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  • Live Review: The Dead - The LA Forum, Los Angeles, CA

    Wed, 13 May 2009 15:34:37

    Live Review: The Dead - The LA Forum, Los Angeles, CA - The Dead bless the City of Angeles

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    I have to start by saying I am a geezer Deadhead of the very first water—easy to please and hard to shake off the stick. But after the last Dead show at Irvine three or so years ago, I was ready to hang up my dancing shoes. When I began following them more than 30 years ago, they were considered passé by some, relics out of touch with the music of the day, which was punk or disco. LA entertainment attorney Fred Goldring was the student head of Duke University’s major attractions department after their first performance there during my college years. He wanted the Village People. We wanted the Dead back. When I graduated, my girlfriend was interviewed on local TV and in response to the question “Hey, you’ve just gotten an undergraduate degree from a prestigious institution! What are you going to do now?” She said, “Well, I don’t know but right this minute, we’re driving to Charlotte to see The Dead.” I met Mickey Hart this past February at a New York Dolls showcase and, admittedly starstruck, blurted, “I have five words for you: ‘Duke University, April 12, 1978.’” He replied, “You don’t expect me to remember every last....um...oh...yeah, I DO remember that one.” He smiled warmly. “That was a GOOD one.”

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    click for the Grateful Dead LA Forum photo gallery
    Photo by Randall Michelson/thelaforum.com

    Fast forward 31 years and 29 days from my first Dead at Duke show and expectations were high. My friend Marcus Dowd had hired a town car for the night. We had popped for $300 tickets from “Consider it Dan”—a sort of in-house concierge/scalper which included fourth row seats, VIP parking, plentiful boarding school food, t-shirts and a cash bar.

    We arrived two hours early so as to survey the carnival midway, swap meet, tailgate party and hacky sack pitch that is the parking lot before a Dead show. Rusty hippie buses sat cheek by jowl with new BMW’s and Porsches, van conversions and hulking SUV’s. No beers cost more than two bucks. I am sure we could have had any drugs we wanted. I learned a new word for pot, but I forgot it. I looked at these people and thought, “What have these people been DOING for the last three or four years? How have they made a living without us? Where have they washed?” and other imponderables. One of the biggest differences between then and now was that then, I would have wanted to join the circus myself; go on to the next show, and the next one, and the one after that. Sometimes I’d give into this impulse for three or four shows. But mostly, I appreciated that the Dead culture has spanned generations forward as well as backward.

    Fourth row center is a nice place to see a show. Marcus and I had fun pointing at various places around the venue and reminding one another where we sat (or stood, or danced) for Forum Dead shows in the past. Along with that I flashed back on Psychedelic Furs, 1988 or so. But all of that was above and behind us, literally.

    Whatever the expectations, the Dead delivered on them and then some in the first song series—a loping, improvisational 50-minute jazz, rock and blues odyssey that took them from "Viola Lee Blues" [with a new arrangement that would have made Bob Dylan proud] in and out of two songs ("Bertha" and "Caution: Don’t Stop on Tracks") and back to "Viola Lee Blues" twice. There was a verse of a major-key arrangement of "Little Red Rooster" buried in there too. I wanted to say a lot more about this part of the set but was reduced to platitudes like, “Wow,” and “What is this?” and “You realize this has been going on for more than 30 minutes right?” It was like talking during a movie. Thankfully, they did give the audience a bit of time to re-center with a glacially-paced "Black Peter" and a surprising take on "Cosmic Charlie" to conclude the first set.

    Jerry Garcia’s shoes (and presumably the rest of his unkempt raiment) are hard to fill. In recent years The Dead has tried different guitar and vocal combinations—including Joan Osbourne—before settling on Warren Haynes, a veteran solo performer, session musician and member of bands from Gov’t Mule to The Allman Brothers Band. While as obese as late-career Jerry Garcia, he is a completely different guitar player. Garcia concentrated on having what he once called a nearly complete understanding and knowledge of the fretboard. He really knew where all the notes were and liked to use as many of them as he could. Haynes is more of a traditional rock and roll guitar player, playing very skillfully but within a narrower range. And, unlike the taciturn Jerry, he wasn’t beyond a self-satisfied gesture as well as the occasional grimace that lets you know that particular combinations of notes is very difficult to play. Aside from mere virtuosity, he had a few neat tricks though—at one point he ground the heel of his palm against all six strings.

