At the start of the fifth episode of the Amazon Prime documentary series Long Strange Trip, Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally explains how news stations, sent initially to cover a Dead show, wound up with a different focus. “The press would arrive, and they would be assaulted by this incredible scene. And suddenly, the story became not the band, but Deadheads.”
More than 25 years later, the Deadhead scene is as robust and densely populated as it has ever been. There are still rituals to abide by, exciting chatter about the previous show and what it means for tonight’s setlist, and a cornucopia of sellers concentrated on Shakedown Street. More than anything else, the Deadhead scene is inclusive to all, even if its rougher edges still get shown.
With my caravan of bandmates in tow, we arrived at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia, roughly four hours before the scheduled showtime. This is essential for two reasons: Jiffy Lube is one of the worst venues in the country to get in and out of, necessitating at least an extra hour into whatever plans you’re making, and also it’s part of the Dead experience to see the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations outside the venue.
As is the case, whenever our band goes to see the Dead, we brought acoustic guitars and welcomed anyone around to sing or play with us. Songs like ‘Jack A Roe’, ‘Dark Star’, ‘Althea’ and ‘Deal’ were strummed, and the atmosphere of community was strong. One listener was so appreciative that he offered us THC gummies as a sort of ad hoc payment.
From there, it was on to Shakedown Street, the legendary sprawl of DIY sellers and merchants who often travel from show to show, hocking everything from T-Shirts and pins to wood carvings and bongs. Yes, you can also buy drugs on Shakedown Street. No, it’s not hard to do. But it’s also not the point: these are people who have gotten on the bus and fully embraced the alternative lifestyle. For many of them, this is their full-time job. Shakedown Street might look like a wook-infested hippie commune, but it’s a testament to the incredibly vibrant culture that still surrounds the Dead. For the people that set up tents and want to sell you a custom hat with Brent Mydland on it, being a Deadhead is a lifestyle.
But Deadheads are more than just dusty hippies. Twenty-five years since the death of Jerry Garcia, the inclusivity of the Dead cult has widened to all walks of life. There are “day trippers” who bring the highest of amenities that prestigious salaries can buy to the lot, and there are down and out figures just trying to hitch a ride to the next show. But for the most part, it’s ordinary people, some of whom put on some tie-dye and like to let loose. One of my bandmates, who was at his 16th Dead and Co. show, was a frequent target for hugs and meetups due to his frequency on the scene. There are still bikers, spinners, balloon makers, and the faithful you expect to see, but the amount of normalcy that fills the Dead world these days seem to far outnumber the people that stereotypically come across as Deadheads.
Once inside, the traditional experience of a Dead show takes over. The seated areas are often calmer and more organised, but most of the action happens on the lawn. After you’ve found your little island, it’s time to become acquainted with your neighbours and start bustling about what the band might open with. The admiration of friends, new and old, are on the line, and if you happen to call a song ahead of time, the adulation that falls on you can be utterly entrancing. Another bandmate bet on ‘Cold Rain & Snow’ as the opener, and when the opening guitar run came to pass, he basked in the glory that came with being psychic.
This is also one of the best parts of a Dead show: trying to figure out what song is about to be played in the nebulous warm-up time between songs. It becomes a game for the most knowledgable fans: if you’re the first to identify when a jam falls into ‘Bird Song’ or ‘He’s Gone’, based on the members’ improvisational habits, then you know you’ve earned your place as a discerning Deadhead.
During the songs proper, it’s also important to have your personal way of enjoying the music. There’s the awkward white-guy “hands in pockets and sway” dance, which I have readily adopted, or you can be a little more enthusiastic in your movements. The lawn is a safe space, so express yourself how you see fit. One of our neighbours had a fan that he would constantly use to blow cold air onto others, while another was a father-son duo with an assortment of multi-coloured toys to use for interpretive dance. Freak flags were flown, various clothing became optional, and as long you weren’t disturbing anyone else’s experience, the laws of the straight world suddenly ceased to exist.
