James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

What Would Jerry Do? The Dead Rise Again for Obama

A review of “Change Rocks,” a concert at the Bryce Jordan Center, Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA, 13 Oct. 2008.

“Change Rocks.” Such a simple, unambiguous phrase, shared by brand of costume jewelry, but in this context, signifying a much loftier calling than that of mere adornment: This is the title given the much-heralded—in Deadhead circles, that is—concert featuring all of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, playing together for the first time since 2004. In the nomenclature of youth, “rocks” denotes the highest sense of positivity and approval, though it’s a colloquialism likely to be supplanted. After all, rock and roll may not be moribund, but it is a creation of the previous century. Old people’s music, this subgenre of rhythm and blues.

By contrast, many supporters find Sen. Barack Obama, the 2008 Democratic standard bearer, to be an emblem of a new era. Not just antidote and antipode to George W. Bush, but perhaps the first example of a new political genre: a leader from the left who, despite the best efforts of the GOP’s ad men and strategists, may be better characterized not by creaky old tropes and memes, but instead as post-boomer, post-60s, post-Vietnam, post-trickle-down-economics—in short, twenty-first-century Democrat. Some observers call him a potential harbinger of a fresh, quixotic American political reality, one that seeks more than a mere rhetorical refutation of the excesses and hubris of the Reagan right, but a course change, a tangible way forward out of the shambles of deregulation and greed that have precipitated an economic crisis of unprecedented scale and extent.

Perhaps no greater indicator of the candidate’s appeal to the graying ponytail set was the event held October 13, when no less a group of 60s icons than the Grateful Dead put aside personal and business differences to reunite for a higher calling, for what some seem to feel may be the best chance to, yes, change the course of American, if not human, history. Many assume, wrongly, that the musicians did this sort of thing before. But the Grateful Dead always eschewed overt displays of political allegiance or theater (as if there is a difference) in their thirty years of playing benefits and supporting causes. Now in 2008 the stakes were apparently high enough to shunt aside all that back story in a gambit to do their part to influence the great unfolding of homegrown electoral history.

“We’ve been waiting forty years for another shot,” bassist Phil Lesh said at a February 2008 press conference for “Deadheads for Obama,” the first attempt by the band to raise awareness just before the California primary. In an apparent reference to the tragically forestalled candidacy of antiwar Democrat Robert F. Kennedy, Lesh seemed to invoke the very spirit of the times in which his musical and philosophical allegiances were forged. Lesh made the point explicitly: “Obama, when he speaks, I get goose bumps.”
In the same press conference, another reporter asked guitarist Bob Weir if they were frustrated at having played so many political benefits through the years without seeing the kind of idealistic change that their generation had hoped for some four decades earlier.

“I don’t remember ever playing a concert in support of a candidate before,” Weir answered.

Whether Obama or the Bush presidency (or both) caused the band members to make such a public expression of unprecedented political activism, the decision led some fans to wonder if the legendarily antiauthoritarian Garcia would have approved. After all, in a 1982 interview, Jon Carroll asked, “Would you ever consider playing to support a political candidate?” Garcia was emphatic then. “Never. We draw the line at that . . . there’s nothing we believe so uniformly and so totally that we could use the Grateful Dead to advertise it.”

But the Reagan era eroded that stance, and only six years later came the first, seemingly antithetical example of the band’s engagement with direct political action. In September 1988, on the final night of its annual Madison Square Garden sojourn (in those days, an astonishing series of eight or even nine-night sellouts), a cast of pop star guests turned what would normally have been a routine Dead show (if such a thing could be imagined) into a bullhorn of alarm over the still continuing destruction of Amazonian rainforests.

The band’s commitment was such that the psychedelic pioneers even put on sport coats and held a press conference at the UN, an occasion that produced another memorable Garcia quote, one perhaps echoing his earlier reticence about being a mouthpiece for much of anything besides free-spirited improvisational music: “Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.”

