Requiem for Dead and Co., Grateful Dead, and an American Institution


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Jan 23, 2024

Requiem for Dead and Co., Grateful Dead, and an American Institution

The Grateful Dead have died many times. Depending on whom you ask, their first death came only a few years after their 1965 formation, as the raunchy organ jams and all-night raves of their

The Grateful Dead have died many times. Depending on whom you ask, their first death came only a few years after their 1965 formation, as the raunchy organ jams and all-night raves of their psychedelic days gave way to statelier songwriting and more sophisticated playing. The transition was punctuated by the 1973 death of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, the harmonica player and vocalist whose ability to command a room and yelp out blues ad-libs for half an hour on “Turn on Your Lovelight” made him an intensely personable figure; at one point, he was so recognizable, the band’s label ran a Pigpen look-alike contest. But as the Grateful Dead’s exploratory ethos inevitably led them to new territory and better drugs, Pigpen was left behind. He avoided psychedelics, drank bottle after bottle of wine, and stopped touring a few months before his death. Though Jerry Garcia was already the band’s intellectual center, Pigpen had been its major draw and frontman, until he wasn’t. His final show, at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972, marked the last time a truly charismatic singer performed Grateful Dead music with any of the band’s original members.

Until October 29, 2015. That was when Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann took the stage at Times Union Center in Albany, New York, for the first gig with their new guitarist and co-vocalist: John Mayer. The surviving members of the Grateful Dead have reconfigured themselves several times since Garcia’s 1995 death, playing under a variety of names both together (the Other Ones, Furthur, the Dead) and solo (Phil Lesh and Friends, Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros., RatDog). Plenty of guitarists have been put in the unenviable position of stepping into Garcia’s role as the band’s primary musical force, to varying degrees of success. But with all due respect to Warren Haynes, there has never been anyone quite like Mayer involved with this music before.

The Dead and Company lineup didn’t make immediate musical sense in 2015 and was, quite frankly, very funny for people who didn’t care about Mayer or the Dead. Enlisting Mayer, with his bankable face and blandly virtuosic blues-scorching style, seemed like an extraordinarily obvious cash grab and an artistically suspect decision; it seemed equally impossible to imagine Mayer fans wooking out to the red-eyed reggae of “Estimated Prophet” and crusty Deadheads savoring slicked-back versions of old Pigpen songs.


But over the course of eight years and 235 shows, Dead and Company performed several miracles. They lasted longer than any post-Garcia configuration of Grateful Dead members—a genuine feat considering the level of animosity and manipulation among those surviving players—and consistently played to crowds that rivaled those the Dead drew in the heady gate-crashing days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when they were the biggest touring act in the country. Those bigger crowds in turn rekindled the parking-lot scene that has been part of Dead culture since the late 1970s at a scale not seen since the days of Garcia. Though they fastidiously refused to expand it, Dead and Company developed a genuinely new way of performing and presenting what is almost certainly the greatest and most dynamic songbook any American rock band has ever produced.

But perhaps most important, they maintained and ultimately solidified the legacy of the Grateful Dead—not so much as a band but as the originators of a distinct form. Though it may seem unlikely when artists of their generation are selling off their catalogs for nine digits, no rock band of any era will be remembered as fondly as them. Most musicians understand their primary medium to be the studio recording, which makes sense—you can maintain control in the studio, and the songs are placed on a gallery wall and can be admired like paintings. They are, essentially, finished. But by understanding their music as something that should be made fresh night after night for new fans, year after year and decade after decade, the Grateful Dead suggested that their songs are never complete. There is no final version; there’s not even a definitive live version.

In 2023, even the most proficient Beatles tribute acts are working the college-bar circuit, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone daring to take up the mantle of the Lennon-McCartney catalog with any credibility once Sir Paul calls it quits. But in 100 years, there will still be bands who are able to tour the country playing Grateful Dead music in new and inventive ways, bringing the old corpses to life once again, and there will be crowds eager to hear them do it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. These are all solidified thoughts, intellectual end points, and even if they’re where we’ll end up, there’s no telling how we’ll get there.

