The Dead | 05.04.09

bobby-small.jpgOne of the greatest things about being at a Dead show is feeling the raw, positive energy of the crowd that seems unparalleled at any other concert.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Photos: Amy Burger

 

Allstate Arena, Chicago

Like most old-school Deadheads, I have been closely following the performances of The Dead’s latest incarnation on their Spring tour – the first reuniting the band under this moniker in five years. The remaining original members of the Grateful Dead have not used the band’s full name since the passing of founding father Jerry Garcia in 1995, but have toured both independently and together in various formations over the years. The Dead reformed late last year to unite their fans in support of President Barack Obama, who recently showed his gratitude by giving the band a personal tour of the Oval Office before their Washington, D.C. show.

On this tour, remaining original band members Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann are joined by guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti of Weir’s band, Ratdog – both familiar and well-respected figures in the Dead community. The momentum has been building from city to city on this tour as fans watched the band’s setlists "unfold" in real-time on Twitter, viewed clips of some of the performances on YouTube and even heard one of the Philadelphia shows streamed live on the Grateful Dead Channel on SIRIUS satellite radio.

The Allstate Arena in the Chicago suburbs (once known as Rosemont Horizon) was a surprisingly welcoming venue – easy to get into, and though large and nearly sold out, it still had an intimate feeling. The scene outside a Dead show is almost as integral a part of the experience as the show itself, and the vibe was certainly good in Chicago. Surprisingly, the venue even allowed fans to camp overnight in the parking lot (for $75), perpetuating the development of large aisles of vendors (what heads refer to as "Shakedown Street") selling everything from beer, cocktails, grilled cheese and veggie burritos to posters, tie-dyes, jewelry, and "baked goods."

The band took the stage promptly at 7:30 and came strong out of the gate with "China Cat Sunflower" followed by early Dead tune "Born Cross-Eyed." Weir was at center stage, and though once the young pup of the group, he looked weathered and aged, with a thick grey beard and mustache, reminiscent of his former partner Garcia. Warren Haynes once again proved why he is the only man capable of even coming close to "replacing" Jerry – both vocally and on the guitar. Lesh seemed extremely jovial the entire time – grinning like a kid in a candy store.

One of the greatest things about being at a Dead show is feeling the raw, positive energy of the crowd that seems unparalleled at any other concert. At times, it’s as if it may just blow the roof off – even though The Dead are by no means a hard or even terribly loud rock n’ roll band. It’s a different kind of energy – one that exists on a higher plane, so to speak.

warren.jpgThe last half of the first set was the best for me, beginning with anthem, "I Need a Miracle," in which Weir proved he’s still "got it," even if he’s a bit more rough around the edges these days. He followed this up with the classic "Wang Dang Doodle" and the groovy "West LA Fadeway."  The band led into the set break with a cover of Bob Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower," one of the most oft covered songs in rock. Though it nearly elicits yawns on paper – Haynes’ guitar solo during this song was probably the best of the night.

The second set began with an acoustic mini-set of "Mexicali Blues" followed by Van Morrison classic "Into the Mystic" with Haynes on vocals, traditional "Peggy-O" sung by Lesh, and Bob Dylan’s "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall," sung by Weir. Next Hart took over along with Kreutzmann for a thunderous Drums session.

The Dead came out of a brief Space jam to pick up the pace a bit with Zydeco favorite "Iko Iko," as fans grinned from ear to ear and danced with joy. You can’t help but feel happy when you hear this song, which is why Deadheads love it so much.

Probably the best moment of the entire show for me came next when Haynes sang a hauntingly beautiful version of a quintessential Jerry song – "Standing on the Moon." The tone of his voice is perfect for capturing the emotion that always was at the center of Garcia’s performances. In fact, I even teared up a little as he sung the lyrics "Standing on the moon, with nothing left to do; it’s a lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you," as I imagined Jerry smiling down at it all.

The Dead closed out the set with another upbeat classic, "Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad," then took a short break and returned for a low-key, but still brilliant encore of John Lennon’s "Imagine" (with Haynes and Weir splitting vocal duties) and Lesh’s "Box of Rain."

Since The Dead, unlike many large-scale touring bands, do not repeat setlists, it’s difficult for true Deadheads to not view the show they saw in context of the shows surrounding it. They’ve been putting out some incredible setlists since the tour began last month in Greensboro, N.C. Reading the setlist from this show in comparison to some of the others – it is a bit on the mellow side, and perhaps lacks the gusto of a "Scarlet>Fire" or  "Help>Slip>Franklin’s" combination; but in and of itself, it was a good show and had some truly shining moments.

What I think is most important is that, overall, the band sounded very good and they seemed to all be having a great time playing together and the fans could feel that. It’s been pretty clear since 1995 that things would never be "the same" without Jerry – but today’s version of The Dead are still the very best at what they do. The band’s performances have always been less about the structured songs and their melodies and more about the spaces in between the notes – those little gaps slightly beyond our consciousness where the real magic happens. It’s good to see some of the magic is still there. | Amy Burger

The Dead, May 4, 2009

Set I:
China Cat Sunflower
Born Cross-Eyed
Built to Last
Pride of Cucamonga
I Need a Miracle
Wang Dang Doodle
West LA Fadeaway
Liberty
All Along the Watchtower

Set II:
(Acoustic mini-set)
Mexicali Blues
Into the Mystic
Peggy-O
Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
(End acoustic)
Drums/Space
Iko Iko
Standing on the Moon
Going Down the Road Feeling Bad

E:
Imagine
Box of Rain

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