The puddle jumper from Philly bumps along at 12,000 feet over the rounded, ancient Appalachian foothills that characterize the topography of middle Pennsylvania, urban density giving way to what constitutes the geographic majority of the state: rolling farmland, Whitman’s “quintillions green” laid out in checkerboard for God and air travelers to admire, representative more of the American heartland than the compact coastal centers of American commerce and governance to the east, strung together like an endless supercity.

Below me lies what locals call the Happy Valley, as if my destination were a sitcom small town located somewhere between Mayberry and Petticoat Junction. Pennsylvania’s diversity, thanks in part to this rural part of the colony, makes it that most essential of voting blocs, the swing state, or as is more often termed in this unusually bitter race, a battleground for the presidency of the United States.

State College, Pennsylvania, is the centerpiece of Happy Valley, the home of Penn State. Hard to imagine anything much being here without the university, in fact. A nice little Deadhead omen appears, a sign announcing “Fillmore, 2 miles” shortly before the taxi rounds a bend through a corridor of green. The football stadium abruptly breaks the bucolic reverie, an enormous structure accommodating 100,000 fans, all out of proportion with anything else around. A modern day temple at which those of a particular American faith gather. It’s Sunday, and being high college football season, I ask the cab driver if there’d been a game the previous day.
“No,” he says, “we’re on the road. But we got Michigan next week. That’s a big one.”

“Make a lot of money on game days?”

“Nah,” dismissive. “I don’t work game days. More trouble than it’s worth.”

I can see why: Hard to imagine a town of this size accommodating such a crowd, equivalent to the largest audiences to which the Dead performed at the zenith of their late period popularity.

“Heard about the big Obama concert tomorrow? With the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band?”

An uninterested shrug. “Yeah, I guess I heard something about that.”

In the shadow of the stadium stands another sports structure, the Bryce Jordan Center, home to Penn State basketball, and soon, a mass of Deadheads. For four years, diehard fans have not heard a full reunion of the remaining band members. While Deadheads have not been exactly starved—the individual members have their own bands now, and all tend to tour with frequency—not since the 2004 tour have fans had a singular impetus around which to gel as they had in the glory years: an arena of concrete amidst green fields, for a brief time its surrounding parking lots turned into what folks used to call Deadville, or the Scene, or the Village, or just “the lot.” That was ground zero for an entire subculture, one that did not emerge following a messiah or a sports team, but instead coalesced around a rock band, one of the biggest ever. The music industry suffers in the wake of the aging, vanishing supergroups; who can fill such structures now but flash-in-the-pan pop sensations and television talent show winners? Surely a Dead reunion, particularly for this unprecedented cause, would be big news.

To the Deadheads who sold out the venue in a matter of hours, apparently so, but few others. Thorough and multiple Google searches on the day of the show found nary a mention on CNN, Fox, USA Today, MSNBC, CSPAN, or anywhere other than a couple of token articles in local, small circulation media. Curious. The Dead and the Allman Brothers: legends both, veterans of landmark concerts like 1973’s Watkins Glen Raceway extravaganza, at which they’d performed to a crowd estimated as high as 750,000. Now reuniting on the same bill to perform for Obama, having never, ever played a show in support of a political candidate. Never. Ever.

A call to a Penn State’s media relations specialist reveals a cagey attitude: “All media inquiries must go through the Obama campaign. Here’s the number.” It looks as if the Obama camp, wary and weary in these final weeks before the general election, naturally wants all the help it can get, but at the same time is leery of any potential fall-out. What if hundreds of Deadheads, with their documented proclivities for psychotropic substances, get arrested?

And so this particular event has been run well below the radar, with nothing like the coverage of Bruce Springsteen’s mini tour of the state over the weekend, a reprise of his attempts to humanize and underscore the necessity for change that in 2004 brought the Jersey rock icon out at late-season John Kerry rallies. Couldn’t the Grateful Dead be a useful PR catalyst for political transformation? And if so, why not bill it as the Grateful Dead, instead of “Change Rocks” and a list of musicians that non-Deadheads have barely heard of, if at all?