Which is, as you’ve probably heard, the whole point. I set out to see as many Dead and Company shows as I could this summer, ultimately catching 10 concerts in four states, from the warm-up at Jazz Fest to the three-night finale in San Francisco. I wasn’t in search of the true meaning of America or after any of the other very literary reasons people often give for going on the road; we have more than enough writing from white people who are trying to figure out why they don’t feel at home here. I am a Deadhead. I sigh as I say so, for I see the paisley-patterned connotations that spill out of that word the moment I type it. I was 9 years old when Garcia died, and my natural taste runs between slippery jazz and blackened death metal. But the music of the Grateful Dead has a hold on me that I cannot explain. I wanted to figure out why I’m not the only one.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has run nearly every year since 1970, and it has almost always had terrible weather. There is really no good time to stage an outdoor festival in New Orleans, or at least not one that spans seven days of on-site performances over two weeks. For hours leading up to Dead and Company’s set on May 6, it rains hard—pelting, driving, tropical rain, the kind that obviates any rain gear—and, perversely for New Orleans at this time of year, it’s cold. I clutch my link of boudin and shiver, resigned to being physically miserable in a way that is at least novel, while my battle-hardened local friends and warm-blooded midwestern spouse laugh and place bets on what the band will open with. A shirtless guy in a crumbling cowboy hat wanders past selling enamel pins of the Steal Your Face skull and lightning bolt logo (a.k.a. the Stealie), the Terrapin Station turtles, and Garcia’s Wolf logo. I mention to him that I’d seen him at the Hollywood Bowl in the past and ask whether he still has any of his “Gayer for Mayer” pins. He shakes his head and tells me he’s out of “Queer for Weir,” too.

Then, finally, with very little fanfare, Dead and Company wander onto the stage. Drummer Jay Lane, a one-time member of Primus and frequent Weir collaborator, has replaced Bill Kreutzmann. Decked in an Ancient Aliens T-shirt, he takes his place behind the kit as Weir and Mayer play a few tentative sideways notes. They resolve into “Truckin’,” and the clouds part, and the rain stops, and the sun shines. I know how unlikely that sounds; all I can tell you is that it’s true.

“Truckin’” is the final song on 1970’s American Beauty, which is, alongside the same year’s Workingman’s Dead, the Grateful Dead’s high-water mark as a studio band. Both albums are filled with country tunes with deceptively complex chord changes, stacked harmonies that defy the individual singers’ occasionally pitchy individual performances, and a rustic charm that feels more attainable than, say, the baroque folk-pop of their friends in Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Every song on both albums feels like it could have been written in the 19th century.

Dead and Company play “Cumberland Blues” at Jazz Fest. They play it again in Phoenix a few weeks later, and again in Bristow, Virginia, and at Wrigley Field. They cannot stop playing “Cumberland Blues” on this tour. It’s fairly straightforward, at least for a Dead song: a two-stepping shuffle that moves a touch faster than the rhythm seems to be comfortable with. The music is a nice mirror of the narrator’s exhaustion after being kept up all hours of the night by his beloved Melinda, who seems not to respect the physical and emotional rigors of his life in the mine. The narrator pointedly does not want to dance—or whatever else Melinda’s trying to get him into. But the song doesn’t care, and throughout the summer, the band seems to side more and more with Melinda. Dead and Company long ago developed a reputation in the wider Deadhead community for their slackened tempo—Dead and Slow, they’re called—but all tour, they play the song at a blistering pace that they’ve never even tried before. Mayer reels off lines in the breaks, getting notes out like he’s bailing out a boat. By the time they get to San Francisco in mid-July, “Cumberland Blues” has transformed from a lovely bit of electric bluegrass into a country dervish, a spinning, hyper-rotating hurricane of a song. This early performance in New Orleans is the first indication that—whether because of the addition of Lane or the stakes of the tour itself—the band is finding new life in the material.

If you consider yourself a discerning music person, the kind who has to call themselves a “music person” instead of a “fan,” it’s easy to get into Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. All you need is a general appreciation for sturdy songs and a willingness not to think too much about how much Marcus Mumford probably likes them. But to get into the band’s live tapes—and thus into the essence not only of the Grateful Dead but of Dead and Company, as well—is much more difficult. You have to listen to a lot of 1950s rock covers. You have to listen to a lot of George Jones songs sung by someone who isn’t George Jones. You have to be able to look at a track list, see a 12:57 version of “Dancing in the Streets,” and have faith that whatever’s on the other side of the first two and a half minutes will be worth hearing Weir sing a disco version of a soul song.

