More than 200,000 people trekked to Chicago this weekend to see the original, surviving members of The Grateful Dead perform what have been billed as the band's farewell concerts. I was not among the throng who made the pilgrimage to the site of the band's final shows with lead singer Jerry Garcia. It had less to do with the shameless cash grab (though anyone who mail ordered tickets in the 80s or 90s eye rolled at the face value for a ticket) and a lot more to do with the appropriation of the band's name for something that could have been done under a different guise.
I have no problem with the surviving members commemorating the 50th anniversary of the band's formation or, for that matter, touring in celebration of that signal event. What I do mind is the idea that these are "Grateful Dead" shows. Let us be clear. They are not. That band was led by Jerry Garcia and ceased to exist when he passed away on August 9th, 1995. Don't believe me? The surviving members once understood it too. When Jerry died at the height of the band's popularity, when millions were pouring in from tour dates, they could have plucked someone else to play lead guitar, sing Jerry's songs, and carry the banner. But they did not. For the same reason the band could survive the death or departure of Pigpen, Keith and Donna, Brent, and even Mickey Hart for a short spell, they could not survive without Jerry because Jerry was The Grateful Dead. No Jerry. No Grateful Dead.
In fact, just six short years ago, the now-dubbed "core four" toured together and, but for a few guffaws from the press about old geezers "still truckin'" after all these years, those shows, and that tour, passed without much notice. Why? One key word was omitted from that band's name. "The Dead" filled amphitheaters and smaller venues but none of the sturm und drang, including a shout out from the President of the United States, attended these otherwise unremarkable shows. The side men playing with the band this weekend are also familiar - Bruce Hornsby was a member of The Grateful Dead and Jeff Chimenti has toured for years as part of Bob Weir's band Ratdog. Trey Anastasio, the front man for Phish, has also played with Lesh and has his own jam band credentials. So why feel the need to resurrect a name that you properly retired when the man most associated with it died?
And I get it. The band was always about a sense of adventure, of young people exploring the world and getting into shenanigans and maybe meeting some friends along the way. Perhaps the three shows in Chicago and the two in California gave some who never got to see the band the opportunity to experience a Dead show, or at least a pale imitation of what that experience was like, but the truth is, the band has been touring under different names for almost as long as Jerry has been in the ground. The Other Ones. The Dead. Further. Phil Lesh & Friends. But the one thing the band members had the decency to do was not call themselves The Grateful Dead.
This is true for the same reason Nirvana survived half-a-dozen drummers before Dave Grohl but disbanded after Kurt Cobain's suicide, why The Beatles made it past Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe but The Police called it quits after Sting went solo, and why Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend can still pass themselves off as "The Who" even though Keith Moon has been dead since 1978 and John Entwistle since 2002 (they did a show just four days after their erstwhile bassist went to the great beyond!) Sometimes musicians are so associated with a band and a band is so associated with a particular member, that using that name once they are no longer in the band is just not right.
Of course, it is the band's name, their music, and their legacy, they can do with it what they please, charge people what the market will bear, sell $700 box sets and crackdown on anyone attempting to share soundboard recordings of their old shows. But it is too bad they have chosen this route because the music they have produced has actually been pretty good, it is just not "The Grateful Dead." To some, this will seem silly or a matter of semantics, but those of us who had the good fortune of seeing the band, of knowing that electric current that passed through the crowd when the lights went down and band took the stage, do not need the band's name resurrected to cherish those memories.
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