I ask about that. Why not advertise the groups by name? “The billing wasn’t decided by the campaign,” Pennsylvania Obama campaign press secretary Andrea Mead says, “but by the band.” She corrects herself. “Or, you know, I think the groups needed to be billed that way for reasons of campaign finance law.”

So no concern about affiliating Obama with the Dead and its motley legion of discalced and hirsute followers this close to the election?

“The campaign was happy for their participation. The ‘Deadheads for Obama’ event in February, they [the band] put that together themselves.” That concert had been an impromptu reunion of three of the four Dead founders. “When they volunteered to help in the general election, we were thrilled,” Mead adds.

The Obama PR representative goes on to explain that the Pennsylvania location was suggested by the band: indeed, a swing state, though one situated in the heart of the Northeast “Dead corridor,” which has always bred devoted Deadheads. Mead says, perhaps a little disingenuously, “And Penn State had the right size venue.”

“Free Trip to Heaven—Details Inside” announces a church marquee directly across the street from Penn State’s campus. An eyecatching suggestion to a Deadhead, words like “free”, “trip” and “inside” all being loaded terms in the subculture’s lexicon, though “free” became transposed in later years into the concept of receiving a “miracle,” i.e., a gratis ticket, courtesy of a generous fellow traveler. (Seen on a roadcase a few years ago at a Ratdog show, Weir’s principal post-Garcia project: “YOU DON’T NEED A MIRACLE, YOU NEED $49.50.”) The streets on Monday are now alive with tie-dye, much of it stretched taut across middle-aged bellies, coronas of wispy hair corralled by caps emblazoned with various Dead icons and signifiers. Not exactly the youth vote meant to be motivated by this event. With the lack of publicity and public awareness, will the concert have much meaning to that eighteen-to-twenty-five year old demographic?
Alisha Balée, 21, a Penn State student and employee of a shop across the street from campus that stocks such Deadheady accoutrements as glass “tobacco” pipes, has doubts: “I don’t think most people are aware that this is an Obama event.”

“Are you going because of Obama or the Dead?”

Balée, who reports having seen the Grateful Dead a few times with an older sibling when she was “6 or 7,” replies, “The Dead. I haven’t seen them in so long.”

For many longtime fans, the Dead in 2008 is a mere simulacrum of the actual, Garcia-fronted band. Some Deadheads, perhaps more with cynicism than sentiment, find all post-Garcia iterations of the band lacking: Fine musicians all, but Garcia was the core. As one Deadhead scholar explains to me, “The individuals all played with each other as a group, but each member was conversing principally with Garcia. He was the hub; they were the spokes. You can see that in what happened after he was gone.” For him, that’s what has been missing in the various reunions. Each attempt has underscored the problem of trying to replace that crucial center of gravity. Another longtime fan, Lisa Biasi, a New York Deadhead and veteran of over 200 shows, put it succinctly: “No matter what they do now, they always sound like a Dead cover band,” she wrote after Monday’s performance.
But it is worth remembering that the band faced the problem of replacing a central member, and the ensuing issue of authenticity, before. In 1973, following the death of founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Garcia himself commented, “It can never be the real Grateful Dead again now.” For most fans, though, it was the demise of Garcia twenty-two years later that proved to be the true line of demarcation between Dead and dead. Whatever they may call themselves, all that remains is essentially an extended rhythm section: the drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, bassist Lesh, and guitarist Weir, an iconoclastic and accomplished musician, but never more than the second vocalist. To many critics and even some fans, he remains Garcia’s protege, the rhythm guitarist, not the lead.

So for their increasingly rare reunions the band turns to players such as jamband go-to guitarist Warren Haynes, not merely a member of the Allmans, but the frontman of his own harder-edged group, Government Mule. As he did for the Dead’s last tour in 2004, Haynes will play lead guitar and supply harmony vocals tonight, a thankless role that, thirteen years later, remains a target for criticism and disappointment, regardless of who stands in for Garcia. Even post-Grateful Dead conglomerations boasting two lead guitarists proved unable to recapture the magic. The original band members themselves have often characterized their onstage chemistry as possessing qualities more ineffable than sharply defined, “catching lightning in a bottle,” as Weir once put it. Alchemy may be the better metaphor, suggesting that Garcia’s shoes need not just a musician with a guitar, but a wizard with a wand.

