A Long, Strange Trip

The Grateful Dead in concert at the Springfield Civic Center April 23 coming Boston Garden May 7

AS I PONDERED the shadows cast by the milling crowd on the cement floor of the Springfield Civic Center, a tap on the shoulder and a low voice accosted me. I had not understood at first, but the voice was saying, "Any 'cid?" Not having been at a Grateful Dead concert for some time, I was baffled. "What?", I asked. "Trips--you know, LSD," replied my prospective customer. (And I never thought I looked like the type.) "No. Sorry," I said, but he had already moved on.

I had almost forgotten the atmosphere of a Dead concert, but this solicitation brought back the distinctive flavor. Dead Heads--the band's followers--are a unique and dedicated group, with a language and ritual of their own. They see the Grateful Dead as the last bastion of the Sixties' drug culture. Jerry Garcia, the focal personality of the group, presides as a hip, trollish figure who was there and remembers it when it all happened. Garcia generates the energy of the concert, not with sudden dramatic movement, but with a sparkling liquidity, both in his guitar rills and his cool, mirror-shaded appearance. Dead Heads know his subtlety well. There is still an engagingly underground appeal about the Dead.

Musically, the Grateful Dead have always been most skilled at their own kind of jam. At each song's end, they break down the rhythms and patterns into an elaborate, jazz-like chaos and then reassemble the component parts into another song. These acid-jazz jams comprise some of their best music, like "Dark Star," "Walk Me Out in the Morning Dew," and "The Other." Dead concerts unfold like four-hour medleys as each song gradually gives way to the next. The great theme of the band is departure and return--the trip, metaphorically or literally. Not only does their music describe this pattern, but their lyrics almost invariably deal with travel (I doubt that any group sings the names of cities more often), fantasy voyages, and explorations of the lifestyle they have come to represent.

In their current concert tour, the Dead carry on in this tradition. At Springfield they played for nearly three-and-a-half hours, but performed only 19 distinguishable songs. They came out jamming, and this is a good sign. The critical problem for the Dead in the last few years has been the individual emergency of the personalities within the group. That emergence has reached such proportions that the Coop has opened a new record section for their "solo efforts." This divisiveness has turned some of their concerts into a series of songs, each featuring either Bob Weir or Garcia or Keith and Donna Godchaux. Individual billing fosters a highly stylized and self-indulgent kind of music; it destroys the group's integrity and inventiveness. But in Saturday's concert older, less selfish songs prevailed.

The great length of the concert also shows the band's faithfulness to their tradition. Common wisdom has it that they cater to the four- or five-hour peak of an acid trip, and so they did at Springfield. The size and anxiety of the crowd indicated an equally enormous amount of commitment and planning. Thousands stood in line in the rain as early as five o'clock, and many were showing the signs of a "heightened awareness" by then. The gentleman to my left, for example, who had shaved half his head and tied what was left of his hair into a ponytail, crooned continuously about the moon melting and the pavement swelling. When the police made a move as if to open the doors, the mob pressed together so closely that someone's elbow forced my camera to take a picture of the inside of my poncho. For more than half an hour everyone struggled to breathe and not to let anyone cut in front, as if such mobility were possible. A scene like that makes one wonder if promoters should hold general admission concerts at all. It shows what Dead Heads will put up with, or put upon each other, in order to be two paces closer to the stage.

Once inside, however, the crowd was treated to better concert sounds than the Dead has produced in years. The show began with a slow rendition of "Sugaree." Despite its domination by Garcia's guitar and whiny voice, the song serves well as an introduction because of its rousing and familiar refrain. Having warmed the audience, the band used a faster tempo to create unusual versions of "Cassidy" and "Me and My Uncle." The first set roamed through Dead history from the early "Too Too Minglewood Blues" and "It's All Over Now," to a new song that must be called "Fire on the Mountain" if the endlessly repeated refrain is any indication. The song worked well as it followed "Scarlet Begonias" after a transition of some smooth and intricate guitar and wah-wah pedal work by Garcia. The unfortunately heavy-handed emphasis on refrains took something away from many songs. The Dead tried too hard to make its tunes resound in the listener's ear.

The second set began with another new song, again commanded by Garcia, and continued with "Bertha" and a lengthy set of songs from "Blues for Allah," the group's most recent album. (There were rumors about an album to be released soon. The rumors are probably true--most of these tours are out to promote something.) The Dead ended the night with three well-known rockers, "Around and Around," "Feelin' Bad," and "Not Fade Away." After soaking up ten minutes of applause, they returned for an encore with a strident version of "One More Saturday Night." In all, the show was a good blend of popular favorites from past albums and newer material; certainly the selection was not a blatant promotion effort for their predicted new album.

To decry the prostitution of countercultural standards becomes tiresome. Perhaps no group of musicians should be severely judged on the basis of its desire to be popular. But the music of the Grateful Dead has clearly suffered by its packaging over the past few years. This concert was by no means a 90-minute platter of hit songs, but there were signs of a mercenary attitude. Although the Dead had played for hours, the crowd's enthusiasm called for a less reluctant encore. In order to avoid performing a second encore Weir stepped up to the microphone and said, "Good night, folks," in a condescending tone that meant "Go home now." This arrogance, coupled with the disregard for spectators' comfort and safety before the concert began, is not very endearing. It indicates a distance from the audience that smacks of commercial manipulation.

Hopefully, though, these are minor logistical problems that can be ironed out for future concerts, like the Boston performance set for May 7. The character of the Dead's performance in Springfield suggests some of the old cohesive spirit. And they still haven't turned up on Wolfman Jack's Midnight Special.