Give thanks for those things that are quintessentially American on this holiday weekend and the Grateful Dead might not spring to mind alongside the flag, baseball, and apple pie. But having just seen the latest incarnation of the band in Camden, I'd argue that they are worthy of such recognition.
I lack the concert credentials necessary to be considered a Deadhead, especially as my first outing was a bit of a lark. Two years ago on the Fourth of July, I called Paul Lauricella, the only other middle-aged, white-guy, suburbanite friend capable of getting a hall pass and convinced him we should immediately go to Chicago to see what was billed as Fare Thee Well, the final shows with the Dead's core four (Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann). To cap their 50-year career, the Dead played two dates in Santa Clara and were finishing in Chicago, where they'd last played with Jerry Garcia before his untimely death two decades prior. Since then, different members had gathered under alternative names including the Other Ones, Further, and now, Dead & Company. For Fare Thee Well, Trey Anastasio from Phish was Garcia's stand-in.
We didn't exactly break out the Birkenstocks or fire up the VW bus to make the trip. Instead, we scanned a stadium map on Paul's home computer in Yardley before hustling to the airport in Philadelphia for a midday flight. Upon arrival, we picked up our tickets at StubHub, ate a steak dinner at Gibsons, watched the show at Soldier Field, closed a bar, ate deep-dish pizza, and took a 6 a.m. flight home from O'Hare. Our only inconvenience was in needing to persuade a cabbie on the Miracle Mile to let us into his car for an airport run despite our lack of luggage, a feat that tapped all of our lawyerly skills. But we had promised our wives we'd be home for lunch, and we made it.
That concert ended with an appropriate rendition of "U.S. Blues" and a fireworks display for the assembled 70,000. I wasn't familiar with the entire catalog, so some of the music was lost on me. The whole night was more sociological observation than traditional concert experience. Still, I liked what I heard and saw. The understated look of the band. The lack of showboating. The unpredictable nature of the set list. The freedom to play in a way that might not have mirrored the albums recorded long ago. The Dead, it occurred to me, were rugged individualists. Nonconformists playing their uniquely American songbook with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude for which fans have opted for the former.
"As subversive as it may sound, the Dead may be the most all-American rock band of all time, if not the country's greatest," confirms David Browne, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead.
"Start with their music. Plenty of rock bands have sneaked country, bluegrass, blues, early rock-and-roll, or jazzy improv into their arrangements, but the Dead included them all, digging up every root of American music," Browne said. "And true to the country's supposed ideals, the word freedom was built into the Dead's DNA — in their jams, their lifestyles, and their needling of authority figures, from police to record executives. They let their freak flags fly, in every way possible."
Browne once told me that while the image is of a "bunch of freewheeling hippies from Marin County," the way in which they have governed themselves through internal politics, people with strong opinions, and board meetings has a very organized and businesslike side. He noted that on Fare Thee Well, each member had his own backstage setup in each venue, "like a military operation, a bad-ass operation."
I saw evidence of that business focus last Sunday night. John Mayer was the Garcia stand-in. And while the band's attention to sound makes clear that the music is the most important production value, these '60s iconoclasts are New Millennium capitalists. The traffic in Camden was horrendous, and despite an early arrival I missed the opening number. No problem, as the following day the entire set was available for $1.29 per song. And I regretted not buying the $40 "Dead Camden" T-shirt during intermission instead of waiting until the end when only the 2XL size remained. Like the first time I saw them, the night included an extended "Space and Drums" rendition that seemed purposefully choreographed to the final beer call of the night.
I sense no blow-back from fans who bought into Fare Thee Well only to find the band essentially reconstituted and touring. Maybe no one seriously believed the band was calling it quits. Or perhaps it's not the nature of Deadheads to hold a grudge or be hostile. Amid all the tie-dye, girth, beards, and feet, I'd have been comfortable leaving my iPhone at my seat for a beer run.
Despite their ages, here's hoping they'll not fade away anytime soon. Dead & Company are at Wrigley Field this weekend, home of the world-champion Cubs. What could be more American than that?