To the credit of the post-Jerry experiments, they all honor an explicit wish of Garcia’s: that his life’s work would result in “something that they can’t tear down after I’m gone.” A resurgent Dead, as in 2003-’04, would in a sense be enough to satisfy the late guitarist’s hope for his legacy, but with the fragmented but quite real subculture also continuing to survive, it would seem that with or without his original bandmates actively playing together, Garcia’s contribution to American popular culture has not been forgotten.

The show, with reported ticket sales of 16,000, is now only hours away, and the dappled sunlight and crystal blue sky reminds more of an old spring tour stop than an autumnal afternoon in Pennsylvania. By the time the lots between the various stadia and the arena begin to empty of their normal occupants, faculty, staff, and students—it is Monday, after all—traffic is not so much backed up as steady. There’s plenty of room, and though it’s early, there’s not much time before the Allman Brothers begin at 6:30.

As with tradition, early arrivers in Deadhead parking lots comprise a number of distinct sociological groups: vendors aiming to get the best spot, either away from likely security hassles, or just in a prime traffic area; amateur audio enthusiasts, anxious to get inside the arena first and claim the best spot for recording onto whatever digital medium so-called “tapers” use these days; hardy railrats hoping to make it all the way up front on the general admission arena floor; folks of whatever tendencies ready to get a decent head on before the big show—if in fact they’re going inside at all. The scene outside the shows, particularly in the latter years, became notorious for attracting those looking for a free outdoor party complete with a cornucopia of cheap beer and readily available drugs, even nitrous oxide, a particular scourge that many have cited as one of the more unsavory aspects of life in Deadville.

“Shakedown Street,” as the row of unlicensed vendors is traditionally called, is tentative at first, and remains so throughout the evening, at least in terms of beer and other consumables described above. Artisan wares like hand-blown glass pieces, jewelry, bottled water, and Obama shirts are abundant, however. A young girl, smiling beatifically, calls out to passersby, “Ice cold candy; ice cold water!” A far cry from the old mantra of “doses and ’shrooms, doses and ’shrooms,” but then, as the years had rolled on and the fanbase aged alongside the band, the Dead scene became by necessity a de facto family environment.

The word has been that this will be a tough security environment, the pre-show email announcements from the venue explicitly warning against certain behaviors, though nothing out of the ordinary in twenty-first-century America: No open containers of alcohol, no narcotics, no weapons, and ominously, “the Bryce Jordan Center is a smoke-free environment.” Clearly, too, the venue has been advised by the Dead organization, given the last injunction: “Please note that sleeping overnight in your car is not encouraged.” Crowd rumors abound over whether an actual candidate will make an appearance, but even a cursory assessment suggests there’s nowhere near the level of security for that, just the normal campus cops, sitting on the edge of the lots, watchful but not intrusive. I ask around if anybody’s heard anything about Obama or Biden or even self-professed Deadhead Al Gore showing up, but nobody’s heard a peep one way or another.

Another question, posed to a random sample of show-goers: “What about the Obama connection influenced your decision to attend?” Bridget from Albany, late twenties with two small children—a boy of five and a girl, Stella, two—is bringing her youngest to the child’s first Dead. Shy, only the slightest bit self conscious, she replies: “I’ve never voted. I’d like to see Obama win, though. I mean, I’m not down with McCain.”

Why hadn’t she voted?

“I just never trusted politicians, any of that stuff. I never registered.”

Far from looking like a hippie chick living “off the grid,” Bridget appears much like any young, single mother: Jeans, a sweater, hair pulled back. Just another American, politically disaffected and emotionally disenfranchised by a life that has given them a great sense of so-what. How can my puny vote make any difference? In the wake of suspiciously-decided close elections, butterfly ballots, 90,000 elderly, jewish West Palm Beach residents somehow voting for Pat Buchanan, and easily hacked electronic devices, it is easy to see Bridget’s cynicism for what it is—and not as an exception, but very often the rule.