I came to the Dead as a music person. I was going to pop-up record sales and buying rare Brazilian vinyl. I had a granular understanding of the modal differences between East African and West African music; I could typically tell whether a song had been recorded in Mali. I was “not really interested in the guitar anymore.” Most important, I was listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock and a lot of Can. In the mid-1970s, the jazz heavyweight and the free-spirited German weirdos were both pursuing a form of funk music that rippled with grooves and dissolved into space. You could dance to it, but it could also catch you up the way driving through the mountains sometimes does: You keep moving, but your mind is suddenly still.

At the same historical moment, the Grateful Dead were in pursuit of the same kind of sound. There are versions of “Dancing in the Streets” and especially Weir’s “Playing in the Band” from the mid-’70s that pulse and shimmer, where all sense of the original melody and tone has been completely scraped away and the band is intently exploring the foundation on which it was built. Kreutzmann liked to say that his goal as a drummer wasn’t to keep time but to keep mood, and once you begin to tune in to the mood that’s being cultivated by any form of the Dead, their ability to find new ways of expressing it becomes astonishing. The jam that leads “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain” on the May 8, 1977, tape—probably the band’s most famous jam—is mind-boggling at a technical level; there are moments in which all five musicians seem to be playing both songs at once. But it’s no less admirable for the way it sustains a feeling of buoyancy, of pleasant surprise, of a seemingly unlimited number of happily beguiling opportunities around every corner.

You have enough moments like this, and you eventually find yourself through the looking glass. You become someone who appreciates how the zapping laser of Garcia’s guitar gooses Weir’s vocal in “Dancing in the Streets,” who dreams about cracking open a few cold ones and listening to “El Paso.” You might completely forget that the thing that got you into this music was the wild-eyed, experimental nature of it. When you sing along in full throat to “U.S. Blues” with tens of thousands of people who aren’t aware or don’t care that the original band was being ironic when it sang the “wave that flag” chorus, you’ve come a long way toward being cured of the need to use music as a way to differentiate yourself. The appeal becomes simple: It feels good to drink beers in the daytime and sing songs with your spouse and your friends and fall in love with a band. And then you watch them spend 15 minutes turning “Bird Song” inside out until it feels like tissue-paper-soft jazz, and you look around and go, My God, there are 40,000 people at Mayer’s experimental music concert.

L.A.! The Fabulous Forum! Where Magic and Kareem went back-to-back! Where Nicholson was always courtside! Where Harry Styles went on a run of 15 sold-out shows, as the only banner hanging from the rafters proclaims! Outside, half the city of Los Angeles is crammed into the narrow channel of Shakedown Street, the vendor market that runs through the parking lot and is as ubiquitous a sight at Dead shows as tie-dye. (It is, in fact, the source of much of that tie-dye.) And onstage, Mayer is making his guitar twinkle and hum; he’s going textural and pursuing blue moods. Yes, he’s ripping a few mondo solos and making the faces as he does so. You can only redeem so much of a man.

Dead and Company would not be playing to this many people this often if Mayer weren’t onstage. But his celebrity doesn’t solely account for the group’s swelling popularity. In 2016, the first full Dead and Company trek made $29.4 million, according to industry standard keeper Pollstar, good for only the 59th-highest-grossing tour worldwide. By 2021, they took in $50.2 million and finished fifth, one spot below the Eagles and two above Guns N’ Roses—even though they didn’t even leave the United States. Were Mayer’s name the driving force behind ticket sales, you’d expect them to have been higher at the outset, before the novelty of seeing a superstar slumming it with wooks had worn off.


Instead, his image allowed the band to more easily capitalize on the momentum created by the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts, in which Weir, Hart, and Kreutzmann performed for the last time with bassist Phil Lesh. Dead and Company entered the world as both a curiosity and an excuse to keep the party going, but the strong performances—and the response from aging Gen X Deadheads starved for the massive stakes of the Grateful Dead’s late ’80s and early ’90s run—instantly made them into something bigger.

