There’s always that awkward moment at a Grateful Dead-related concert when some lovable Deadhead – maybe a widely grinning, tie-dyed, bear-looking guy, maybe his grinning, tie-dyed, rail-thin buddy – assumes you’re one of them.
They say some song the band is playing is great, an all-timer, and they stand nearby nodding in the noodling groove, bobbing together, and you think it’s junk, like an off-night Brent Mydland-era type 1980s show that sounds like a hollow hammer echoing in a giant tin box. But because you’re both into the Grateful Dead — whose long, strange trip of a half-century finishes up in Chicago on July 3, 4, and 5 — and because you both have probably smoked pot and have a nostalgic love for the band and like things “mellow,” they don’t question that you agree with their taste. They assume you’re groking right along with them. And you really don’t want to spoil the party.
Diagnosis: You are a Picky Deadhead. You are part of a polite, rigidly purist cult. You could sit down with cassette tapes and vinyl and CDs and curate a really A+ Dead show. You could piece together some 1970s gems, only those songs where the band gets a little spacey and jazzy and builds through tension and release jams into a different song, where each player overlaps seamlessly with the others. You flinch at the fact that many — most? — Deadheads don’t carefully discriminate when it comes to the music; but then you like that, too, being the resident protector of the music. The thorn in the side. That’s your role in the scene, that it’s about the music, ultimately, more than the scene. It’s the music that takes you to that cosmic-perspective place, that “Dark Star” place, more than any drug or tie-dyed theme park.
So this is the low moaning of a person who has always liked and admired the Grateful Dead, but only very specific moments in the Dead music canon. Those specific moments are magical and all that and more — and the searching for them is part of the thrill. You run across these passages that are truly inspired, that you feel are taking musical interconnection to another level; I could name dates and places. A certain “Scarlet Begonias” pre-marriage to “Fire on the Mountain,” let’s say, or a “Dark Star” into “Cumberland Blues” from 1972 that is sweeping. A classic soundcheck that finds a groove. They are like little jewels that you can pull out, if you’re lucky enough to have found them. Little intense musical happy places.
But our crap-detector is always up and running, we Picky Deadheads. We’re on the prowl only for those instants where the band is really on, that’s the pay dirt. When it’s sharply edged and prismatic, but also flowing forward, when it sounds like the soundtrack to space travel. It doesn’t matter what song. Otherwise, it’s all pretty whatever, and the songs, the same songs for years, can seem tired. That’s the thing about the Dead scene: The songs have their own identities, and some fans just love them no matter how they are played. They like the lyrics and the country-blues-whatever stoned genre and the spread-out arrangements. “Way to Go Home” or “Bird Song,” it’s all good. They’re not fixated on the energy and interaction on stage, the magic factor.
But Debbie Downer here, she or he or us or you or me is zeroed in on the prize, the intersection of playing or the lack thereof. All of our intensity is headed in on the fleeting moments of sound at a show, we are all acute attention and judgment, waiting for joy or settling for disappointment. We are critics, all of us.
I’ve learned not to be a mellow-harsher, withholding my true feelings about a show so as to let my friends or seatmates live unencumbered by my hard opinions. Why burden anyone with your reading of the text as it unfolds, especially if it’s negative? It won’t change anything. I find it entertaining enough as my own interior monologue. I watch every member of the band on stage, and listen closely. With a number of iterations of Phil Lesh and Friends, I felt that sense of transport and mastery, where the band wandered expertly from one song and one complementary jam into another and so on, a beautifully knit web of music for a complete set. In some instances, those jams — removed from any sense of era or historical moment — matched or exceeded the Dead in terms of structure and precision. They were sets that didn’t have the spark of discovery, the stumbling across beauty, the pioneering of the early years, so much as the wisdom, experience, and nonsense-free drive to make it all sing. As the musicians have aged, perhaps, their tolerance for boredom and self-indulgence has diminished. But still, I wouldn’t put those pieces on at home.
The many nights of resigning myself to a fun party instead of a musical adventure, those were nice experiences, but nothing that would ever get me to look at someone next to me and say, “classic.” That’s the difference between an improv that worked, and an improv that worked. Yup, a picky Deadhead. A colleague tells me that the phrase “picky deadhead” is lost on her, because no deadheads are picky if they like the Dead. But we picky Deadheads know she’s wrong, Dead wrong.
There were nights in the 1970s when I saw the Dead and was transported. Back then, there was nothing I would rather do than go to a Dead show. I knew even then that I’d probably see an average show, but the promise of greatness was enough to get me there. Want to know my secret shame? My friend and I once sold gift tickets to Elvis Presley in 1976, using the money for other ventures toward the Dead. We went so far as to go to the Providence Civic Center on the night of the concert, but then we sold the tickets. We only had eyes for live Dead; the album “Live Dead” was our mantra, our holy grail. (Naturally, that night the King wore his immortal “Bicentennial Jumpsuit.”)
Not surprisingly, based on my pickiness, I don’t expect the supposed final run in Chicago, which follows a pair of Santa Clara shows, to be killer; the event of it will be something deep, but it will also be — as it has been for years — something less than it would have been. Yes, these may be the last post-Jerry Dead shows, another end to another era, but . . . I have a cache of many Jerry Dead shows at my disposal now, hours and hours to savor and honor and force onto skeptical friends. I’m thinking the last Dead concerts, which I’ll watch on TV, will probably be nothing to worship and replay and analyze repeatedly, so much as a great excuse to party, a group ride to enjoy, and a very sweet way to bid the band goodnight.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.