Traffic streams into the lots, Shakedown Street fills in, bodies mingling as the spicy aroma of sage and other combustible vegetable matter swirls. A standard pre-show scene, if more modest in scope. So what else is different about this scene from the old days, other than scale? To this writer, a veteran of just over a hundred shows in the last decade of the Grateful Dead’s touring life, it is apparent that the “Family,” as the most hardcore group of Deadheads were once identified, are not here. These were committed, even pseudo-religious followers, doctrinaire, living in converted schoolbuses, attending every show (whether or not they went inside). This is a Northeast Dead crowd, middle-class white kids of all ages, looking to party, looking to recapture past, ragged glory. The Church of Unlimited Devotion, an actual sect of Deadhead dervishes, is no more; no ecstatic “spinners” will be seen in the lobby tonight.

“How much for the Obama stealie?” I ask a vendor arranging a table of T-shirts with the campaign’s appealing logo, a rising sun with the letter “O” superimposed within the familiar, red, white and blue skull known as a “Steal Your Face,” after the album whose cover featured the icon.

“Fifteen, or two for twenty-five.”

I pass; there must be a dozen vendors with variations on Obama/Dead mashup graphics, as well as at least one out-and-out Obama campaign schwag setup. If I decide I need a souvenir, these vendors will still be here after the show, for as long as they are allowed. But even more than this, I’m having a hard time warming up to the idea of a Dead-endorsed political candidate, even one as promising and symbolic of a new age than Barack Hussein Obama, a true representative of the supposedly polyglot underpinning that defines the American rubric. Like the bumper stickers on fundamentalists’ cars say, “WWJD”? An acronym for “What Would Jesus Do,” Deadheads years ago appropriated it, and now it seems particularly apt: What would Jerry do?

At the crest of the 1988 campaign season, which at its height coincided with the Fall Dead tour, I recall seeing tie-dyes with Garcia’s smiling face and a message: “Toward a Kinder and Gentler World.” That was the most political shirt I remember seeing in those days, and it certainly wasn’t printed and sold by the band; neither were the bumper stickers that said GARCIA IN ’88, Michael Dukakis perhaps just as uninspiring to Deadheads as he was to many voters that fall. Deadheads in particular had less a figure around which to rally than simply suffering a lingering mistrust of the zero-tolerance years, with Drug Czar (and noted nicotine addict) Bill Bennett smugly declaring the hippie sacrament marijuana a “dangerous drug” that merited its harsh, unequivocal prohibition. Only one administration prior to this, gentle Jimmy Carter had advocated that possession of up to one ounce of that dangerous drug to no longer constitute a crime, not only in recognition of its fundamentally benign nature but also to free up resources to make it easier for cops to pursue crimes with actual victims like rape and murder. The get-tough-on-crime congress, Democratically controlled, rejected the notion. Deadheads had, and have, a right to feel a touch dejected, as did their reluctant avatar:

“I have a feeling this whole Reagan era means a tightening down from the top, so we’re always on guard,” Garcia said in that 1982 interview. “The world is not safe for people like us.”

Sun setting behind the arena, the doors have opened, the tapers are set up inside, and as we file in, young Obama volunteers work the lines, dangling a carrot, true catnip for Deadheads. “Fill out this card,” the young man says, fresh-faced, smiling, not a minute over 18. “You could win a chance to meet the musicians.”

“You mean, meet Jerry Garcia?”

“Uh, yeah,” frowning only slightly. “I think so.”

I fill one out, checking the box that says “Senator Obama Can Count On My Support,” the most ambiguous and noncommittal choice. I’m from South Carolina, after all, not the Pennsylvania countryside. There are plenty of people back home that need convincing; I’ve got my own work cut out for me. Already I wonder whether this event will generate what the local Obama campaign wants, which is a small army of motivated, fresh recruits to scour the rolling hills and knock on the doors of people without yard signs. In casual conversation, I meet attendees from Boston, Albany, Rochester, Cleveland, unspecified towns in New Jersey, Vermont, North Carolina, Georgia, even a Deadhead named Ivan who flew in one a red-eye from Ventura, California, scene of many legendary Grateful Dead concerts at the fairgrounds beside the green-blue infinitude of the Pacific. So far, I’ve met no one but the girl in the headshop who is actually from Pennsylvania.