When the band was put together in early 2015, Mayer was only a couple of years removed from the lowest days of his career. In 2010, he’d given an interview to Playboy in which he called his ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson “crack cocaine,” used the n-word, and compared his penis to David Duke. (His heart, though? “Benetton.”) In 2011, he was swimming in his pool and heard the knotty, questioning, guarded opening riff of the Grateful Dead’s “Althea” on Pandora. As he tells it, he sprinted into the house sopping wet to find out what he was hearing.

“Althea” didn’t cure Mayer—the next year he’d give another infamous interview, this one to Rolling Stone, in which his claim to be able to hold his breath for four minutes and 17 seconds was probably the least noteworthy tidbit—but it did set him on a new path. In that same piece, Eric Clapton called Mayer a “bedroom” guitarist and said, “I wasn’t sure if John was aware of the power of playing with other people.” Perhaps aware he was supposed to be burnishing the younger player’s image, he added, “Though I think he is now.” The power of playing with other people is central to what makes the music of the Grateful Dead work. Garcia knew this intuitively. Though he possessed the skills to shred, he rarely did. His playing was rarely showy. Rather than draw attention to himself, he stoked the flames of what his bandmates were doing, hinting at directions they might take together or else allowing himself to soak in the mood they had collectively created. Every line seemed to end in a question mark; he didn’t make assertions, he made suggestions.

This is only part of the reason Garcia became an icon to many. Despite the Grateful Dead’s sunshine-daydream image in the popular mind, their music is deeply suffused with pain and confusion. Robert Hunter’s lyrics feint toward salvation without being able to offer it, and they’re deeply informed by the fact that each individual is ultimately responsible for navigating the fog of life. “If I knew the way, I would take you home,” goes the band’s defining statement, from “Ripple.” The scholar Brent Wood surveyed the band’s lyrics and discovered that about three-fourths of the songs Garcia sang are about suffering, and a full half of those songs are about death. Garcia played guitar in a way that perpetuated these feelings—the persistent reality of pain and the desire to find a little happiness anyway are both present in so much of what he did. With Dead and Company, Weir allows the songs to move more slowly, until the jams begin to take on an almost painterly quality. When it works, the jam becomes as much a part of the story as the lyrics, a sigh of emotion spontaneously exhaled by the six guys onstage.

It took Mayer a moment to understand how he fit into the music; witness him trying to play roadhouse blues in the twilit silence of a “Space” jam in 2015. But as he found his footing, and particularly as he developed his musical relationship with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, his ability to meet the songs on their own terms deepened. “I’ve always said that if I’m doing my job right, I bring the crowd closer to the music they love while disappearing from the equation a little bit,” he wrote on Instagram a few days before the Forum shows. Indeed, it’s a minor miracle that his star power vanishes the moment he steps onstage, where he appears to be just some dude in an expensive-looking T-shirt and with very bad tattoos. While the jokes about 17-minute versions of “Your Body Is a Wonderland” never subside from some corners of the Dead world, by the time the 2023 tour arrived, Mayer was fully integrated into the cosmos. There have been “John Mayer Is Dead to Me” shirts on the lot for years. In San Francisco, I see one that says, simply and provocatively and sincerely, “He is my Jerry.”

Onstage at the Forum, he’s restrained and tasteful. He plays “Althea” as if he, too, is awed by the oracle at the song’s center, and by the oracle the song has been for him. It’s not hard to understand why. The titular character functions as a mirror for the narrator, telling him he’s been “honest to the point of recklessness” and “self-centered in the extreme.” He says he’s “lacking in some direction,” that “treachery” is “tearing me limb from limb.” “Ain’t nobody messing with you but you,” Althea tells him, and the truth cools his head.

The most commonly asked question on tour: “Where is Shakedown Street?” Named for the Dead’s disco-funk song, it’s ostensibly a tailgate, but that descriptor is wildly insufficient. The most common answer, also taken from the song: “You just gotta poke around.”