The show itself began with John Mayer arriving with a white cowboy hat, setting a goofy and levity-driven tone for the night. ‘Cold Rain & Snow’ gave way to ‘Feel Like a Stranger’, followed by one of only two guesses I got right all night: a great rendition of Pig Pen’s ‘Mr. Charlie’. The track ‘Dire Wolf’ was next, followed by a surprising set one appearance of ‘Liberty’. The song was the encore of my first ever Dead and Co. show, which took place at Jiffy Lube four years earlier, and to see it played while the sun was still up was a delightfully surprising change of pace. ‘Bird Song’ careened into a wild ‘Don’t Ease Me In’, and the first set concluded on a high note.
But the show’s real fireworks came in the second set. The bandmate who guessed ‘Cold Rain & Snow’ as the opener had also guessed ‘Dire Wolf’ in the car ride over, and just to rub it in, he correctly sniped ‘Here Comes Sunshine’ as the set two opener. Sometimes you’re just in tune with the band. The best jam of the night came during ‘Cumberland Blues’, as Mayer and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti traded solos that increased in intensity until both were creating fiery lead lines that constantly tried to one-up the other. The musicianship in the original Dead was top-notch, but they focused mainly on group cohesion. With its ringers like Mayer, Chimenti, and bassist Oteil Burbridge, Dead and Co leave a lot more room for flashy chops and personal playing styles.
‘He’s Gone’ came with a strangely jubilant vocal performance from Bob Weir. Weir was on fire that night, flashing smiles as he took a large number of solos and lead vocal turns, showing none of the wear and tear that 73 years on this earth might have done. A ‘Scarlet/Fire’ enthralled the crowd, and as ‘Fire on the Mountain’ faded away, the next important segment began to take hold.
There’s an important decision to make during ‘Drums/Space’: do you continue to stand or sit down? I chose to sit, letting the waves of MIDI samples and tribal drums wash over me, but for many, this is the part of the show where dancing and communion with the music reaches its peak. When Mickey Hart begins his excursions at The Beam, his custom instrument that sounds like every instrument combined into a single wave of sound, the vibrations can often cut straight through you. The calmness of ‘Space’ acts as a respite from the intensity of ‘Drums’, and this time the band dropped into a languid ‘Black Peter’ with ease, as Weir showed Mayer who was boss by sporting a killer cowboy hat of his own. ‘Sugar Magnolia’ got the crowd dancing as the set closer, and after having skipped an encore at the previous Raleigh show, the band returned for a beautiful ‘Black Muddy River’ before taking their bows.
Dead and Company isn’t quite a recreation of the Grateful Dead, but rather a reflection of how the Deadhead culture has evolved over 55 years. Many of the elements, and much of the membership both onstage and off, has remained in place. Traditions are still upheld, certain logical unspoken rules sometimes hang over more illicit practices, and the fostering of a still ever-growing community permeates everything.
After all this time, there’s still nothing like a Grateful Dead show, even if it looks and sounds a little bit different than it did at its peak. Weir summed it up succinctly after ‘Cold Rain & Snow’ with a somewhat uncharacteristic acknowledgement of the audience: “You thought it was hard to come back to this?” The idea that this experience was not guaranteed due to age and COVID and a whole host of other factors was not lost on anyone.
- ‘Cold Rain & Snow’
- ‘Feel Like a Stranger’
- ‘Mr. Charlie’
- ‘Friend of the Devil’
- ‘Dire Wolf’
- ‘Bird Song’
- ‘Don’t Ease Me In’
- ‘Here Comes Sunshine’
- ‘Cumberland Blues’
- ‘He’s Gone’
- ‘Scarlet Begonias’
- ‘Fire on the Mountain’
- ‘Black Peter’
- ‘Sugar Magnolia’
- ‘Black Muddy River’