Years and years ago, legendary Deadhead radio host David Gans wrote a tremendous essay comparing Grateful Dead shows to baseball games. I remember reading it in high school, being quickly drawn to the idea that “no two are ever alike” —
Grateful Dead concerts are like baseball games: no two are ever alike. The plays are always different, and there’s always fresh hope. Sometimes the game’s an all-timer even though individual performances are sloppy; sometimes everybody plays great but the team loses anyway.
Some people thrive on yesterday’s moments, and aren’t too keen on the way the game’s played today. Some have only been fans since last year and don’t care what happened way back when. You can cherish the great victories and triumphant seasons and chart them across decades, or you can go simply for the enjoyment of tonight and to hell with the standings. Like all the great teams, the Dead have their pennant years and bleak innings, perfect games and whippings, hits and foul balls, heroes and goats.
There’s nothing more boring than a concert experience that’s always the same. Same hit song strategically placed in the setlist for a sing-along. Same dumb ballad. Same three minute top 40 radio hit proceeded by nothing interesting at all.
A few weeks ago I went to a Jason Derulo show here in NYC. It felt more like a scene from Magic Mike than an actual live music experience. I’ll never get why people go out of pocket thousands of dollars to witness such a spectacle live.
When I first got into bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead years ago, the strategic, of-the-moment randomness was a huge draw beyond the music itself — The relationship between a band and their fans, the element of surprise, the open-mindness of approaching an event with zero expectations. Like your favorite baseball player being a team hero with a home run, sometimes you get your high five song (…the song that literally makes you high five everyone around you when they play it) you want to hear. Sometimes you don’t. There is no disappointment or hard feelings either way. You got your money’s worth just by being there.
Jam band shows are like sports. Live music sports. No outcome is the same sans the smiles and the memories. They are sanctuaries for consciousness of the present.
A couple weeks ago, I started aggressively looking at my bank account, calculating how much money I can realistically budget to travel to as many concerts as possible this summer. I’m pretty happy with the result: Two Dead & Company shows at Citifield, followed by a slew of Phish shows starting at the Mann Center in Philadelphia. I’m pretty amped about my plans — This is the first year since 2004 I’ve been able to go to this many shows in a single summer. I’m blessed. And after Dead & Company shared the set lists of their first three shows on Facebook, it reminded me just how much I love that element of surprise. In three separate nights at three venues, Bobby, Bill, Mickey, John, Jeff, and Oteil didn’t repeat a single song.
It’s a testament to just how deep The Dead’s songbook is. Once upon a time I was really bummed to have never experienced a Dead show without Jerry. Now, as a rabid fan who loves the history, I’ve made peace with that. John Mayer has a pretty good quote in Rolling Stone about how the spirit of The Dead really belongs to the collective conscious at this point, not just one person.
When I spoke to Trey Anastasio about playing guitar at the Fare Thee Well shows last year, he told me that he spoke to you at one show, with a little bit of advice – to just be yourself when you played with those guys.
Yes – “This doesn’t belong to anybody. It doesn’t belong to you or me or anyone else.” It was loud backstage. There was a drum solo happening [laughs]. But what a sweet guy, who in the middle of his break during one of the most intensive concerts anyone has played, when I asked him about his guitar, he takes it off, puts it around my neck and says, “Check it out.”
It’s the pay-it-forward thing. Someone instilled that in him. He helped instill that in me. And when there’s another guy coming up, I’ll be putting the guitar around his neck.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got. it’s summer now. Phish tour starts tomorrow. Dead and Company is in full swing. Last night, at the BB&T Center in Camden, New Jersey, Dead and Company livestreamed the the first song of their second set on Facebook Live. The 2nd set opener is “Playing In The Band” and it’s probably the best use of Facebook Live to date.