Remaining Members of the Grateful Dead Reunite to Support Obama (Relix Revisited)
This took place nearly three years ago, as reported in the December 2008 Relix. Seems longer though, no?
Photo by Michael Weintrob
October 13, 2008
Bryce Jordan Arena, State College, PA
Billed as “Change Rocks,” the evening was an Obama/Biden fundraiser in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. As expected, the audience was a healthy mix of Penn State students and longtime Deadheads who’d come to see the Grateful Dead’s remaining members reunite for the first time since August 2004. Some even sported confused looking “Steal Your Face” t-shirts featuring Obama where the lightning bolt usually is.
I was in town to play pre- and post-show parties with The Heavy Pets, and unfortunately had to miss the first few hours of the event. The Allman Brothers had opened the show, and were followed by several speakers. I arrived just as the lights dimmed to a frenzied anticipation of the evening’s closer.
Instead of seeing the Dead take the stage, a large screen lowered and a Jumbotron-sized Obama appeared to greet us via pre-recorded video. He thanked the bands and organizers for their support, and cleverly attempted to display a connection with his audience: “For 20 months I have been traveling this country from town to town, even developing a touch of grey of my own.” The short speech won a lot of noise, in part, because it was probably the shortest one of the night.
The band had taken its place in the dark and immediately launched into “Truckin’” as the screen retracted. The vibe seemed one of joy and relief as the tune quickly turned into a 10,000-strong sing-along. “Truckin’” begat “U.S. Blues,” which may have been too appropriate. Lyrical relevance aside, the two songs share the same key, many of the same changes and nearly the same tempo. Further, there was no discernable groove though Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann were rhythmically sparring.
“Help on the Way” was a welcome change, though that too started off with a hiccup. Bob Weir took lead vocals but seemed to forget words as he half-mumbled the first few lines—to encouraging cheers, of course. His chord work was slick and his tone was crystalline, although his level seemed a little generous in the mix.
The band soon got cooking and blazed through the rest of the tune, then expertly navigated its way through the winding, diminished arpeggios of “Slipknot.” For the first time all evening, the jams got dark and very spacey. A bouncy and boundless “Franklin’s Tower” came next, with the calm and sincere vocal styling of Phil Lesh. All the while a groove began to surface, meeting Lesh’s meandering basslines in the depths. And it continued to get better. The drummers began bouncing ideas off of each other while keeping the odd-metered “Playing in the Band” rocking and danceable.
The song of the night was a loose, modal “Dark Star” with Hart leaving the kit to play the vibes and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti adding swashes of color. The band split the singing duties and collectively crushed the harmonies. In the jam, guitarist Warren Haynes stepped in and commanded the stage, reprising his role in the reformed band as he quoted Garcia while coolly tearing the arena apart with his own distinctive style.
A rocking “St. Stephen” reminded everyone why they were so pumped before all the speeches. The crowd boogied and was all too eager to sing along again after many deep but mellow jams. The set slowed with Lesh’s beautiful “Unbroken Chain” before firing back up with “The Other One,” the politically-charged “Throwing Stones” and a “Playing in the Band” reprise to close. For encore, they nodded to Obama with the triumphant “Touch of Grey” and finished out with “Not Fade Away.”
Overall, it was a well-executed, rocking performance as they cranked out the hits and seemed to have fun doing so (which ultimately boded well for the much-rumored spring tour). While the fundraiser was billed as a historic event, just getting these musicians together again to play is reason enough for the title.
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