A 1990’s PHOTO. A MOMENT FROZEN IN TIME
The rain wore on day after day and one could only describe the sky as bleak and bursting with moisture. My hopes of bringing my niece to her first experience at a Dead concert, Grateful but for Jerry Garcia, long gone, was dimmed as to her getting the full experience of the last 45 years that started with the hippie tail-gating parties, that were long established before the football game feasts of John Maddenish times. This night was to be special. The Spectrum, home to such legends as Bobby Clarke and Julius Erving was to be torn down soon, but those fellows in this band had played here every decade since the sixties. This was to be their swan song; two nights of one last goodbye and possibly their last tour together as time takes its toll.
Arriving early while it was still raining, we turned into the lot at the Wachovia Center and by the time we got out of the car it not only stopped raining, the sun began to peek through those dark clouds. It actually came out and it was glorious. The tents were up, the illegal vendors of grilled cheese, hamburgers, chicken, Tye-dyed T-shirts and nitrous oxide were out in full force, along with two completely instrumented rock bands playing in full regalia, hippie buses, modern Prevost million-dollar luxurious cross country rigs, women in their forties hawking illegal beer, wine, and mixed drinks, and purveyors of pipes, paraphernalia, and pot were circulating like pasta on a table for an Italian Sunday meal.
Dominque, the namesake of my father’s eyes opened wide and amazed but I knew this was only the preliminary party. The walk up those old worn concrete Spectrum stairs and the entry into this place brought me back to an age of youth years even younger than hers. The high school nights of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Yes, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Pink Floyd, and many, many others for a pittance of $8.50 a ticket came back as if it was yesterday. I have seen the Dead countless times across the country in California, Colorado, New York, Maryland, Washington, and so on and had seen them in this building more times than I can remember. Enough to know where to negotiate a great seat for sight lines, sound, and of course for the lack of much younger crazed high screaming, testosterone-laden Dead-Heads that my old frail body could not fit in the mix or blend easily without serious consequences to my health.
It was the same old game that came back to me. The seats half empty predicted a low turnout, but the bustle around the legitimate indoor lobby’s vendor stands was body to body. The lights came down and the first move began by the band to get them to their seats and of course it worked. There was not a seat to be had. One by one each band member gracefully entered; went through their pre-show preparations and people hustled to their seats or to light up leaves of a weed to tune them in, and in this drug-paranoiac age of hysteria, no one would have expected them to do it, but then how can you arrest 15,000 people? And this was the way it always was, and everyone knew it and didn’t care. Obviously no one was stupid enough to stop them. So billows of smoke not tainted by cigarettes floated upwards along with those consciousnesses that inhaled it. And then it began.
Opening with “Playing in the Band,” morphing halfway to a series of unpredictable incredible renditions of old sixties, seventies and eighties lyrical Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia songs, and then those of Bob Weir, the dose of the Dead’s sound, the interplay of pure improvisation, free-form jazz, spirit, and energy took over; And they were on that locked-in wave, shooting the tube and taking chances like I’ve never heard or seen before. Every note was on-beat, on-tune, on-pitch and Bob Weir didn’t even miss a lyric, as the crowd didn’t either. Every human body was dancing, singing, swaying, whirling like dervishes dancing to the Eternal on top of the world in Nepal. It was an incredible experience of communication between the band, the fans, the place, the space and all cylinders were firing hot, heavy, and hard. Can you imagine 15,000 people all singing every complex lyric to every song and being able to be in the middle of this human verbal “wave” of emotion? I think not unless you were there feeling it run through you. Hearing the earth and stadium tremble at the cheering of every familiar song, bar, and phrase. These were fans that any band would die for and that allegiance was rewarded in kind by those gentle men that gave, received, and gave back those emotions in an endless circle of time for the essence of music, spirit, and the vibratory movement of life.
My niece was in awe of the entire gestalt. And after three and a half hours of precise and precision musicianship, even Phil Lesh, now 70 years-old, played with the abandon of that of a human at 18. It all began with the Grateful Dead, the Further Bus, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, 420 Time, the audio man/then legal LSD manufacturer Owlsey Stanley, the counter-culture revolution of the Romantic Age of our time. They were the cause and draw of the lore of the Haight-Ashbury summer of love in 1967, while they snuck out of their house in the Haight before the hordes of a lost generation of seekers invaded and destroyed the very thing they were looking for as a Time magazine cover propelled the impetus even further. Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the beat generation’s finest minds were here this night, wrapped up into an experience of vulnerability and chance mixed in with the old and familiar. It was life imitating art, imitating life.
The best part was that after it was all over, I had previously paid for the CD recording at a vendor’s stand for an official record of what I just heard, and picked it up shortly after the concert. This would prove I wasn’t just breathing the sweet air and exaggerating and misinterpreting the amazement of what I heard emanating from that old familiar stage. This was one of the top five concerts I had ever heard, without any doubt and many smiles and conversation with others confirmed it, as did the CD afterwards. What an initiation this was for my niece.
To describe this communing with this band is rightly impossible to do, however an old cliché’ came to mind and that is, “There Is Nothing Like A Grateful Dead Concert” and whatever name they’ve morphed to, there never will be. I am honored and truly ‘grateful’ to have been there on a night that the band knew was special as well as acknowledged by Phil Lesh saying, “It’s been a long time, we’ve forgotten how intense you all are here in Philly.”
So did I Phil, so did I.