Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Return

The Dead have returned. And this time, I think, they are back to stay. This makes me happy.

For the non-cognoscenti, The Dead are the remains of the Grateful Dead -- after the losses of Ron McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, and most recently, Jerry Garcia -- with the addition of keyboard player Jeff Chimenti and guitarist and singer Warren Haynes.

When Jerry Garcia died, in 1995, it was the end of "The Grateful Dead." They had survived the earlier losses with replacement members who grew and evolved with the band. Jerry, however, was a center and a prime mover and it made no sense to carry on without him. The other original members, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kruetzman, and Mickey Hart, weren't finished, of course. They all had solo musical identities and continued to play (check out the Evening Moods album by Bob's band Ratdog).

In 2004, the band hit the road for a tour as The Dead, with some of the same players, but it didn't work. The band members now admit that they weren't getting along very well, they weren't really committed, and the shows showed that. I made it to one, in DC, thanks to the kindness of my dentist (Thanks, Dr. B!), and I enjoyed it, but wasn't blown away.

I did not make plans to check the band out for this new tour. I'm not sure why. It might have been inertia, doubt, or general busy-ness. But I now regret it. Have a listen to the first show in the tour, April 12, in North Carolina, for evidence why. The widget above will get you started.

It came to me during the fourth tune -- He's Gone -- that this was a turning point. This song is about loss, and accepting loss and carrying on:
Like a steam locomotive,
rolling down the track,
He's gone, gone...
And nothings going to bring him back.
He's gone.
This song has had special resonance since the death of Jerry Garcia and you can hear it in the crowd's reaction and their singing along. I was also struck by the moment, starting about 9 minutes into the performance when the band performs a vocal "nothings going to bring him back" coda. Warren Haynes, who has the unenviable job of filling Jerry's role, starts to take an emotional lead both celebrating and replacing Garcia. It's the moment where I thought: this time for real.

This tour was inspired, it is said, by the group's pulling together a quick concert last fall in support of then-candidate Obama. They found that they enjoyed the music, and the sense of common purpose. In preparation for this tour they went into the woodshed for extended rehearsal.

This time, it seems, they are not just playing the old music by rote. They are playing the old tunes, but approaching them as new. And the set lists (I follow grateful__dead on twitter for updates) show that they are digging back into the early days of The Grateful Dead and trying things that had fallen out of the repertoire in the last days of the band.

This is good stuff.

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