The Music Never Stops: The Grateful Dead’s Enduring Legacy
The Music Never Stops: The Grateful Dead’s Enduring Legacy
Founding Members Weir And Hart Chart Their Course Dead Ahead
What a long, strange trip it continues to be for the indomitable members of the Grateful Dead in 2024. This coming weekend, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart debut a new offshoot project named Dead Ahead in Mexico, while back in San Francisco, bassist Phil Lesh celebrates thirty years of his self-titled project at the Warfield Theatre.
Implausibly, nearly as much time has passed since Jerry Garcia’s death as the Grateful Dead’s three-decade career that preceded. So, it is an opportune time for Deadheads to reflect on how the bandmates arrived at this juncture, and their trajectory approaching the GD’s sixtieth anniversary. Much has been voluminously written about the storied years of the Grateful Dead. However the successive decades and related incarnations are less renowned, so let’s take a step back to recount their more recent musical escapades.
Nearly as much time has passed since Jerry Garcia’s death as the Grateful Dead’s three-decade career that preceded.
After thirty years together, the Grateful Dead announced their retirement in December 1995, four months after Garcia’s untimely passing. The three following summers yielded the traveling Furthur Festivals, a multi-year wake-turned-revival that continued the group’s wayfaring traditions by featuring the members’ side projects Ratdog and Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box alongside various contemporary luminaries.
The 1998 Furthur Festival summer tour introduced The Other Ones, reuniting the GD’s “core four” Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Hart, and eventually Bill Kreutzmann, along with 1990s quasi-member Bruce Hornsby and various cohorts such as Steve Kimock and Mark Karan. The Other Ones lasted for four years, releasing a live album The Strange Remain in the process. They culminated in a cathartic Dead family reunion in August 2002 at Alpine Valley Music Center, christened Terrapin Station for the weekend.
Dead & Co. 7-1-22 at Bethel Woods by Frank White
In the off-season, axe men Weir and Lesh continued developing their own projects Ratdog and Phil Lesh & Friends, the latter releasing new studio albums in 1999 and 2002 following Lesh’s life-changing liver transplant. During an Other Ones’ hiatus in 2001 on New Year’s Eve, the members showcased their projects at Oakland’s Kaiser Convention Center before reconvening together at midnight as one-time offshoot Crusader Rabbit, their only use of that cartoonish moniker and the only West Coast concert attended by this writer to date.
In 2003, The Other Ones transformed into The Dead, increasing the ensemble’s visibility and marketability as they returned to larger arenas. The Dead soldiered on until 2009 with the help of guitarists Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes, Rob Barraco, and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, plus vocalist Joan Osbourne on their initial tour. During this period, the beleaguered odd man out Vince Welnick – the Grateful Dead’s last keyboardist who was excluded from his bandmates’ following incarnations – performed infrequently before dying in 2006.
In 2003, The Other Ones transformed into The Dead, increasing the ensemble’s visibility and marketability as they returned to larger arenas.
After The Dead’s disbandment in late 2009, there was a divergence in the core members’ projects as Weir and Lesh created a new derivative band named Furthur without Hart and Kreutzmann, recruiting Joe Russo and Jay Lane in their drum chairs while Jerry’s role was assumed by Dark Star Orchestra’s uncanny John Kadlecik. Hart and Kreutzmann in turn recompensed by touring the festival circuit as The Rhythm Devils in 2010 and 2011. When Furthur announced their disbandment in November 2014 after five years of touring, there were rumors abound of a special commemoration of the GD’s fiftieth anniversary.
Sure enough, 2015 delivered twin sensations to the delight of Deadheads. Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years Of The Grateful Dead (aka GD50) notably marked the first time the original members performed as the Grateful Dead since 1995 and without Garcia. Taking place over two weekends in June and July 2015 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and Chicago’s Soldier Field, GD50 briefly reunited Weir, Lesh, Hart, and Kreutzmann, along with Hornsby, Chimenti, and Phish’s Trey Anastasio on lead guitar. When wistfully witnessing the last of six Fare Thee Well GD50 concerts in person at Soldier Field, it seemed at the time that we were collectively bidding farewell to live Dead representations featuring its founders. Little did we know that there was another manifestation soon to be unveiled in the form of Dead & Company.