This is probably true in some places. In New York, at Citi Field, you do not have to poke around. Shakedown Street pokes you. It is impossible to miss, taking over a fenced-in parking lot under the elevated train tracks across the street from the stadium. Dozens of people are pushing through the narrow gate at all times, and instantly they’re surrounded by people with ice chests selling domestics, microbrews, White Claws, you name it for $5 a can. Grills hiss in the distance. Nitrous tanks hiss nearby. Balloons pop constantly. “Mushrooms, K, acid” is whispered loudly by dudes making conspicuous eye contact. A sign advertises BULK FEMINIZED SEEDS in bold type. There’s a booth selling Jerry rolls, which seem to be some kind of sandwich and not a drug. Everyone has their own version of grilled cheese: vegan cheese, gluten-free bread, but no sight of the guy from 2022 who promised “bacon in every motherfucking bite.” From every direction, tapes of old Dead shows—both Grateful Dead and Dead and Company—blast from portable stereos and car sound systems.

People started selling things in the parking lots at Grateful Dead shows as early as 1973, author Jesse Jarnow reports in Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, around the same time they started following the band on tour. It makes sense: sell a few limp burritos, make enough money to get to the next show. By the 1980s, Shakedown became its own attraction, as its cheery lawlessness drew in crowds of college students anxious to party, runaways escaping the latchkey lifestyle, white kids with dreads claiming their parents still lived in Babylon, and genuine Deadheads, too. The psychologist Joseph Campbell, who lived next door to Weir, once took in the parking-lot scene in Oakland and declared it an “antidote for the atom bomb.” By 1989, it had expanded so much it made the Dead unwelcome in places they’d played for years, with riots and general mayhem leading the band to prohibit vending outside gigs. Did it work? Come on.

There is much to buy on Shakedown Street. Not just drugs, though definitely drugs. There are crystal sellers whose wares have gone dusty from years of exactly this, and those who are selling fragile $1,000 specimens that should probably not be out on a folding table with this many wasted people around. There are head-shop-quality patches and pins tacked to a corkboard. A guy calling himself Grateful Fred is selling metallic plaques of Dead iconography you can put on your trunk to make it look like Toyota is offering up a limited-edition Wookmobile; he has the hatchback door of a brand-new Volkswagen set up in his booth so that you can see how they look in situ.

But mostly there is versioning. In the same way that a dub producer takes the elements of a traditional reggae track and reframes it into something more wigged out, artists have been fucking with the iconography of the Grateful Dead and selling it back to Deadheads for decades. A pre-fame Keith Haring sold shirts on the lot in 1977, his characteristic line work already apparent in the doodles that fill the blank space in the Stealie. A guy calling himself New Springfield Boogie exclusively makes merch that references both the Dead and The Simpsons, and with the charisma of Lyle Lanley selling Springfield on the Monorail, he gleefully shares the names of his creations. Homer disappearing into the roses of the band’s Bertha skeleton is given the “St. Stephen”–referencing title “In and Out of the Garden He Goes.”

Anything worn onstage by Mayer gets a boost. In 2022, an official shirt designed by bootlegger Jeremy Dean with a dancing bear face and the word “California” in a straightforward script was sold out before the end of the first set at the first show of the tour. When I ask one vendor how many of his $80 sweatshirts (which have a BMW logo in the Stealie) he sold after John wore one in June, he demurs, telling me only, “A lot.” I ask another vendor whether he’s concerned the band will force him to stop selling his shirts, which violate the only enforced rule of vending by having the words “Dead and Company” on them. He laughs and tells me he’ll just text Mayer and have him sort it out.

This is commerce, plain and simple, and there are obvious points to be made about the co-opting of the counterculture and the frenzy of consumerism. Dead and Company themselves certainly aren’t shy about accruing capital. But in the moment, as the beers flow and the trips come on, it feels like a convincing illusion of everything Heads project onto the band: freedom, joy, bright abandon. Unlike at a sporting event, there is no sense of aggression because there is no opponent. Unlike at a mass church gathering, there is no sense of propriety or even reverence; the enthusiasm is ungated. At least until the sun goes down and the chemicals start to curdle, it is a bright, warm—druggy, paranoid—dream, the California ideal appearing like a mirage in the heart of New York City.

We spend two days at the Gorge, mostly sitting in a scrap of shade beneath what must be the only row of trees in all of eastern Washington, and the view never begins to seem real. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of the scenic natural amphitheater on the other side of the Cascades from Seattle and wondered what it’s like to see a show there. It is beyond picturesque. It is difficult—genuinely difficult—to take it all in. The stage is placed perfectly, right in a crook of the Columbia River, and for the first set of both nights, before the sun goes down, it is more or less impossible to pay attention to the band onstage. The rugged cliff faces and soft turns in the landscape are the only things around that look older and more weathered than Weir.

