At the Grateful Dead meet-up

Taking a break from the news, I attended the so-called Grateful Dead Meet-Up at our local suburban multiplex last night. The Meet-Up featured a showing of the Dead’s highly esteemed July 7, 1989, concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia (setlist here).

I think it was the best attended film playing at the theater last night. That’s a guess. The audience for the show had the highest median age in the multiplex’s 16 theaters by a wide, wide margin. Of that much I am certain. The audience for the Meet-Up was not only the oldest but also the happiest, again by far. One enthusiastic lady took to the exit aisle so she could dance wildly as the band played on.

This was the eighth annual Grateful Dead Meet-Up. I first discovered the annual Meet-Ups last year. Where have I been all these years? I’m trying to make up for lost time. I am a long-time fan of the band and frequent listener to the Grateful Dead channel on Sirius/XM. That’s how I caught Al Franken’s takeover of the channel on May 31 last year. Now Franken himself has moved on. Time flies!

Last year’s Meet-Up caught the Dead playing at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC on the sweltering evening of July 12, 1989 (setlist here). The occasion for last year’s Meet-Up was what would have been the 75th birthday of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Jerry died in 1995 at the age of 53 in rehab for his drug addictions. What a waste.

Keyboard virtuoso Brent Mydland had joined the band in 1979. His playing and singing made for a good addition. Brent’s playing and singing were featured in the Philadelphia concert. He died of a drug overdose in 1990 at the age of 37, a year after the 1989 concerts. What a waste.

The quality of the film this year was first-rate, as was last year’s. It provided an uncomfortably close look at the band in performance on a sweltering night in Philadelphia. The heat wave continued through the Dead’s DC concerts the following week (last year’s film showed the band on the first of two nights at RFK Stadium). Seeing the film was probably better than being there. One advantage it surely had over a Dead concert: it started punctually at the scheduled time. Given the close-up view of the band in the film, however, I wish they had dressed a little better.

The highlight of the 1989 DC concert was the band’s performance of “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” with Bruce Hornsby sitting in on accordion and piano. The song was originally popularized by Harry Belafonte on his 1956 album Calypso. The Dead sounded like they were burning to put it over. The audience around me in the theater last year burst out spontaneously in applause at the conclusion.

I thought the Philadelphia concert in last night’s film reached that level throughout the two sets. It was just about all highlights. The audience in the theater applauded after every song, first to last, and commented audibly on each. Like the weather in Philadelphia during the concert, the playing was hot even if the singing was, as usual, ragged.

Well, you can hear for yourself. The concert has been released on the Crimson, White & Indigo compact discs (“Rhino salutes life, liberty, and the pursuit of ‘hippieness’ with a collection that includes every note from this epic show on three CD’s and one DVD”). Audio of the show is archived online here. Indeed, you can even see for yourself courtesy of YouTube and render your own judgment. The first set opened with “Hell in a Bucket” (video below, song annotated here).

The first set closed with “Blow Away.” Brent Mydland was feeling it.

I am grateful to the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia’s first musical love was traditional American folk and bluegrass music. You can hear it coming through on the Dead albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. My appreciation of the Dead led me back in that direction. And the Dead were early adopters of what Gram Parsons called the Cosmic American Music. It came naturally to them.


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