The Dead press photo 2003
Dead & Company debuted on Halloween 2015 at Madison Square Garden featuring Weir, Hart, and Kreutzmann, but without bassist Lesh who opted out of nationwide touring after Furthur. Capably filling Lesh’s spot was Oteil Burbridge, while Chimenti continued to provide authentic keyboards and John Mayer assumed the lead role. Initially a controversial choice, Mayer was eventually accepted by Deadheads due to his soulful and faithful renditions of Garcia’s guitar alchemy, sans MIDI effects.
Dead & Company embarked on their initial tour in 2017 and, for the first time since the late 1980s, the average age of concert-attending Deadheads trended younger instead of older, partially due to Mayer’s inclusion. As the next generation sustained the long tradition, going on the ‘Dead tour’ went from being passé to being hip again. The new blood on and off the stage rejuvenated the crowd at large, even as the song tempos slowed with no new material to speak of.
As the next generation sustained the long tradition, going on the ‘Dead tour’ went from being passé to being hip again.
During Dead & Co.’s tenure, Bob Weir released a fine country-flavored album titled Blue Mountain, however he reserved his new and old solo material for his latest project Wolf Bros. Mayer similarly stayed on topic abstaining from his pop-blues-rock originals in Dead & Company. As a result, their setlists were indistinguishable from the Grateful Dead’s aside from song order, providing Deadheads with countless nostalgic moments.
Looming large over the proceedings is long-departed greybeard architect “Captain Trips” Jerry Garcia, oddly omnipresent as his likeness was periodically displayed onscreen behind the stage. Jerry’s unending musical influence was impeccably commemorated in August 2017 at Red Rocks Amphitheater for his posthumous 75th birthday, with a heartfelt concert featuring keepers of the flame Melvin Seals & the Jerry Garcia Band alongside Weir, Mayer, Burbridge, Anders Osborne, and more.
Meanwhile, the GD’s remaining band members continued to cement their legacies with Dead & Co. as well as musical projects bearing their own names: Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros, Billy and the Kids, Mickey Hart Band & Planet Drum, and Phil Lesh & Friends. Lesh amicably distanced himself from Dead & Company while focusing on his namesake band and maintaining his own venue Terrapin Crossroads for a time.
After eight years together and a slew of adventurous Dead & Company concert tours that fans never expected but gratefully attended, the band announced that their 2023 summer tour would be their “final tour.” Perennial timekeeper Bill Kreutzmann shocked fans by announcing his retirement from the band shortly before the tour, well after most of the concert tickets were sold. While hinting at health reasons for his departure, Kreutzmann didn’t shy away from concurrently performing with his own project Billy and the Kids in New Orleans, seemingly gloating in the process, while Jay Lane filled Kreutzmann’s drum chair in Dead & Company alongside Hart.
After one presumably last cross-country jaunt, Dead & Company bid their fans goodnight in July 2023 at San Francisco’s Oracle Park, concluding with their fan chant rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” Hart parsed his words to leave room for future Dead & Co. shows, stating in an interview “(w)e never said we’ll never play again, but we’ll never tour again.”
As was the case in late 2015, this past summer a related tour and separate peripheral ensemble were announced while Deadheads’ “last” concert memories were still fresh. Weir – who is as active as ever at age 76 – quickly embarked on a fall tour with Wolf Bros, including Chimenti, Lane, Don Was on bass, and a string and horn section.
Dead & Co. by Danny Clinch
September brought the unexpected announcement of a new iteration named Dead Ahead. This derivative ensemble, more an offshoot of Dead & Company than the GD, is scheduled to premiere this coming weekend at Rivera Cancun, Mexico, the only announced performance to date. To kick off 2024, the last men standing Weir and Hart will be joined by Dead & Co. alumni Oteil Burbridge, Jeff Chimenti, and Jay Lane, along with Don Was, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Sturgill Simpson, Rick Mitarotonda and Margo Price in a tropical Survivor-like soiree to determine who perseveres to the next season, as “only the strange remain.”
