Warning: This post has nothing to do with cannabis industry marketing, so it doesn’t really belong here. However, it does touch on a few bands that some in the Cannabis industry enjoy, so please excuse the interruption.
There are a lot of story angles to explore regarding the official last hurrah of the Grateful Dead, where all four surviving members along with Bruce Hornsby on piano, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards and Trey Anastasio on lead guitar have come together for the five concerts that will bring the band’s 50-year run to a close. As of this writing, there are only three left.
Unlike the numerous projects involving various members of the Grateful Dead since Jerry Garcia’s tragic and untimely passing in 1995, the purpose of this tour is to honor the legacy of the band, to write the final chapter of its long strange history and to end it all on their own terms. Finishing on a high note would make for a very happy ending (and who doesn’t love a nice happy ending?). Of course, when it comes to highly improvisational jam bands — particularly one that’s missing its most important player and one that many argue peaked several decades ago — there are no guarantees.
As a long-time fan of both the Grateful Dead and Phish, one of the most interesting story angles for me when it comes to this iteration of the group has been the selection of Trey to replace Jerry in the lineup. Up until a few days ago, I would have referred to this as an unenviable task due the complications and risks involved with trying to do something that probably can’t actually be done.
From a purely technical perspective, Jerry might not have been the best guitar player to have ever lived and he certainly wasn’t the finest vocalist (unless you’re comparing him to Phil Lesh). But when you mixed Jerry’s style with his passion and knowledge of music and the way he interacted with his band mates, there was a certain honesty and purity and authenticity that came through that made his performances magical. When he was in the zone, it felt as if he was emanating a special something that oozed over the rest of the band, spilled out onto the audience and filled every crevice of the room (or stadium). Call it energy or vibrations or love in its purest most unfiltered form, it had the power to simultaneously connect everyone within its reach to him, the band and each other. It was real and it was beautiful and I’m sure if you were there you know exactly what I mean. You can catch glimpses of it when you listen to recordings, but even the best recording is a poor substitute for experiencing it live. It’s one of those things where you just had to be there. That’s what kept the faithful coming back and that’s why Jerry was and will forever be the the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead. In most ways, there simply is no substitute.
However, I believe it is still possible to have a genuinely top-shelf concert truly worthy of Jerry’s memory and the full Grateful Dead moniker. It has never successfully been done before, but this weekend we saw enough to know it could be. Making it happen will require everyone in the band to bring his A game. For Trey, it requires much, much more.
All the other actors get to play themselves in this movie. Phil has got to drop the Phil Bombs for which he is known and loved, but the end of the day, Phil just needs to be Phil at his very best, which is something he does all the time. Bobby just needs to be Bobby, Bruce needs to be Bruce and so on. Trey just being Trey won’t be adequate. In some ways, Tray quasi-literally has to “play God.”
His job started months ago. He has had to not learn, but to MASTER a huge catalog of songs he didn’t write and hasn’t spent a lifetime playing. To succeed completely, he needs to significantly modify his unique playing style and signature sound — which may be part of the same genre, but is a LOT different from Jerry’s. He has to be Jerry-like enough in his performances to embody Jerry’s spirit and make the songs sound like Grateful Dead songs while adding enough of his own rocket sauce to give his solos life and vibrancy. If he just tries to just be a Jerry clone, he runs the risk of turning the Grateful Dead into nothing more than a Grateful Dead cover band or a caricature of itself. To me that’s exactly what The Dead and The Other Ones and all the other post-Jerry iterations I’ve seen have been (what some would argue is what the Grateful Dead had become in the later years just before Jerry died). This might be acceptable in some instances, but not this one.
Beyond that, Trey needs to step in and lead a band that has been playing off and on together for a half-century — all while checking his ego and hanging back just a bit so Bobby can think he’s actually the guy charge. Finally, as if all that wasn’t enough, he has to do it all while a bunch of nerdy armchair critics, skeptics and haters dissect every move he makes and every note he plays.
It’s kind of like adding a new quarterback to a pro football team in the middle of playoff season and ask him to take the team to a Superbowl victory.
Can he do it? At this point, I’m certain that he can, BECAUSE HE JUST DID IT. He did it for an entire show on Sunday and for parts of the show the night before. He’s not simply doing a passable job, he’s CRUSHING IT to an extent few could have dared to hope or expect. Need an example? “Hell in a Bucket” was a genuine show highlight thanks to Trey’s solos (which Bobby eventually successfully ended prematurely, but it took him several tries). Have you EVER heard anyone refer to that song as a show highlight back in the Jerry days? I sure haven’t.
Moreover, it looks like Trey’s having the time of his life playing Dead. The man is beaming. It’s clear that none of this is lost on everyone else in the band based on how they were acting at the end of Sunday’s show. They were beaming too and it’s quite possible that Micky might have felt some of the same feelings he had while playing with Jerry, which could well have been why he said what he said at the end of the show.
I’d imagine Trey’s performance is also convincing a lot of the people who like the Grateful Dead but somehow aren’t already huge Phish/Trey Band fans to take another look at that body of work as well. I don’t really understand how someone could love the Grateful Dead but not care for Phish, but apparently some do. The cool part for the new converts is that Trey and Phish are still on their way up — pretty cool for a band that has been around as long as the Grateful Dead had been when Jerry died (and when Jerry died, the Grateful Dead was a far cry from being on its way up).
Phish may have had a number of less-than-stellar years, but right now the band is at a high point and exuding the same type of joy for music Jerry used to exude. They’re also expressing it in a very bright and uplifting way. Trey’s sobriety (another huge accomplishment of his that deserves respect and recognition) seems to have taken him and the rest of the band to new levels of awesome and that’s something fans old and new have the chance to experience today. It’s nice to be able to think nostalgically about the good old days while enjoying the good old present days with the prospect of many more to come.
As for the question of whether or not the Grateful Dead can pull off three barn-burners in a row this weekend, we’ll just have to see. After last weekend I’m cautiously optimistic. It is true that they got off to a rough start. It did take a bit of time for everyone to get in the groove of playing together (and the first day’s first set setlist, while interesting, didn’t do them any favors in that regard). Lyrics and cues have been flubbed including a complete butchery of “He’s Gone.” And they’re “finally” letting Phil sing — if you can call wheezing, moaning and croaking along with the band singing. If anything, that’s what will most likely yank me from Cloud Nine during the show, but I’ll just work my way back up if it does. Perhaps they’ll let Trey and Bruce take over the singing for more of the Jerry songs, which is something they should do if they wanted the best possible results, but egos are obviously a factor and I’m not going to hold my breath.
In Santa Clara, the band gave us enough beautiful and memorable musical moments to warrant the ticket (or pay-per-view) price, and they’re getting better and better as they go. Greatness is within reach.
No matter what happens there will be people who can’t wait to bitch and pick these performances apart and tell you how much better it was in ’72 or ’77. Those unfortunate souls who are unable to “get” Phish will keep carrying on about how Warren Haynes or Jimmy Herring are better choices (but if that’s the case, why aren’t they there?). And some jackwagon somewhere won’t be able to resist the temptation to post this stupid “What Phish Sounds Like to Everyone Else” video to Facebook for the millionth time.
As for me, I’ll be cheering for the team to pull together to deliver the big win and reflecting on how grateful I am for everything that is, was, and always will be the Grateful Dead (and Phish).