    Another thing is that The Dead used to do was dither and fidget and ponder for [many] minutes between songs. They are now older and wiser; Phil and Bobby have devices that look like teleprompters on their mike stands and one song bled continuously into another. There’s probably as much music in a current 90-minute set as took up two hours in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. For this and other reasons, pound for pound and note for note, The Dead continue to spank their jam-band compatriots. One parking lot shirt said it all: “The Dead: Better than Phish.”

    At every show, there’s someone you worry might just actually explode. Marcus and I would never forget this guy at Ventura in June 1987; he had a sick, febrile, knowing smile that looked as if he may have had his finger stuck in an electrical socket. He was wearing a t-shirt that had drawings of a pie and a heart, and the word “drugs” printed under those. People made a circle about ten feet in diameter around him, as if that would be a safe distance in case of combustion. Standing in line for the water fountain in the Forum years later, there he was—and he knew that WE knew. This night it was a sort of 70’s Scandinavian. He’d sing a few words of lyrics, “…she wore rings on her fingers…” before degrading into a sort of unintelligible scat-drivel-holler, while he flung his head side to side spastically. I imagined a dog shaking its jowls while gobbets of foam flew off in all directions.

    We had better company in the second set, which opened with a loping, bouncy "Shakedown Street", the eponymous album a precursor to the Dead’s famous “disco” album Go to Heaven but the source of some durable tunes. A lissome Chloe Sevigny lookalike in a Narcisco Rodriguez crepe halter dress elbowed the yammering Scandinavian back with the help of what looked like her boyfriend, whom she smiled at warmly and hugged from time to time. It took us a while before we realized she didn’t belong to him, but to, well, pretty much everyone around her. As "New Speedway Boogie" evolved into "Scarlet Begonias" and halted (what? one of the best transitions in the Dead canon) before "Fire on the Mountain", the room recovered its lost energy and thrummed. The crush towards the floor from the blocked side aisles meant everyone up there with us had to cooperate, carefully yet casually matching our moves with a smile or a glance, as much to share the space as one another. A visit to the bathroom was out of the question—even with five beers and two bottles of water on board—during the drums/space interlude.

    A classic, timeless combination "Dark Star", "Wharf Rat" and back to "Dark Star" channeled their history in a contemporary way, with both the trippy broken melodies that marked the songs as 40 years old but with a freshness and vitality that energized the faithful and kept the dilettantes awake and alert. And the Stones’ "Satisfaction" closed out the show with exuberance. Following bassist Phil Lesh’s appeal for organ donations (he’s a survivor and tireless advocate) a perfunctory encore performance of "One More Saturday Night" was, was still, satisfying, upbeat, hopeful.

    At the end of the show, “Chloe” exchanged guileless hugs with all around. Marcus and I were among the first. “Boyfriend” waited patiently for his and we all parted without a further word.

    Of course, afterwards, there’s the inevitable guilt and recriminations. Was the show as good as I remembered? One friend wrote “…saw them at The Meadowlands two Tuesdays ago. Lackluster show; with Warren they sounded like the best Dead tribute band ever.” Ouch. You can look online and see they’ve been playing that song all tour, and not just for YOU, tonight. Out of context, many recordings feel thin and empty, despite how legendary they felt at the time. I just listened to a famous encore, “Quinn the Eskimo” from Long Beach in November 1987 and now despite hysterical laughter, indelible memories and obscure Dead idioms that have entered our friends’ lexicon (“dance permits!”), it’s well, archival.

    I’ll be downloading a copy in a short while and suppose I will hear for myself. And that’s no internet-era instant gratification either. Time was I’d lug a three channel Nakamichi cassette recorder and three mikes and stands to shows in my special Dead show cargo pants and, within 24 hours, remix them and distribute them to my friends and to the wider world of sharers. But then, as now, some things are better left cosseted in the velvet box of memory.

    —Henry Eshelman

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