Well, that’s a wrap on the Grateful Dead. 58 years from the remnants of a Palo Alto, California jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions and members of the Wildwood Boys (Jerry Garcia, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, David Nelson, Robert Hunter, and Norm Van Maastricht) went on to form a band called the Warlocks at first but later changed it to the Grateful Dead. The name came from a random search of the dictionary. Look it up! It’s fun!
Dead & Co., which featured the two remaining members of the Grateful Dead, played their final concert in San Francisco last month on Sunday, July 16.
Over the years the lineup has shifted a bit, but not because people left the band, although Donna Jean Godchaux, who sang backup vocals with the band, did kind of go a different direction after her husband, Kieth Godchaux, died. He wasn’t the first band member to pass on to the other side. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan died pretty early on and was replaced by Godchaux. Brent Mydland played keys for a while, but we lost him way too early as well.
Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995. His absence from the band is profound and cannot be overstated. He was there from the beginning. He and Bob Weir had the vision and pulled everybody else into it. I don’t believe any band member was more important than another, but I will say that whatever the spirit was in that band was alive in Jerry Garcia and you could feel it. You could also feel it when it was gone.
For the last eight years, they’ve been operating under the name Dead & Co. They started out with four remaining members: Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann. To “play the part of Jerry Garcia” they brought in John Mayer! Yes, that John Mayer! Jeff Chimenti was brought in to play keyboards and the lineup was set! After a couple years of touring with Dead and Company, Phil decided to retire and just play around town and at his club in the Bay Area. Oteil Burbridge was brought in to play the part of Phil. Bill Kreutzmann almost made it to the last gig, but his doctors informed him that he should probably not play in the band anymore. In 2023, Jay Lane was brought in to play the part of Billy for the last run.
At this point, I want to clarify my use of the words “play the part.” These players just slid right in and started the gigs by playing in the style of the man that held the spot before them. It was an amazing sight to see. After awhile, they began to infuse their own sensibilities and style and character into the music. They waited patiently until they understood it and knew how to respectfully and intuitively interact with that music and that crowd.
All of that—and any information about any of those people—is readily available on the Internet and has only served as a set up for what I’m about to say now.
I will miss this band. I did get a chance to see Dead and Company live and watch them on nugs.net a lot. I was absolutely amazed and astounded how powerful and articulate they were. I got to see them starting in the ’80s and went to a lot of Grateful Dead shows. There was something about what they were doing at the end that was just as powerful as what they were doing back then. It wasn’t the same people, but it was the same spirit in the same music. It sounds so silly, but I could actually hear Jerry playing through John Mayer. I don’t think it was a Wooohoo thing. I just think that John Mayer was channeling that and giving it the kind of respect it deserved. Same with all the other “new” members of the band.
It is true what they say. There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. I probably don’t mean that like you think I mean it.
I know what some of you are saying. “The Grateful Dead suck!” Yes, sometimes they do. I think because of that they get a bad rap sometimes. If that’s all you pay attention to, you’re never going to get it. I heard that going in. A lot of folks in the music world can’t wrap their head around the Grateful Dead until they’ve really experienced them when they’re on.
To me, the Grateful Dead are the most courageous band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The reason there’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert is because they are on stage actively trying to get lost in the song. They don’t want to play it like they did yesterday. They want a new, magical moment. They want to feel the swell of energy as the wave breaks over the audience. That moment when everyone in the place has goosebumps and is welling up with tears, like when a Baptist choir or a sad song touches you, or that screamo band really reaches into your heart and pulls some tears out! The Grateful Dead were trying to be good. They were trying to edify your soul by edifying their own. For me, it was the church of rock ‘n’ roll. No, they were on every night. The nature of exploration is getting lost sometimes. There’s nothing more courageous in music, than going on stage and trying to lose yourself in the moment and be completely open and vulnerable with an audience. The subtle music, body and soul language being communicated by the players, to each other on stage and to the audience is sorcery! Yes, the Grateful Dead did suck sometimes, maybe even more times than not. But when they hit it, when they really found that spark, it exploded into a roaring fire. There was nothing like that!!
By the end they were “on” way more often than not. Most of the time in fact. Dead & Co. reached musical heights that the band was never able to get to in the past. It was a sight to see in a sound to experience that I’ll never forget.
Grateful Dead changed the way I think about and feel about music, audiences, and myself as a music person.
I’m forever Grateful to them all.
Dead & Co ended their very last show with “Not Fade Away.” The band sings, “I know our love will not fadeaway” over and over at the end. The audience was singing along, even as the band left the stage. Not letting go. Not letting the love fade away. We carry with us wherever we go. “I know our love will not fade away.”