What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago the Grateful Dead's annual psycedelic lap around the nation was indefinitely stalled due to lead guitarist/holy person Jerry Garcia's exhaustion. The entire East Coast leg of the tour was cancelled and some raised doubts about whether Garcia and the Dead would ever rise again.
The first three shows of this past week's six-night stand at the Boston Garden put these doubts to rest. The first sets last weekend were consistently tight, energetic, if a bit on the short side. The second sets, mixing straightforward songs with extended musical explorations, showed that the band can be as trippy as ever.
Opening Friday's show with a sizzling "Feel Like a Stranger," immediately demonstrated why the band, after 28 years on the road, still sells out arenas wherever they go. A few songs later, an excellent rendition of the seldom-played "Stagger Lee" whipped the crowd into a (mellow) frenzy.
Saturday kicked off with "Cold Rain & Snow" and moved through the funky "Wang Dang Doodle" before settling into a soothing and searing "Loser." The set picked up at the end, with a swinging "Deal," highlighted by Vince Wellnick's flashy ragtime keys.
The second set included a sweet "Box of Rain," featuring some of the tightest four-part harmonies heard in recent memory as well as an excellent lead vocal by the seldom-heard bassist Phil Lesh. Another late gem was a soft, gentle version of "Black Peter."
Sunday saw a "Jack Straw" opener, followed closely by "Althea" and the rare treat "High Time," which was fittingly dreamy. Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" was given a spin and would have been better had Garcia not had technical problems that forced him to switch guitars for a time.
Sunday's second set thumped into being with the participatory cover of an old Dixie Cups tune, "Aiko Aiko," complete with hand motions by guitarist Bob Weir. This was followed by "Truckin'," which was augmented by a light show that complemented the lyrics perfectly. An intense jam session ensued, and the audience was led off into the Drums/Space portion of the show, when drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart explore rythmic patterns with drums from around the globe and then the other musicians return to the stage to probe the tonal and harmonic boundaries of music.
The highlight of last weekend was appropriately the closer of Sunday night's show, "Standing On The Moon." Starting off slow and mellow, it incrementally blossomed into a exhibition of how strong and healthy Jerry is. As Garcia's vocal coda of "with you" rose and rose in volume, the exhausted capacity crowd of 15,700 came to its feet with a roar, causing Garcia to become even more exuberant and finish the normal set of the last show of the weekend with the most animated vocal solo this writer has ever seen.
It was as if the rejuvinated Jerry was aiming beyond the crumbling walls of the Garden at the naysayers who said he and his band would never be back. They are.