Other than the surprisingly robust cell service, there is nothing convenient about the Gorge. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere, equally remote from Seattle and Spokane. Getting in Thursday night takes three hours owing to increased security. The campsites, where thousands of Deadheads are posted up from Thursday night through Sunday morning, are a rugged mile or so trek from the entrance to the amphitheater itself. Even though the venue is nearly 40 years old, there are no permanent bathrooms.

The heat is so bad on Night 1, the band seems to check itself. They cut their tempo and ease their way through the songs, whether to discourage ecstatic dance in the crowd or to ensure they make it through the evening themselves. We are near the end of the road now, a week from the end of the tour, and everyone seems to be slightly distracted by that knowledge. Weed smoke clings to the ground as the sun pours into the amphitheater.

After the show, Shakedown stays open late. There are multiple bands playing in the campground, one of them working on a pacy jam that sounds like it’s on its way toward a Talking Heads song. In the morning, there are what appear to be Hare Krishnas playing a trance remix of chant music with live finger-cymbal accompaniment. I wander into Shakedown in search of iced coffee and find two kids in their 20s playing guitar, working their way through the Dead’s “Estimated Prophet” with no vocals, just wavering in the heat vision of one of Weir’s best songs. Someone is advertising a yoga retreat “for Deadheads ONLY” in Costa Rica. Another guy is hawking some kind of Dead-adjacent red wine despite the temperature. “What a long, strange trip it’s been for these grapes,” he cries. “But they’re here now, and so are you.”

So are we. “At this point, two and a half months in[to the tour], I’m exhausted,” Michael Koppinger Jr. tells me the next weekend in San Francisco. Koppinger is a vendor in his early 20s who went to his first show in Raleigh in 2018, was given LSD by a friendly beer salesperson before he even made it to Shakedown, and never looked back. “It blew my mind,” he says. “I was raised Catholic and in this strict upbringing and culture. If people did drugs, it was like, you were bad. So to just be in a space where you could do whatever and it was normalized, it kinda blew my shit.” He printed up his first shirt in 2021, with plans to sell a hundred or so over a weekend run, then come home. Instead, he pulled out of a plan to buy a house with his (now ex-)girlfriend, put everything he owned in his parents’ attic, and split. “I’ve been on the road pretty much since,” he tells me.

Besides the profound bodily exhaustion, the biggest struggle of being a touring Deadhead in 2023 is scraping together gas money. “Once you get to Shakedown, you can make things work,” Koppinger says. “You can get into the show, you can get fed, you can get a drink. The community takes care of itself. But getting show to show, spot to spot, it’s rough.” As they cross the country, Heads panhandle for gas money, pile into the backs of buses and sleep in piles, and do what it takes to get to the next show. “I don’t live in this amount of love and community in everyday life,” Koppinger says. “In 2023 America, alienated, atomized, no one does.”

It is easy to get caught up in this. Even as I roast away in Washington, I’m clinging to what remains of this tour, of the fiction that you can simply zone out of everyday life in the name of having a good time and bring the people you love with you. Nobody knows where this energy will go next summer, whether to jam upstarts Goose or to bluegrass hero Billy Strings or, as it did in ’95, back to Phish. What’s certain is that it won’t be destroyed, even if it transmutes. Even if it lies dormant.

Nobody believes that what happens on tour or at a Dead show is a truly sustainable lifestyle. Like the music itself, it’s ephemeral, being created and destroyed in the same moment. It takes up space in real life, but it exists outside it, in the carnivalesque. The trick, when it all finally ends, is to remember that and not get rolled up in the tent when the circus leaves town.

But first, we have to go to San Francisco.

There are many rumors. The obvious ones involve the last living members of the Grateful Dead who aren’t in Dead and Company: Lesh is going to sit in. Background vocalist Donna-Jean Godchaux will step in to sing. Kreutzmann will join in for “Drums” (Billy himself stokes the last one by tweeting, “You know what would be cool …” a week before the final show; he never elaborates). Bob Dylan toured with the Grateful Dead in 1987 and has been covering “Brokedown Palace” lately, plus he has a break in his tour. Neil Young is in the area and has a conspicuous hole in his itinerary, too. Some people shoot for the stars and insist Paul McCartney will come out for the twinned covers of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Hey Jude.”

