By Scott McLennan
The Grateful Dead’s music is moving forward with the help of musicians who are OK with the occasional look back over their shoulders.
“What I’m hoping is to be able to see a way to extend this idea beyond ourselves. This idea can continue without us.”
The “idea” referenced above is the Grateful Dead, and the speaker is that band’s lead guitar player Jerry Garcia, who seems downright prescient when you realize this was said in the early 1970s. In 2018 – 53 years after the founding of the group and 23 years after Garcia’s death — the “idea” of the Grateful Dead still permeates pop culture while serving as a touchstone for musicians who explore the intersection of improvisation and Americana.
In the cultural realm, the tale the Grateful Dead is explored in Joel Selvin’s provocative new book Fare Thee Well, which chronicles the chaos, crisis, and eventual reckoning experienced by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead after Garcia’s death. Those unfamiliar with the group’s golden years should, however, first experience Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead, a 4-hour documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev, which had been available to stream via Amazon until its November release on DVD and Blu-Ray. While both works are sympathetic to the Dead, neither succumbs to hagiography
Though the book and film place Garcia at the center of the Grateful Dead universe, the idea and spirit of Grateful Dead that Garcia talked about in that interview (included in the Long Strange Trip footage) had no better champion in 2018 than Bob Weir. Garcia proffered innate spellbinding talents as a guitarist, singer and songwriter, but in Weir the Grateful Dead found a workhorse, who at 71 years old shows no signs of being ready to stay in the barn.
Weir leads Dead & Company, a popular group that places pop star John Mayer in the Garcia spot. With original Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart also in the band, Dead & Company will be back in the area June 22 playing at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Dead & Company invites listeners to partake in the tribal rituals of a good ol’ Grateful Dead show, with the music being a bit more of a measured, though enjoyable, plunge into the band’s catalog.
Weir was more musically adventurous with the other projects he brought to the area on 2018. First he joined forces with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh for a two-night stand at Boston’s Boch Center that rekindled the glowing psychedelia of the Dead’s early years. Then Weir returned to the Boch Center in the fall, supported by bassist Don Was and drummer Jay Lane, in a show that focused more on the songwriting and musical inventiveness that fueled the Dead’s rise.
While Weir was distilling the various elements of his legacy, his acolytes were fulfilling Garcia’s dream of the idea of Dead carrying on without the band. No group is better at that than Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Russo came into the Dead’s realm as the drummer for Furthur, a Lesh-and-Weir-led precursor to what Dead and Company has grown into. But, freed from the directives of original Dead members, Russo assembled a powerhouse group that is finding fresh ways into songs Deadheads have been grooving to for decades. In 2018, JRAD, as the band has come to be known, pulled a big crowd into the 5,000-seat Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, having steadily grown over the past few years from smaller clubs and mid-sized venues of the sort where you’d expect to see a “cover band”; this is repertoire with attitude. JRAD’s itinerary for 2019 so far only has the band coming as close at Portland, Maine for a pair of shows in early March.
Dark Star Orchestra, a band that has been around for more than 20 years not just covering Grateful Dead songs but recreating entire concerts from the Dead’s history, remains a popular draw around New England, delivering nostalgic doses in Boston, Northampton. and Lowell over this past year.
Those who don’t want to wait for big touring ensembles to pass through the area can get their fill weekly from locally bred Bearly Dead. The band plays every Wednesday at Thunder Road in Somerville, sort of splitting the difference between the “conservative” approach of a Dead and Company and the radical liberties of a JRAD.
Boston area Dead fans also got a pretty decent curveball from Live Dead/Riders ’69, an ensemble comprising onetime Grateful Dead piano player Tom Constanten and musicians who have various tangential connections with the Dead realm. Live Dead ’69 came to the Wilbur Theatre on Halloween, sounding like it hit a pause button somewhere around 1971, focusing on both the material and the style from an era many consider to be Grateful Dead at its most exploratory. ( This show featured an opening set of tunes associated with New Riders of the Purple Sage, the country band that included Garcia for a spell and frequently opened for the Grateful Dead in the early ’70s.)
There is no way of knowing exactly what Garcia had in mind when he talked about the idea of Dead living on. But, as it stands these days, we are watching the Dead’s music itself move forward with the help of musicians who are OK with the occasional look back over their shoulders. Or to quote a song by Weir and his longtime writing partner John Perry Barlow, who died in February, “The music never stopped.”
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.