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Dead, fans revel in community
The Dead's Phil Lesh says the band draws energy from its devoted fans. The Dead's Phil Lesh says the band draws energy from its devoted fans. (bryan bedder/getty images)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / April 17, 2009
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Jerry is long gone. It's been five years since the band's last tour. All the remaining members have their hands in other musical projects. But for the Dead, it still begins where it always did.
THE DEAD At the Worcester DCU Center tomorrow and Sunday. Tickets are $63.75-$95 at 617-931-2000 or www.ticketmaster.com
"We just finished up two weeks of rehearsals," says bassist Phil Lesh, "and on the last day we played for 90 minutes straight, and it was intense, thick, all kinds of events happening. In the middle of that we played three songs, but the idea was to start right out looking for the magic. From bar one, we were picking up the music out of nothing."
Forty-four years after the Grateful Dead formed, original members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Lesh, who have performed as the Dead since Jerry Garcia died in 1995, are still - wait for it - truckin'. It's an apt pun, considering that the 2009 tour (which stops at Worcester's DCU Center tomorrow and Sunday) is devoted largely to the Grateful Dead classics, and that the band, fleshed out to a six-piece with the addition of Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes and Ratdog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, has been holed up in a studio working up a mind-boggling 160 songs.
To the uninitiated, such an undertaking seems like cosmic overkill. For Deadheads, it sounds like a few killer set lists. As far as Lesh is concerned, it's church.
"We don't think of ourselves as religious people or gurus, but church is a place where people go to find something larger than themselves, and to that end we made a decision never to play the same set," Lesh says.
Lesh won't extend the comparison, but the Dead and the church have quite a few things in common, like throngs of devotees who make regular pilgrimages to worship at the altar, events that most describe as religious, and the power to generate among its followers an extraordinary sense of kinship. That, more than any trippy solo, is what accounts for the Dead's longevity, says Rob Weir, a history professor at UMass-Amherst who shares a name but no blood with the band's guitarist.
"I don't think it's radical to say that they weren't the greatest band in rock, but there's a whole culture that goes with the Grateful Dead and it keeps being renewed," says Weir, who teaches a course called "How Does the Song Go? The Grateful Dead as a Window Into American Culture." "Americans are longing for community, studies tell us, and Deadheads really are a community."
What feeds the fans sustains the band, as well. "A basic level of love and trust that's absolutely unchanging" is how Lesh describes the Dead's musical chemistry, although he says that the members are so divided when it comes to business matters they won't attend meetings together, for fear of total system failure. So the Dead farms out the pesky parts to a team of handlers and hones in on the happy bits - what Lesh likes to call the stream.
"It's out there, and when we're really on and all the stars are in alignment we can tap into that stream, and bring it down so it's audible here on earth," says Lesh.
That's the kind of comment that gets believers testifying and skeptics rolling their eyes. The Dead has long endured scorn from those who argue that the band's musicianship pales in comparison to its capacity for excellent vibes. Asked if he feels his band is misunderstood, Lesh laughs.
"Let me tell you an anecdote. My older son, who is 22, was listening to one of his favorite bands, who shall remain nameless, and I couldn't stand it anymore. I said, 'Grahame, this stuff is awful crap.' And he said, 'It must sound that way to the untrained ear, Dad.' "
Yet the list of credible musicians who line up year after year to perform in various Dead spinoff projects - Phil Lesh and Friends, Bob Weir's Ratdog, Mickey Hart's Global Drum Project - is evidence that there's more to these guys than epic jams.
Jazz guitarist John Scofield plays frequently with Lesh. "The jazz community doesn't take them too seriously, and I've got to admit that for a long time I didn't know much about the Dead's music," says Scofield. "I'll tell you that on all counts, as songwriters and as improvisers, they're not taken as seriously as they should be."
Lesh can't say the same for the jam bands whose ranks have swelled in the Grateful Dead's wake. He says he's happy to have opened the door for budding musicians, but that the scene is overrun with impostors, and that the Grateful Dead's true heirs can be found in unlikely places.
"A lot of the so-called jam bands are a lot more arranged than you would think, but there are other artists carrying on this tradition that you wouldn't think of as a jam band. Somebody like Ryan Adams is taking the most profound and meaningful elements of what the Grateful Dead did and applying them his own way," Lesh says. "He's noodling all the time."
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