There is a lot you can count on during the summer time. Warmth, sun, thunderstorms, barbeques and swimming pools. The list goes on. And in the time of our parents (speaking from my millennial perspective) you could almost always count on a summer tour from the Grateful Dead. It’s music that was meant to be played and sung into the blazing heat of a summer sunset, and then subsequently danced into the twilight of the night sky. To whatever degree you look at that now, we are lucky to still have that staple of an american summer.
I spoke of my first dead experience two years ago at the same place, The Alpine Valley Music Theatre, nestled into the fields and plains of western wisconsin, between Madison, Milwaulkee and Chicago. Last year, Dead and Company played Wrigley Field instead of Alpine, mainly due to Alpine undergoing renovations over the summer. To the delight of dead fans, we were all able to be here again for another two nights of incredible music.
Walking among the crowd of thousands, it was clear that Dead and Company, now in it’s third year of shows, will always be some sort of divide between us younger kids and the older, original generation of deadheads. Put it bluntly, those who “have” seen Jerry Garcia, and those who have not. But regardless of which side of this divide you’re on, or how important that divide it is to you, it’s not hard to see why people have driven hundreds of thousands of miles to stand on a hill in Wisconsin for three hours. Even looking among the older folks in the crowd, with white hair and wrinkled faces, you can see that they’re not here to see Bob Weir or the Rhythm Devils one last time before they eventually pass on. Just like the sorority girl, who was dragged along by her tye-die, IPA holding boyfriend, who thinks John Mayer is going to whip out ‘’Gravity” at some point in the night. We’re all here for the music. Whether or not we know the next song or not, we want it to take us someplace.
Dead and Company has an understanding of this divide. And while that divide will never keep them from filling stadium after stadium, summer after summer, they do want to make sure that a younger crowd is not excluded from their fanbase just because they see a bunch of baby boomers singing country western songs on stage next to John Mayer. When they began this journey as a group 3 years ago, it was difficult to see past the novelty act of it all. Like another KISS reunion tour, or a son of a lead singer taking their place for a cash grab, ala the Eagles. Dead and Company have evolved well past that. Unlike other musicians of their time, they’re not stuck booking only casinos or getting into a combo tour with 3 other bands just to fill a stadium. Staples of a dead show are still intact. No opening act, 2 sets of music, the EDM or atmospheric Drums>Space all remain. The entire reason why the dead continue to fill these stadiums revolves around the question; “What’s next?” While they haven’t played any new songs in over 20 years, it’s their ability to make these songs sound new at every show that makes them such a national treasure, nostalgia be damned.
While “new” can be described by how a certain song gets played on a certain night, songs can also be given new light by the people who play them. “Uh, We have a little treat for you all tonight. A friend we want to welcome to the stage” Said Bob Weir, halfway through the first set. A quick hush went over the crowd. Bob hardly addresses the audience except to say thank you or warn us of bad weather. Bob speaking was such a rarity, people even turned around in the beer lines to see what was going on. “Please welcome to the stage, our good friend Justin Vernon” Among millennials, Vernon is very well known. The multi instrumentalist behind the grammy award winning act Bon Iver and Volcano choir, which have both gained international popularity and a spot on many a “~rainy day~” spotify playlist. Justin also participated in the Day of The Dead compilation album a couple years back, which was produced by The National and included a whole array of modern artists with their own takes on classic dead tunes.
Justin was a welcome sight -and sound- to us millennials. He’s a rare artist to see live no matter where you are in the world, and even rarer to show up as a guest. But for the older crowd, they didn’t know to think as highly of him. “It’s Bon Iver” a woman in front of me shouted excitedly. Her husband looked over quizzically at her. “He wrote ‘Skinny Love?’ We played it at our wedding” He shook his head , as I almost did, as that’s not really an appropriate wedding song. Among this older crowd, his participation did raise some eyebrows. Justin took the lead singing “Black Muddy River” in his signature falsetto, which did seem to fit well with this song, as long as you knew that that is how he sings. “Friend of the Devil” came next, getting a little upbeat from the last song, and shared lyrics among the group, Vernon showing more of his skills on the guitar. Vernon’s guitar work really shined on “Bird Song” which came next, With him and Mayer trading licks and smiles through the jam, lasting close to 18 minutes. “Everybody say ‘Thank you Justin!’” Weir said before his cue for set break. “We’ll be back in just a short bit.”
The second set of the night was a highlight of the whole run of shows. The crowd was immediately dancing after intermission to “Shakedown Street” and we were blessed with an “Althea” A late China>Rider signature took us into the Drums>Space experience, before a cover of “All along the watchtower” and “Sugar magnolia” Both which had microphone issues forWeir, spawning the now infamous gif of Bob knocking over the microphone in frustration. A saturday show staple, The band encore’d with “One More Saturday Night” before the crowd ventured back to their cars.
Reflecting again on the reaction to Justin Vernon, i’ve found that newcomers to the dead’s music are held to somewhat of a weird standard among the “gatekeepers”. It’s been this way for both new listeners, and new players to the band as well. But “Your Bobby is a Wonderland” jokes aside, The reason for this isnt because of any senile, “Old man yells at cloud” reasoning. It’s because the people who have followed this music over the last fifty years want to make sure it’s put in good hands. What right do pop singers have to come in and take this music from them? They likely just didn’t think pop singers were the ones to help with that.They want to make sure this music is taken care of for the next group. It’s why thousands of cassette tapes from thousands of shows have been recorded and taken from their fading analog format, and uploaded to the internet archive so that they can last, hopefully, for forever. It’s why they are meticulously cataloged, why photos and stories of the band continue to surface, and vintage lot tees increase in value. It’s been said that if we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it. And while I don’t think any millennial would mind reliving the vagabond lifestyle of following a band from town to town, (we certainly dress the part) Having such a catalog of music available will at least tell us where to take it next.