The security screening is modest by modern standards, no metal detectors, no wands, only a cursory pat-down; definitely no candidates appearing tonight. A question about the bulge in my pocket that is my eyeglasses case, and the guard is easily mollified; the fanny pack slipped under my jacket isn’t even noticed. There’s no contraband inside—I slipped the pouch behind the jacket tied around my waist only out of habit.

Familiar faces on the concourse; strangers stopping strangers. How much tie-dye can the human eye perceive in a short amount of time? No beer sales, which is probably for the best. A waste of money anyway: six or eight dollars for a tub of Bud Light that sourly reminds drinkers of the old joke about making love in a canoe.

The Allman Brothers Band appeared on stage at more-or-less showtime, perhaps ten minutes late. Greg Allman, back from a springtime health scare that caused the cancellation of a run of shows (shades of Garcia), asks in the standard show opener of “Revival” if the people, can they feel it, the love that’s in the air? A very 60s sentiment, charming and innocent at this far remove of Terror Nation—or perhaps more accurately, the Great Depression, Mark II. The Brothers barrel through what for them feels like a fairly standard set, catalog staples punctuated by less familiar tunes sung by newer band members like Haynes and guest vocalist Susan Tedeschi, the wife of second generation slide guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks. (A highly pedigreed Dickey Betts replacement, Trucks stands onstage in front of his uncle, founding member and drummer Butch Trucks.)

While the Allmans, like the Dead, are short a few original members—the absence of still-alive and active Betts is particularly jarring—with the Trucks bloodline present and one remaining Brother still behind his keyboards, the band is certainly legitimate enough. The crowd tonight is not theirs, though—during their first few tunes, the arena is barely a quarter full. Seasoned Dead show-goers know, however, that fans there for the headliner will stay outside as long as possible, both to circumvent the beer ban as well as skip the opener. For those inside, though, the Allmans play a solid, two-hour set, capped by an incendiary encore of “Whipping Post” to which the now rapidly filling arena responded with enthusiasm.

The lights come up and showgoers circulate, all but the railrats and those jamming the floor in front of the stage, people waiting to get the closest look possible at the rainbow makers, as psychedelic jester Hugh “Wavy Gravy” Romney once referred to the Dead. Stagehands scurry like worker bees: acts of this stature, headliners both, don’t share gear, and the stage must be completely reset.

So far, this event could have been like any concert with multiple acts on the bill. Not a peep from anyone about Obama, nor any politics whatsoever. But then a screen descends behind the stage, the scoreboard overhead lights up on all four sides, and the politics begin with an Obama documentary. Looking around, I wonder how many older fans also realize how far we have deviated from the trajectory of the Dead’s musical history. The video is the one shown at the convention, perhaps shorter, notable for its omission of Obama’s attendance at Columbia University and his service as editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Then the lights on stage come up and we have a series of live speakers, individuals who one suspects wouldn’t have gotten near a Garcia-commanded stage: A theatre professor originally from Chicago’s south side, Charles Dumont, praising the bands and of course the candidate and most especially of course the “finest university in the land, Penn State,” or words to that effect. Since Pennsylvania is critical to an Obama win, he says, “I can’t think of a better reason for the Dead to reunite!” Cheers, agreement.
Next, a couple of local activists, one of whom first saw the band 35 years ago. She asks a crucial question: “How many are from somewhere other than Pennsylvania?” Big cheer; no surprise there, but it underscores the problem. I don’t know how much this event is going to help Obama win Pennsylvania, not with the constellation of McCain yard signs ringing the outskirts of the town. After a couple of student organizers, full of vim and vigor, come an All-American symbol if there ever was, football coach Jay Paterno, Penn State pigskin royalty, and coming out for Obama, no less. But tarring all football jocks as lunkhead reactionary righties is apparently no safer than branding all Deadheads as unemployable worthless stoners.

