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My First Dead Experience

An Indie Fan’s Inaugural Trip

May 04, 2009 By Frank Valish Photography by Frank Valish Web Exclusive
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This spring, for the first time since 2004, surviving members of The Grateful Dead, now simply christened The Dead, are hitting the touring circuit. There is no new album or promotional agenda other than the band’s support of things like legacy, nostalgia, and the common musical bond that has united The Dead with its fanbase for more than 40 years. The names are common and household, even without the late Jerry Garcia—guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, rounded out by current keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and, last but certainly not least, filling the co-frontman position, Gov’t Mule leader and guitarist extraordinaire Warren Haynes.

In many circles, a Dead tour is still a momentous event. Jobs will be put on hold, old hippies will break out their tie dye, and newbies, your common Phish-heads, will emerge from their smoke-filled dorm rooms to take a hit of the old peace pipe. But as the indie-rock lover that I am, the specter of The Dead looms only in history books, a respected and revered tradition of rock and roll to be sure, but one that I have never personally experienced. So, throwing caution to the wind, I found myself driving to Wilkes-Barre in the middle of April in search of experience, to see what all those old heads were talking about all these years and find out what, if anything, might translate for my own indie mindset. Will it illuminate and transcend, or will the stink of old weed and showerless freedom pervade? Last Wednesday, this indie-rock fan ventured to his first Dead concert to find out.

Wilkes-Barre is set about two hours north of Philadelphia, near the now-famous city of Scranton, PA, and driving there, I was struck by the distinct impression that this was not hippie country. Passing through mountains and past farms, deep in mining country, it was clear that this was more Lynyrd Skynyrd territory than any Pennsylvanian Golden Gate Park. Navigating the windy roads to the Wachovia Arena, a minor league hockey/arena football league venue and the smallest place The Dead will play on this trek at almost 10,000 capacity, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Interestingly enough, the night started with a bang. As I pulled into my parking space, some already half-baked stoner opened his passenger door, slamming into my driver’s side. “Dude, did I hit your car?,” he intoned in slurred drawl. Eh, it was only a light bump, and the least of my concerns was the paint on my ‘95 Cavalier, a car with over 160,000 miles and a rusted-out back end. Rumor had it that The Dead were playing four hour shows on this jaunt, hardly the garden variety 75-minute indie-rock set; there was a long night ahead of me. My new fried friend kindly offered me a large patch with the face of Phish’s Trey Anastasio as consolation. I politely thanked him and pocketed my souvenir, wondering where I’d ever have occasion to use it.

Heading to the arena was like a blast from the past. Flowing dresses, peace signs, and the light haze of smoke pervaded the air, kind of the way I imagine every fun spot in 1968. Eventually arriving to my seat, things were equally surreal. Though my walk found me zigzagging through throngs of bathrobe-wearing, multi-colored beach hat-donning flower children adults, I found that my seat, lower level stage left, was directly next to a 20-something who proudly proclaimed that this too was his first Dead concert. However, contrary to any reasonable expectation, this newfound Dead-head preferred to listen to Tool, Slayer, and Marilyn Manson, subjects on which he was clearly knowledgeable, and proved so in the 30 minutes leading up the show.

As the band took the stage, promptly at the ungodly early hour of 7:45 PM, entering into the Ron “Pigpen” McKernan classic “Mr. Charlie,” the older gentleman behind me, a thinner Jack Nicholson type with jean jacket and sunglasses that never left his face, shouted and patted me on the back with a force that at once suggested ultimate familiarity and slightly unhinged lunacy. It was as if to say, ‘Brother, this is going to be great’ and ‘You better damn well like it.’ And most times throughout what turned out to be a three and a half hour set with one intermission, the concert was great. “Mr. Charlie” segued into Hunter/Garcia’s “Stagger Lee,” then followed by “Liberty,” and “Candyman” from the classic American Beauty. The first set’s eight songs concluded with the Europe ‘72 jam “Tennessee Jed” and Workingman’s Dead‘s “Dire Wolf.”

However, it was clear that, just as much as the music, the evening was about community, and what a strange brew this was. First, I had to learn how to dance. Standing calmly and attentively was clearly the odd behavior in this group. Second were the people. Aside from my nü-metal-loving friend and the Jack Nicholson look-alike, there were younger adults with small, frightened children wading through mobs of people, women too old to be wearing such revealing clothing, and at least one 50-something wearing a flower wreath.

And then there was Steve. Arriving late and proceeding to force me out of my assigned seat because he confused the 6 on his ticket for a 9, Steve took little time before ingratiating himself, explaining that he was a salesman with a wife and kid at home, and that he had been seeing The Dead since the late ‘70s when he was 14. Steve loved Warren Haynes and evidenced this by terribly mimicking every movement and guitar strum with inappropriate vigor and space-encroaching closeness.

After the band’s stellar first hour-long set-and after taking a break from my conversation with Steve about the proper way to photograph your toddler on a merry-go-round-I went to browse some merch. Then, it was on to round two. The band started it off with “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” followed by a stellar version of The Beatles’ “Revolution,” “Weather Report Suite Part 1,” and a rousing, jammy version of “Iko Iko,” which was one of the night’s clear highlights. Then came the extended, experimental guitar work-out that followed Hart and Kreutzmann’s drum-duet “Rhythm Devils” (during which my new friend Steve saw fit to engage me in a long discussion about my day job as an elementary school psychologist—talk about buzz kill, I left work for a reason, Steve).

Anyway, to cut an already long story off before sleep sets in, the band wrapped things up with a sentimental version of the Garcia/Hunter piece “So Many Roads” and an encore performance of the Lesh-sung, American Beauty standard, “Box of Rain.” The crowd screamed for more, wondered aloud that the band had cut its set short (only in this world could 3 ½ hours be termed short), and calmly filed to the exits. It had been an illuminating night, one that was miles away from the indie-rock clubs, but nevertheless a show for the books.

Reflecting on the experience afterward, one which, by the way, was experienced without herbal enhancement of any sort, it seems clear that The Dead, like all music, offers escape. Sure, the night didn’t involve four hours of waiting in a smoke-filled shithole of a club until your new favorite flash-in-the-pan band finally came on at half past 11 PM, but it was escape nonetheless. Escape for the young and the old, the baked and the half-baked, and even for the sober. Mind you, I have no plans to follow The Dead around the country on this trek, vicariously living the lives of my hippie predecessors. But there definitely is a part of me that kinda wants to. And if that puts a stain on my indie-cred, then so be it. Peace, love, happiness. Long live The Dead!


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May 7th 2009

Warren Hayes is amazing!  But I must say at this point that I have never understood the Dead or the fascination with them or bands like the DMB.  Also, in 2009 who really cares about this stuff anymore?

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June 15th 2009

I was struck by the distinct impression that this was not hippie country. Passing through mountains and past farms, deep in mining country, it was clear that this was more Lynyrd Skynyrd territory than any Pennsylvanian Golden Gate Park.

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June 22nd 2009

Nice post! Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

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June 24th 2009

Terrific post and so well written.  Made me want to read more of your work.  I have seen the Grateful Dead numerous time, but have not ventured out to see The Dean…maybe it is time.  Thanks for your attention to detail and open mind!

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