as close to the Dead as they are going to get with Bobby and Mickey. 

They know that, they appreciate and treasure it, just like we all did in the 1980s. When Jerry had that health scare and was arrested, I think collectively we thought, ‘We better see as many shows as we can and how lucky we are to see the Grateful Dead.’ For the new fans it’s not nostalgia, it’s a participatory experience and as close as they can get to the real thing.”

Up until 1987 and Touch of Grey, (“the fucking hit” as McNally calls it), people became Deadheads organically. Typically an older person would give you a couple of cassettes and in the process you would also learn some manners as well as a love for the music. You learned the protocols and the code. For the people that came after that, the main thing they experienced was the party in the parking lot.

Strangers Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand

Traveling the country like a carnival of misfit superheroes, Deadheads are traversing this great continent with their vans and cars full of their wares: stickers, T-shirts, veggie burritos, nitrous tanks and good vibes. It might seem super simplistic, but good vibes and a steady stream of luck is what has gotten Deadheads back and forth across the U.S. of A, safely, for decades.

On Dead & Company 2023 Tour is Buttercup. He’s got a plethora of super creative merch, combining two of his passions in life, the Dead and the Simpsons. It takes time and a lot of work to set up the booth. Money made from sales is the only way he can afford to travel the country following the band. And, with tickets ranging from miracle (free) to $500 and up, getting into the show, when you have a tent full of your wares in the parking lot, is tough.

 “I hopped on in Chicago so I think it’s 16 shows. Where am I now, Deer Creek? So, I got seven more to go,” says Buttercup somewhere in the heartland of America. “I’ve been a Deadhead most of my life and also a Simpsons fan. They were both formative to my development and close to my heart.”

Buttercup had a pandemic pivot where he was no longer able to shoot video for live music platform Nugs and tried a “wouldn’t it be funny if” idea. 

“I put the Simpsons characters’ heads on the Dancing Bears,” says Buttercup. “I taught myself Photoshop, posted it on Instagram and Facebook and all these people responded they wanted to buy it. Then, last summer I was visiting my in-laws near Dodger Stadium where Dead & Company were playing. I bought a table at Target, brought a shoebox full of stickers and my table was busy the entire time. It was incredibly affirming,” says Buttercup whose booth and Instagram is New Springfield Boogie.

Buttercup finds the scene of vendors on this tour to be a strong community of wonderful people who look out for each other. Being kind to each other is still a Grateful Dead ethos. And throughout the lot, the music emanating from dozens of vehicles is Jerry Garcia; nobody is playing a Dead & Company soundboard. Buttercup says, “The Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band are what I listen to, that and System of a Down.” The more things change, the more things stay the same, and sometimes, that’s a good thing.


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