Fare Thee Well, The Grateful Dead…

A long read about the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary shows, their remarkable fans, and what happens next...

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Last May, Bill Kreutzmann published Deal, an autobiography of his time playing drums in the Grateful Dead. It’s a pretty rough book, and one that doesn’t add much to the accumulated weight of Dead scholarship, but it does encapsulate the band’s mix of nebulous Aquarian idealism and frontier machismo: besides the drugs and the jams, the reckless use of firearms played a key role in the band’s bonding rituals.

It is also a book that must have been submitted to the printers before Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart decided to reactivate their band for this valedictory round of shows. At one point, Kreutzmann compares the Grateful Dead to an arch, that people would pass underneath en route to “a Utopian island where the gardens looked like amphitheatres, the mall looked like Shakedown Street and the houses were made out of tents.”

“Jerry Garcia,” Kreutzmann continues, “was the keystone of this magical arch. You take that out, and not only does the arch come tumbling down, crushing all who are stuck beneath, but also, it crushes the only road that leads to that Utopian dream.”

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Later he articulates, with a bluntness that is more typical of his prose, the suspicions of many Dead fans following the announcement of Fare Thee Well: “The Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia would be like the Miles David Quintet without Miles Davis… It’s a reenactment, nostalgia, mere bathos.”

Kreutzmann’s get-out clause, as the first Fare Thee Well show draws near, is made clear on the ticket: this is not technically a Grateful Dead concert. In the 20 years since Garcia died, the surviving members have intermittently reconfigured themselves in different permutations – The Other Ones, Furthur, The Dead – to keep the music alive, and of course to keep the bank accounts healthy. For these last five gigs, however, the band name is delicately obscured. “Remember, it’s called ‘Fare Thee Well, Celebrating 50 Years Of The Grateful Dead’,” cautions the promoter Peter Shapiro, a couple of weeks before the show. “That’s how we branded it. Jerry was the soul of the band – they all know that, we all know that – but we’re gonna do it one more time.”

The last time the “core four” came together was for a tour as The Dead, in 2009. “We’ve put the past behind us,” Mickey Hart told Uncut then, referring to the tensions that had dogged inter-band relations since Garcia’s death. “You can’t play Grateful Dead music with someone you don’t like.” Kreutzmann, though, recalls in Deal that the 2009 tour turned out to be so fractious that it “spelled the end of the Dead”. “The head trips,” he remembers, “were so monstrous… You’re doing it just to earn money and that’s not good enough. It doesn’t honour the music or the legacy.”

Shapiro, a Deadhead with a long history of working with the bandmembers individually, ruefully admits the business of reuniting the quartet involved “some good reverse jiu-jitsu”. Lesh, at 75 the oldest of the survivors, appears to have been pivotal to the process, reportedly refusing to countenance a full tour (rumours persist that Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart will head out, with John Mayer, for more dates later in the year). Since the shows were announced in January, every one of Shapiro’s decisions has been critiqued by the fans, from his ticketing schemes to his choice of venues: Soldier Field in Chicago is where Garcia played his last concert, and Kreutzmann recalls waking the heroin-addicted guitarist from a doze in the middle of that decidedly non-vintage set.

Most controversially, there has been the selection of a stand-in for Garcia. Warren Haynes, who subbed on guitar in 2009 and who also spent many years filling in for Duane Allman in The Allman Brothers, missed the cut this time. John Kadcelik, who graduated from Dead tribute bands to join Weir and Lesh in Furthur, was evidently disqualified in order to maintain a fragile band entente: Kreutzmann pointedly disparages him as “Fake Jerry” in Deal.

The lucky guitarist is Trey Anastasio, the frontman of Phish. For many years, Phish have had a precarious reputation in the pantheon of jam bands as the Dead’s most obvious heirs: a group whose huge popularity is enhanced, not diminished, by the digressive intricacy of their music. The analogy is not a precise one, though, and Phish’s credibility with Dead fans has long been compromised by their propensity for a certain prog wackiness, and the fact that Anastasio is as indebted to Frank Zappa as he is to Jerry Garcia.

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The size of Phish’s following, and his apparent lack of political baggage with all four Dead survivors, make Anastasio a pragmatic choice, but Shapiro is enthusiastic about his diligence as much as his improvising skills. Anastasio has been preparing for six months, employing a Broadway orchestrator to write out charts of around 100 songs from the Dead catalogue. “Trey’s not only been studying Jerry,” says Shapiro, “he’s been studying the people Jerry studied.”

“Trey has been kicking ass,” Jeff Chimenti, organist in the Fare Thee Well lineup, tells Uncut during the band’s uncharacteristically focused, “very busy” rehearsal period. “He’s worked hard and it’s evident in his performance, besides the ‘position’ in the band that he has to deal with, so to speak…I’m sure you know what I mean…”

According to Dennis McNally, the band’s former publicist and the author of their definitive history, A Long Strange Trip, Anastasio is “a lovely guy, and a fine guitarist, and I think he will do as good a job as anybody could. I think he’s smart enough not to try to sound like Jerry. But part of me sort of feels sorry for him because, y’know, what a job…”

 Heads up! Next month’s Uncut – on sale July 28 in the UK – comes with a FREE GRATEFUL DEAD CD: our historic attempt to piece together the album that should have followed “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty”…

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