The Long Strange Trip: Fare Thee Well!
Everything isn't totally political, like the universal of music.
If the recent concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead are any indication, they help make the claim that the Dead are the preeminent U.S. rock and roll band of all time. The San Francisco sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s – steeped in drugs and rebellion – rose above Los Angeles, New York or Chicago as the homeland of the most distinctive and inventive form of rock in that period. Classic LA rock died with Jim Morrison and limped on with CSNY and the more commercial Eagles; the Velvet Underground were the preeminent New York band of the period and disappeared after a few albums; original Chicago bands like Blood Sweat & Tears, Butterfield and the Electric Flag could not keep up. Southern-linked bands like Creedence Clearwater and the Allman Brothers went big, but then Creedence collapsed and the Allman’s carried on, but not with the same impact. Other bands from San Francisco – Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, Country Joe & the Fish, Quicksilver, It’s a Beautiful Day, Steve Miller, Mother Earth, Santana – did not quite have the staying power or mass appeal.
Singer songwriters like Dylan and Neil Young were the best of their class; Springsteen is about the only act that can challenge the Dead, but he’s still not there.
The Dead’s Fare-The-Well concerts around the country this 2015 summer, ending in a three night stand at sold-out Soldier Field in Chicago, were a fitting crescendo. The Dead and the shadows of its long litany of deceased players rose above all this - carrying its sound and cultural impact through 5 generations. Playing with them at the Chicago concerts were Trey Anatasio of Phish on lead and Bruce Hornsby on piano, joining original members Bob Weier, Phil Lesh, Bill Kruetzmann and Mickey Hart, along with Jeff Chimenti on the dangerous keyboards. The ghosts of Jerry Garcia, PigPen, Brent Mydland, Keith Godchaux and Vince Welnick hovered over the concerts.
Why were they the best? Exercises like this are probably stupid but nevertheless I’ll give it a try.
Covers: The Dead were the greatest cover band in the U.S. – doing Dylan, Stones, Beatles, Chuck Berry, and dozens of other roots songs written by others, and making each one their own. Listen to the Dead do “King Bee” and compare it to the Stones version, and you’ll know who did it better. They respected their roots, unlike musicians who think everything must come from them alone.
Influences: The Dead combined influences from blues, folk, blue-grass, country, jazz, Americana and electronic / experimental music into a unique American amalgam, bar none. Nothing synthetic or sterile about their approach. They had a repertoire of nearly 700 songs and only one top-40 hit, which made them a decidedly non-pop phenomenon. You rarely hear about the Dead from any corporate source, as they started as a completely 'underground' band whose work was promoted by word of mouth. They didn't get much promotion except by the formerly underground press like Rolling Stone, and it went on that way for years.
Drugs: No other band made marijuana and other drugs an accepted part of their shows. In Chicago 2015 the smoke still billowed.
Visuals: The Dead were known for their iconographic visuals. The dancing bears; the skull and roses, the lighting-bolt through the red, white and blue skull; the Jester; dancing turtles; Uncle Sam skeleton and Captain Trips. They relied on excellent light shows from the first to the last. The Stone’s tongue symbol pales in comparison.
Improvisation: They perfected the improvised and jazz-based ‘jam’ form of rock. Each concert was similar to a jazz performance in the sense that base songs were many times used as springboards for something else. Songs flowed into each other and transitions between songs were many times improvised. They put the ‘psych’ in psychedelic.
Dancing: Most Dead concerts had people dancing for hours, like some St. Vitus ceremony. The concerts were the equivalent of a roots-based ‘rave’ that went closer to public ecstasy than almost any other band could muster.
Live performances: The most prolific band in history, playing more concerts than any other. Ultimately their audiences were full of people of all ages and classes. The Grateful Dead itself played 2,318 concerts. The Dead, Further, Phil Lesh & Friends, Dead & Company, The Other Ones, Ratdog, Rhythm Devils and other spin-off bands have played many more. Garcia himself had several bands like Old & In the Way. As a result they have the most recorded concerts of any group of musicians, as chronicled by “Dick’s Picks” and many others. They had the most loyal live following of any rock band. Nearly 25 million people have seen their shows.
Technical: The Dead were the first rock band to control the recording of a studio album, their second - “Anthem of the Sun.” Owsley Stanley, of LSD fame, designed their ‘wall of sound’ which linked every instrument to around 5 to 10 speakers. It was so massive they eventually stopped touring with it. Sound was always important to the Dead – they wanted it as close to perfect as they could get.
Industry innovations: They were the first band to try to start their own label and to sell tickets to their own shows, to cut out the profiteering middle-men. They were, of course, a money-making machine if they toured, but played many benefits too. They had a huge crew that were not just minions and took fan outreach seriously. They were the first band to allow taping by the audience. They were fluid and welcoming and so they invited many people to be part of the band – for a long period or just a few shows. Notable members or players were Donna Godchaux, Bruce Hornsby, Warren Haynes, Joan Osborne and Branford Marsalis, but many others came on-stage.
Cultural: They were a living link between the Beats like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Kesey and the hippies. Their song “Cassidy” celebrates Neal Cassidy, who drove the bus named Further in the book “On the Road.” They attempted to continue this legacy until the end, though members like Bob Weir became millionaires in the process. Nor were they spot-light hogs. The had the sense to walk away from Altamont because they could tell it was a bad place to be in.
In a way they were part of a ‘cultural revolution’ that continues to this day. Given right-wingers still denigrate ‘hippies,’ as do centrists and liberals, those 50 years are proof of a very powerful cultural thrust that hasn’t stopped yet.
Be Kind & Fare Thee Well
January 26, 2016