In the end, none of this happens. Dead and Company set up in center field at Oracle Park and play six sets over three nights, about 10 hours of music, with no repeats. When they launch into “Bertha” to open Night 3, there is a prickling in the air. Bassist Oteil Burbridge’s wife has painted Garcia’s famous four-fingered handprint onto her husband’s face, and when the cameras focus on him during a cover of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” the roar from the crowd is staggering. There have been so many big-time Dead shows in stadiums like this, and in the fresh daylight and cool early-evening San Francisco breeze, time collapses, and it feels like we’re inside each and every one of those shows; I’m fully conscious of the fact that for something to be timeless, it has to exit time, it has to die.

Weir was 16 when he joined the Grateful Dead. He grew up in Garcia’s shadow and never grew out of it. Garcia gained a kind of gravitas as he aged, even as heroin and diabetes ravaged his body and made him look 20 years older than he was. Weir courted silliness, wearing polo shirts tucked tidily into very small jean shorts. The Spinners, a religious movement that sprung up around the band and gained enough traction to warrant serious anthropological study, took as dogma what many fans felt: “Jerry Garcia is sacred and Bobby Weir is profane,” as Jarnow sums it up in Heads.

Another thing: “Bobby Weir makes me weep,” Jarnow tells me over Zoom one afternoon. He makes me weep, too. Somehow, in his old age, Weir has become a stately presence, a figure of poise. He carries with him the entire history of the counterculture, and he seems to feel its weight. When he sings Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” or Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” he inhabits the weariness of longing and guilt. There are Garcia songs that, thanks to age and wisdom or maybe just sheer repetition, Weir sings better than Jerry ever did: Witness him reel off the names of Billy Sunday and Jack the Ripper in “Ramble on Rose.” He sings with a far-off focus, as powerful and distant as a spaceship cruising through the cosmos. On Night 2 in San Francisco, he sings the postapocalyptic “Morning Dew” drenched in green light, his voice ragged and heartbroken as he surveys what’s left of the world after it ends.

Weir didn’t write the majority of the Grateful Dead’s best songs. “Ripple,” “Eyes of the World,” “Terrapin Station,” “Brokedown Palace,” “Sugaree,” “Althea”—they’re all Garcia’s. But over the 30 years they played together, Weir gained a better understanding of how those songs worked than anyone else possibly could. When he plays them, it’s hard to argue that they’re not in some way his.


The Grateful Dead keep dying. And regardless of whether Dead and Company are truly done right now, they will die one day, too. (Mayer set off a firestorm online by saying Dead and Company is “still a band—we just don’t know what the next show will be” a couple of days after the last show at Oracle Park; theories abound.) But written into the music is the notion that songs themselves don’t need their creators to live. This is hardly revolutionary in the world of jazz, where standards frequently outlive the people who wrote them, or in classical music, where most composers are incapable of performing their own works in the first place. But in rock ’n’ roll, where the cult of authenticity insists that meaning comes mostly in creation, rarely in interpretation, the music and ethos of the Dead are an anomaly. Dead and Company are far from the only group keeping this music alive, but Weir, convinced of the power of the songs as forms of expression and not simply vehicles for dancing or virtuosity or even experimentation, frames his band’s catalog with the dignity it deserves.

It is but one way of keeping the Dead alive. There are so many ways to express yourself, so many paths into and out of this music. Everyone has the right to desire their own expansion, to test their edges and see what else they might be able to contain. I see so many people on Dead tours who can’t possibly dress this way in their everyday lives. On tour, or at the one show they can afford to hit, or watching the livestream at home, or catching some local Dead band struggle through the “Slipknot!” changes, Deadheads enact the answer to a simple problem. The alienation we all feel is real and unavoidable. What if we learned to understand it as good?

Sadie Sartini Garner has written music criticism for Pitchfork, The A.V. Club, The Outline, and many other places. She lives in Long Beach, California, with her partner Rachelle.

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