Time will tell if untested Dead Ahead will have similar staying power as the prior multi-membered post-GD permutations, which lasted between four and eight years. As always, Deadheads remain glad to see the group’s founders – now down to two in Dead Ahead – performing the GD’s music together with a multitude of collaborators. However, the choice to debut a new Dead-named incarnation at a costly foreign resort, as opposed to the band’s hometown San Francisco Bay, has raised suspicious eyebrows and cash grab criticisms among Deadheads who cringe at the requisite travel packages priced at a minimum of $2,287 per person. Dead & Company similarly embarked on expensive “Playing in the Sand” vacation ventures, an industry trend not exclusive to GD projects, but one that is at odds with the original band’s philosophy of anti-commercialism.
What does the future hold for the members of the Grateful Dead and their continuing musical merriment? Certainly, they will each continue cultivating their solo projects for as long as they’re each able, in the form of Wolf Bros, Billy and the Kids, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Mickey Hart Band aka Mickey & the Miracles. One-time GD members Donna Jean Godchaux and Tom Constanten both enjoy modest success as well; Godchaux at intervals with her self-titled project after rarely guesting with Dead & Co., and Constanten as a solo pianist and Jazz Is Dead for a time.
Lesh will commemorate thirty years of his eponymous project at the revamped Warfield in San Francisco this weekend. Recently teasing fans with a cryptic announcement about a new endeavor named Terrapin Clubhouse, Phil has increasingly passed the reins to his sons Grahame and Brian. Given that the GD’s surviving members are each septuagenarians (except for Lesh, who is 83!), it is impossible to ignore the passage of time, and it is a testament and inspiration that each of them to continue to perform with vivacity.
Trey, Phil, and Bob at Soldier Field--2015 by Jay Blakesburg
While Weir and Hart debut Dead Ahead this weekend in Mexico, conjecture grows about upcoming state-side performances of Dead Ahead and/or fan-favored Dead & Company. In a brief interview on CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live, John Mayer encouraged Dead & Co.’s fans to “have hope” that the band would perform over the coming year. Since the recent opening of The Sphere in Las Vegas as an inimitable sensory concert experience, it has been rumored that Dead & Company may follow U2 and Phish in scheduling live performances at the unique new venue.
As Deadheads continue to read the tea leaves, the most anticipation lies ahead in 2025 to mark the Grateful Dead’s 60th anniversary. As was the case with GD50 Fare Thee Well, speculation builds that said concert promoter Peter Shapiro could galvanize the core four to reunite for the first time since 2015 for a limited series of GD60 concerts. Weir, Lesh, Hart, and Kreutzmann each continue honing their musical chops with their various projects, performing Dead tunes more often than not. Ultimately as long as they are ready, willing, and able, there is some inclination that lightning could strike again, as a unit akin to “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 60 Years Of The Grateful Dead” could be reconstituted in 2025.
Kris Kristofferson once remarked in a documentary that the Grateful Dead “did an amazing thing… they made their moment last for thirty years.” It remains equally impressive and astounding that the band’s members and music have largely endured for an additional three decades through multiple permutations and generations, sixty years after Garcia and Weir fatefully met at Dana Morgan’s Music Store on New Year’s Eve 1963.
Their amaranthine songs, primarily composed by Garcia, Robert Hunter, Weir, and John Perry Barlow, constitute a vast and exquisite musical repertoire that will survive us for generations to come. In nearly every major metropolitan area across the U.S., there exists a Dead tribute or cover band that performs the GD’s songs on a locally accessible level. All of it is gratefully owed to the original wayfaring group who improbably convened in 1965 to create one of the most legendary and indelible bands of all time.
– Bill Kurzenberger
Dead & Company 6-1-2023 Walnut Creek encore bow by Reddit user gregornot
In the attics of my life
Full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me