It was at a campfire almost 25 years ago when a Deadhead told me with absolute certainty that the Grateful Dead would keep touring. It seemed like a ridiculous statement. Jerry Garcia — the band's principal singer, songwriter, and figurehead — had died just some months earlier. How could the band keep going? After all, none of the other members had a Ben & Jerry's ice cream named for them. At the time, I figured these were the rantings of some ridiculous clown who couldn't accept the circus had shut down. But the Deadhead insisted, "You'll see. They didn't stop when Pigpen died. They'll keep going."
Wherever he is now, I owe that Deadhead a heartfelt apology. Decades later, the songs and spirit of the Grateful Dead continue to hit the road. This summer, the Dead & Company will jam once again with Grateful Dead founding members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann. Weir will find himself in our humid neck of the woods Friday, February 28, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, where he'll be joined by the Wolf Bros to perform a Dead-laden set as a trio. While Weir reliably strums his guitar, superstar producer Don Was and Jay Lane will be on hand to mind the upright bass and drums, respectively, to aid the guitarist in shepherding the songs that have not only defined his own life but also those of millions around the world.
In spite of the vastly different cultural mood that birthed the Grateful Dead in the mid-'60s, in light of our present technocratic and technology-driven hellscape, there's a palpable irony in the fact that the band’s seeds were planted smack in the middle of what is now Silicon Valley. In the same region where Apple, Google, and Facebook now shape our lives through the invisible hand of the supposedly free World Wide Web, the band first known as Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, then the Warlocks, and, finally, the Grateful Dead was animating a subculture that bristled at the thought of widespread societal control.
The Dead was as American as apple pie, although a more apt metaphor might be LSD-laced ice cream. Even as the group epitomized the psychedelic hedonism of the '60s, it's work touched upon the weird Americana of figures such as Tom Sawyer and Johnny Appleseed and tapped into all forms of traditional American popular music, including jazz, bluegrass, and folk. The band's road-warrior mentality earned it what's arguably the most devoted fan base in modern musical history. Say what you will about Beyoncé's Beyhive, Taylor Swift's Swifties, or Eminem's Stans, but few other act's fans pack their travel bags and devote their lives to their artist of choice the way Deadheads do.
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For almost 30 years, an entire tribe and economy followed the Grateful Dead on its never-ending tour. Much of it was under the continual promise of grade-A psychedelics. I remember when the Grateful Dead last stopped in the 305 at the old Miami Arena in 1994, punk rockers in my high school who would never be caught listening to that "hippie shit" made it to the arena parking lot in hopes of snagging the high-caliber acid that was otherwise hard to find in South Florida.
Though the drugs lured many, it was the music that drew the real zealots. Each of the Dead's tunes has endless variations because no song is ever performed the same way twice. Every concert proved to be a unique experience, and bootleg tapes of the band's shows became prized possessions. There are even sociological theories suggesting that advances in music filesharing on the internet were spurred in part by Deadheads wanting to share their bootlegs as widely and as freely as possible.
Nearly 55 years since Bob Weir heard Jerry Garcia pick a banjo in a Palo Alto music shop, he's still bringing the band's music to the people. It seems the Deadhead I met all those years ago was ultimately proven right: The Grateful Dead will never die.