Another first, then, when a dozen or so members of the Penn State football team file out. The quarterback, African-American like the candidate himself (not the usual Deadhead demographic, which skews demonstrably caucasian), makes a brief speech about how cool and important this campaign (and concert) are, adding: “I’m a drummer, so Mickey Hart is one of my idols!” Whether he realizes it or not, every football fan here will now also remember him as a Deadhead, a badge of honor in this crowd as great as the Heismann Trophy.

The stage goes dark again, quiet house music barely audible, the crowd anxious, anticipatory. As Lesh appears, futzing with his rack of gear, a shattering cheer wells up, an order of magnitude more passionate than any yet heard. The bassist hunches his shoulders and does a mischievous dance back into the shadows. A couple of minutes pass before it seems like the arrival of all Deadheads’ favorite moment: the lights go down. But the musicians don’t appear yet: first another video presentation, this one far more personal. A recording of Obama himself, speaking directly to the concert-goers, looking and sounding pleasant, reassuring, and grateful.

“Thanks to the Dead and the Allman Brothers Band for coming together,” he begins, working into his pitch with lines calculated to appeal to both bands’ fans. “In my twenty-month campaign, I’ve even developed a ‘touch of gray’ myself,’ eliciting appreciative cheers, “and now I ‘ain’t wasting time no more’.” It’s an oddly effective rallying cry, emphasizing that we all need to get to work on the business of righting the ship of state that to many in this audience—a microcosm of aging Boomer, Gen X and Y middle class Americans—is indeed a ship of fools. A standard stump speech, if compressed, Obama’s words touch on the basic themes: working for change, the choice between the candidates, economic populism, the need “to bring this war in Iraq to a responsible end,” which gets the biggest reaction, but even that is muted in comparison to what greets Obama’s final “Thank you, and enjoy the show.”

Now there’s no politics, just “the boys,” as fans call the band members with all due familiarity and affection, rolling into “Truckin’” to open. A signature tune, lacking in political resonance, it is now a classic rock-radio relic, a most autobiographical of compositions, and then jamming into a selection that is both apropos and obvious, and a Garcia tune: “U.S. Blues.”

“I’m Uncle Sam/that’s who I am/Been hiding out/in a rock and roll band.” Metaphorical, perhaps, for the dearth of leadership from the Bush administration, who have been hiding not in a rock group, but rather in plain sight.

The four founding members, augmented by Haynes in the Garcia spot and Ratdog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti across the stage beside Lesh, attempt quite a few of the more complicated songs from the repertoire, and do so with aplomb, a testament to professionalism and familiarity with the material: All the musicians include in their solo act a high percentage of catalog material from the original iteration of band, time-tested compositions that to now mothball would surely further dilute what interest remains in seeing these men ply their trade.

Another anthemic, iconic Grateful Dead song, “Franklin’s Tower,” and now the entire arena seems to be dancing, joyful. If any aspect of the experience now seems lacking, it is only that the venue seems far from oversold. If this were, say, the Fall 1995 tour (the tour set to begin not long after what turned out to be Garcia’s death, and obviously cancelled), this building would be packed to the rafters, inside the arena, out in the halls, in the parking lot.
As the set progresses, all three of the band’s most legendary vehicles for improvisation are assayed: “Playing in the Band”, “Dark Star”, “That’s It For The Other One.” Transitions back into composed material are sometimes haphazard and tenuous, but the jams themselves are interesting and fully developed. With near-mythical rarities like the psychedelic statement “St. Stephen” and Lesh’s own composition “Unbroken Chain,” recorded in 1974 but never performed live until the last year of touring, the evening’s setlist has all the makings of a Deadhead dream show.

As much of a dream setlist as there can be without the mellifluous sixteenth notes of an emotive, spiraling Jerry solo, of course.

