I’ve become a Dead fan, I guess

Before James and I got together, I only had a passing acquaintance with the Grateful Dead. I didn’t own any of their music, but I could sing along with a few songs. I remember the day Jerry died, mostly because I was bartending back then and had a regular who I knew would be devastated and probably come have a few drinks that night. He was, and he did. I think I bought him a round.

Fast forward a few years, and James and I moved in together. As he unpacked box after box of cassette tapes filled with homemade recordings of live shows from all over the country/all over the past few decades, I realized his love for the band was extensive. Like, more than I loved Duran Duran in junior high (and for completely different reasons).

We listen to music a lot in our house. So it makes sense that over the past decade and a half, I’ve heard a lot of Grateful Dead music. And over time, my relationship with the music has changed.

Initially tolerated with a few eye rolls (and questions like, “How long is this song? Twenty minutes?”), the music became ubiquitous–and then unnoticed. Then at some point in the last handful of years, after seeing what remains of the band half a dozen times (in The Dead or Dead and Company iterations), I finally got it.

Grateful Dead songs, specifically of the live variety, are aural comfort food. Much like theatre, no performance is exactly the same. But there’s still plenty to ground you to other experiences with the music. Plenty to give you that sense of familiarity and togetherness.

Sold-out, tie-dyed, pot-smoking house for the Dead show at Shoreline Amphitheatre, across the street from Google, June 3, 2017.

I’ve seen a lot of live music in my life. A lot. And I’ve never experienced the kind of crowd that has consistently appeared for Dead shows in the aughts and teens of the 21st century (I can’t imagine what the crowds were like in the ’60s and ’70s).

The shows we saw in California last decade, before we moved out here, featured a vibrant parking lot scene. People selling “pizza” made on hotplates powered by a battery resting under their rusted-out VW van. (The pizza being a tortilla topped with watery pizza sauce, a sprinkle of pre-shredded cheese and a few slices of pepperoni.) Thin bed sheets spread on the ground and covered with beaded necklaces, glass pipes and crystals for sale. Stinky, barefoot children running around barely supervised. The dress code for old and young veering past the obvious tie-dye and into crocheted tops and jeans with patches sewn on. All worn un-ironically.

Dancing bear ears on a headband. A somewhat subtle nod.

The parking lot scene has been killed for the most part, but the fashions are still pretty amazing. And the lack of self-consciousness is part of the charm. Where so many people try so hard to be “separate” while being in a crowd (“Yeah, I’m at this Backstreet Boys reunion, but only to make fun of it.”), Dead Heads are all in. They love the scene, they love the songs, and they fucking love you, dude.

The guy in the blue and white cap had the best time of his life. All night.

I’ve never seen anyone get in a fight at a Dead show. If you ever have to lose your wallet, phone or keys at a concert, do it at a Dead show because you’ll quickly find a free beer, borrowed phone or ride home from a perhaps chemically compromised but big-hearted stranger.

The guy sitting next to us printed up his own buttons (two styles) with the date of the show on them and gave us each one.

There’s a dedicated music-nerd army of people at every Dead show who livestream the audio or even provide a video feed. You can go on a couch tour and follow the Dead from show to show, and there are plenty of forums online that share set lists and bets on what they’ll play next. Before we went to see the band last Saturday, I reviewed the set lists from the first few shows of the tour and was disappointed they’d already played a couple of my favorites. Which is when I realized–I have favorite songs by this band.

A little hard to read, this guy’s shirt says, “Mayer is Dead to me.” John “Your Body is a Wonderland” Mayer is touring with The Dead on guitar. Nicknamed “Mayernnaise” by non-fans, he actually works pretty well in the mix. And I know enough about the band at this point to have seen that shirt and chuckled. Life is funny.

The saying is “familiarity breeds contempt,” but that’s not aways the case. There are many things we dismiss out of hand that, upon closer inspection, actually have something to offer. They grow on you slowly, like the frog in the pot of water that’s gradually being heated, and next thing you know you’re boiling to death to the sound of Terrapin Station. And you realize there are worse ways to go.

Half the guys on this stage may be in their 70s, but they can still get thousands of people on their feet and keep them that way the entire show. And if they tour again next summer, we’ll be there, on our feet, all night.

#GD50

Last weekend the Grateful Dead (or just the Dead, if you don’t want to insult Jerry) played two shows at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, 80 miles north of here, and this weekend they’re playing three shows at Soldier Field in Chicago, a few miles further. These five, swan-song performances mark the 50th anniversary of their founding. They haven’t played together in years and likely won’t again–so we went to both Santa Clara shows.

