Even Donna Jean showed up. Oft maligned back in the day, she was heartily cheered at every show she participated in, every single time she stepped up to the mic. In a sense that captured the Dead and Company summer tour, 2016. Summer tour my o’ my! Like the biggest, zaniest, craziest, wildest, family reunion you’ve ever attended. Those wacky yet lovable old cousins you’ve known forever, but also new friends and relations. At SPAC I sat on the lawn next to two young Deadheads, never having seen the band with Jerry, but in love with the music and the vibe and the scene. Maybe they were 25. Maybe. At Fenway Park in Boston, right behind us, another young couple fresh to the magical, mystical, technicolor circus that made the classic bumper sticker oh so true: there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. There were babies with their moms and dads, teens out for their first taste of adventure, grizzled old Heads who first saw the band in the 70s. Sorry – early 70s! Everybody rocking and rolling, everybody a shaking and a moving. Shake those bones! From Connecticut to New Jersey, Wisconsin to California, New York (with its ways and means) to Massachusetts, Colorado to North Carolina, the Deadheads were on the road again. Out in force. I would argue the world was a little bit of a better and brighter place because of it. And a little bit better and a little bit brighter was something we all needed this summer.
But don’t discount the music. It wasn’t just a massive party running on the gas of nostalgia, a ‘reunion’ tour where old musicians mail it in and play the hits. That just would never work with the Dead, with their determination to walk to the very edge of the abyss each night, and then just drop down into the vast yawning chasm of improvisational music. What do they always say? You can’t make this stuff up. Fact is stranger than fiction?! John Mayer playing with the Dead? With Bobby? And Billy and Mickey? How absurd! How could it ever work? But work it did, beyond anyone’s imagination and expectation. The music was fine, tasty, raunchy, beautiful, and often it was smoking hot. Old Deadheads stood slack jawed in the over flowing crowds as this band ripped into some of the classics with a completely fresh take. How about the second night at Citi Field opening the show St. Stephen > Music Never Stopped > Bertha. The Help > Slip> Shakedown that opened Irvine. Or the elegiac, moving, gorgeous, haunting Days Between at SPAC, Bobby somehow pulling from the nether sphere Jerry’s very spirit to stand by him on the stage. Or John Mayer channeling the classic 1960 Maurice Williams song Stay during the Wheel? Night after night there were surprises and delights, new takes on old tunes, creative and unexpected setlists. A band beyond description indeed.
I know, I know, some will say it can’t be. The muse died when Garcia left this world and went to the great arena in the sky. The naysayers will never climb back on the bus. But the thing about it is this – the music lives on. It is out of the bottle, out in the universe. It has a life of its own, speaking now to new generations, to younger musicians who will carry the legacy forward, to younger fans who will come to the shows and enact this ancient tribal ritual, who will wonder what it was like back in the day, but who will create what it is in the present, and lay the groundwork for the future. The last line in the Book of Lamentations is this: renew our days as of old! So it was for the Dead and the Deadheads in the summer of 2016. From sea to shining sea the flag was held high, the spiral light burned bright, and the music never stopped.