The Dead may have never allowed speeches from the stage, but Weir and lyricist John Perry Barlow (ironically, a lifelong Republican, but one of many this cycle to come out for Obama) contributed at least two eighties political screeds, Biblical Vietnam allegory “My Brother Esau” (too little too late), and the more contemporaneous “Throwing Stones,” with its references to south of the border shenanigans, “shipping powders back and forth/black goes south and white comes north.” The tune, prescient, was first performed four years before the Iran-Contra scandal broke, and concludes that our trust in governance might be better left to ourselves: “The future’s here/we are it/we are on our own.”

“Ashes, ashes, all fall down,” the crowd responds.

Back into the “Playin’” reprise, a classic Dead set closing moment, and the musicians bow and walk off to thunderous approval.

And now, the final taboo—against speaking from the stage—also falls, as Lesh, a liver transplant survivor, now always implores the audience to make the noble decision to become organ donors, and does so here as well, just before the encore. Then Weir steps up to his microphone, guitar in hand, and makes the briefest remarks of the evening. Not a political speech, a concise anecdote: “I remember reading something [late gonzo journalist] Hunter Thompson said that made me sit up and take notice: If every Deadhead in Florida had voted in 2000, this would be a different world today.”

A nice line, but it presupposes that all Floridian Deadheads would have been Gore supporters, and I know personally at least one there who loves the band and is a hardcore GOP partisan, even now remaining an unabashed Bush apologist. But in general, this is what they used to call the crunchy granola crowd, and Thompson’s assertion is probably a sound one. In any case, the message is clear: Vote for somebody, but whatever you do, vote, an innocuous, nonpartisan message, one worth speculating that Weir may have chosen based on a tickle at the back of his neck, the gentle hand of the fatherly figure who’d once been his mentor, his brother in art and life. What would Jerry do?

That message of engagement and not direct endorsement, despite the clear intention of the concert, might be just the sort of dignified expression that Garcia would have made, if not in the old days, then surely now in the troubled times that constitute 2008, and with it the final hundred days of an administration peeling away even their own former supporters like the music fans exiting a concrete cube into the crisp air of an autumn night.

It’s not yet Halloween, but the Dead have come alive. Perhaps it was only for this one occasion, but possibly for one more tour around the only country in the world in which they could have been and done what they’ve done: Motivate an entire subculture of Americans to break out of their ossified ways of thinking and “run away to join the circus,” as Garcia characterized the Deadhead willingness to live a life on the road, just like their idols. Tonight their clarion call is one that suggests the tuning in part, but not the dropping out. No matter; that whole idea is so last-century, dude.

Back in the parking lot, crowds of people throng to the hissing of nitrous oxide tanks, avaricious entrepreneurs trading on people’s desire to push the high a bit further, even if it is by ingesting a nervous system suppressant, a sensation intense but ephemeral. Will these Deadheads “take this feeling we have tonight back home and do something with it,” as Mickey Hart exhorted in his farewell following the rousing double encore of “Touch of Grey” segued into the feel-good drumbeat of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” a showclosing staple of Dead shows back in the day, with the crowd clapping along and singing, “Know our love will not fade away?” With the election only three weeks away, perhaps that was time enough for the afterglow to linger—for America, down but not out, on life support but not quite dead, to find a way forward.

On this night, it is easy to see the symmetry—and propriety—of the musical icons standing before us and the choices that lay ahead, the stakes felt enormous indeed. In the words of Lesh’s own lament about mortality “Box of Rain,” the last song Jerry Garcia ever played on stage, “such a long, long time to be gone/such a short time to be there.” Yes, the country is aging and maybe even ill, but far too young to give up the ghost just yet—as is true of the Grateful Dead themselves. It was a historic evening, a worthy cause, and a fine show. Most of all, it may have been exactly what Jerry would have done.

This article appeared in the program of the 12th Southwest/Texas P & A Culture Association’s Grateful Dead Caucus meeting. This group of scholars, writers and music lovers convenes during the annual conference, held in scenic Albuquerque, NM.

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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