Considering Levi's Stadium holds nearly 70,000 people and these were mostly sold-out shows, getting into the place wasn't terrible.
Considering Levi’s Stadium holds nearly 70,000 people and these were sold-out shows, getting into the place wasn’t as terrible as expected.
Long security lines (with bag checks and metal detectors) gave us plenty of time to check out the scenery.
FARE THEE WELL
You'd think a band would get lost in a stadium, but the stage was HUGE.
You’d think a band would get lost in a stadium, but the stage was HUGE.
We knew our seats were "restricted view" but thought we'd be okay since we were on the side. Nope. Huge screens blocked any view of the band. So Saturday night's show was like being at a weird simulcast.
We knew our seats the first night were “restricted view” but thought we’d be okay since we were on the side. Nope. Huge screens blocked any view of the band. So Saturday night’s show was like being at a weird simulcast.
Not being able to see the band (and having a slight aversion to watching them on the big screen), I took the opportunity to people watch. I don't think I've ever
Not being able to see the band (and having a slight aversion to watching them on the big screen), I took the opportunity to people watch. So much good stuff. This dude danced the entire show with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. Whether that was prompted by chemicals or the music, I don’t know. Why not both?
The costumes people wear at Dead shows could best be described as "circus hippie."
The costumes people wear at Dead shows could best be described as “circus hippie.”
asdfd
It’s nice to live in a state that didn’t just humiliate itself over gay marriage (now called “marriage”). Also note the guy trying to fly a kite.
There were Dead flags, too.
There were Dead flags flying, too.
Gumby.
Gumby.
The crowd turned and looked into the sky behind the stage. I thought they'd heard some kind of pot dog whistle, but ends up it was a rainbow.
Toward the end of the first set, the crowd turned and looked into the sky behind the stage. I thought they’d heard some kind of patchouli dog whistle, but ends up it was a rainbow. A double-rainbow, actually, though it’s hard to see the second one in this shot.
asdfds
So. Many. People.
So. Much. Weed.
So. Much. Weed.
So. Many. Colors.
So. Many. Colors.
The seats for show number two were much better. The performance was, too.
The seats for show number two were much better, if not further away from the stage (this is zoomed in).
My friend Evan is involved in an effort to create a huge natural swimming pool in the middle of Houston. This beach ball was my Kickstarter reward.
A friend is involved in an effort to create a huge natural swimming pool in the middle of Houston (called Houston Needs a Swimming Hole). Thought I’d spread the word out here by sending this ball on a journey.
It made it all the way to the front of the stadium.
It made it all the way to the front of the stadium.
Hey, look who it is!
Hey, look who it is! Circus Hippie! And he wasn’t the only person we recognized from the first show.
We don't know these people.
We don’t know these people.
Things got more interesting after dark.
The 80-mile drive back home each night sucked, but it was worth it for a couple of pretty amazing–and colorful–shows.

roll me up

that flag looks familiar
a little flavor from home

Carmel is a weird place to see Willie Nelson, which we did last night. Then again, his show was sold out, so maybe the disconnect isn’t that great. Plenty of rich people like weed and songs about weed and seeing artists who smoke weed and who recently released a song called Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die featuring Snoop Dogg singing about being smoked like weed postmortem.

I bought our tickets months ago, before we moved, somehow knowing we’d be ready for a little Texas flavor one month into our California residency. Sure enough, during Willie’s first song, the Texas flag came rolling out. And I felt…recognition. Not state pride, exactly. More like:

Hey. I know them. I should say hi. But what if they don’t remember me. Eh, fuck it. Let’s go.

If that makes any sense.

Willie’s son’s band opened. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real. The audience didn’t really get into it (even though the band is great) until the third song, which Lukas sang just like his father. Then they started listening. The old ladies sitting behind us, who had a conversation going the entire show, were getting flustered about this cute young version of Willie. “Is he BAREFOOT?” they wondered aloud, the expensive Chardonnay fumes wafting from their Chanel-painted mouths. “He’s SOOOOO CUTE!”

Bless their hearts.

At intermission, we briefly chatted with an older cat who ended up having to take a call. He got off the phone and said, “(Woman’s name) can’t meet us. Said she’s been drinking wine for three days straight.”

Yeah.

Willie is 81 and still puts on a helluva show, though it did feel a little like an amusement park ride. One hit after another without a breath in between and very little banter. Like they needed to barrel through in order to get to the end. I get it. Life’s like that sometimes.

Come ride “WILLIE’S GREATEST HITS,” which ends in you coming to in a cloud of OG Kush wearing nothing but a red bandana.