Summer Time is a collection of stories about Voice staffers’ experiences over summer break.
I yawned at the start of “Help On The Way” as Dead & Company kicked off their second set. Not that I was bored, I was at a jamming concert at Gillette Stadium with a fresh Super Bowl Championship banner for my beloved Patriots hanging over the field. And not that I was tired, I had just been sitting down for maybe half an hour between sets and was now suddenly back on my feet with the lights in the venue all the way down. And even though I yawned I was excited, because “Help On The Way” always means the band is going to play straight into “Slipknot” and then “Franklin’s Tower,” which is always a treat to hear on live recordings, and now I was actually going to get to hear it live.
Still, the guy sitting next to me, someone’s dad and local bank branch manager, probably, with his “I’m middle-aged and cutting loose by growing my hair a little longer but still have to work in a professional environment” haircut curling out from under his baseball hat said I wasn’t allowed to be tired. He wasn’t, he said, and he must’ve been more than twice my age. When I told him I was only 20, he said he’d buy me a beer if I wanted one. When I politely declined he turned back towards the stage, dancing to the undeniably groovy song, only to come back a moment later and ask, “Do you want any drugs?” That not being my thing either, I passed on his offer. He said, “suit yourself” and danced some more before turning back and making the observation that if I didn’t want a beer, why would I want any of his drugs.
This man, who was by that point more than a few beers in and only a few songs away from fishing said drugs out of his socks, had apologized to my girlfriend and me when we first arrived at our seats, saying he was sorry in advance for anything foolish he might do. But for the entire duration of the almost four-hour concert, he was nothing more than a friendly seat neighbor. He danced in his own space, never spilled any drinks on the people around him, and just appeared totally thrilled to be seeing the concert and having a good time.
The same can be said for everyone there. From the old-timers who had seen the original Grateful Dead, all the way down to the younger crowd who had only recently gotten into the band, and—for that matter—been born after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Every single person that night, the old man dressed in what I can only describe as pirate attire and the young men with dancing bears tattooed on their calves, was just so happy to be there dancing the night away.
Being one of those in attendance who wasn’t even born when the original lineup played its final show at Soldier Field in July 1995, I could only stand in the tie-dye shirt I borrowed from my brother in awe and smile when some of my favorite songs came through the rotation that night. It felt a bit like when I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and heard John Williams’s theme come bursting out of theatre speakers for the first time and was smiling ear to ear. Even though Dead & Company has John Mayer in Garcia’s place, and only three of the original band’s members—Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann—they had been playing together for four years by the time they rolled into Gillette, and had developed their own chemistry as a band.
What they bring is not exactly the same as some of the monstrous jams of the legendary shows of old, but they still play all your favorites late into the night, in marathon concerts that go well past the three-hour mark. And that’s not to take anything away from what they do, because sometimes they find themselves in the zone and can rip off a very hot show.
Listening to some of the tapes from this summer’s tour, that seems to be happening more and more, but the magic rests just as much in the crowd as it does on stage. Audience members dance like no one is watching and sing as loud as they can on the chorus. They picked up where Mayer left off on “Box of Rain” when he messed up the words. Sure, there were people there for the scene, looking for a fight or to get completely and utterly trashed. Those people were being led (or more often wheeled) out in a constant stream by stadium security. But that was just a sideshow to watch from up in the stands, because through the smoke and over the revelers the band was cooking up something special on stage.
After “Help On The Way” bled into “Slipknot,” and then “Slipknot” became “Franklin’s Tower,” as it always does, the crowd was buzzing. When the band next swung into the very sing-along-able “He’s Gone,” the place lost it. They swirled into the next song and slowed it down. I heard that unmistakable hook and realized that I was being graced with “Dark Star.”
This was not a cheap “Dark Star” either, one where the band teases the hook but jams into a different tune, or uses it as a home base to travel from song to song. This was a pure rendition of the song, as unpretentious as a near-20 minute trip through swirling guitar solos can be. Before the show I had texted one of my friends that if I could request one song it would be “St. Stephen,” and when talking about it in the car on the way there I changed my mind to “Scarlet Begonias” straight into “Fire on the Mountain,” a staple of some of the best Dead shows ever played. But, despite these prior pronouncements of aural desire, “Dark Star” is what really made me lose it.
Before that I had thought the whole arena singing the “roll away the dew” chorus from “Franklin’s Tower” was the best part of the show, and then, immediately after, that it was actually the whole arena singing the “steal your face right off your head” line from “He’s Gone” while a Stealie (that stylized skull with the lightning bolt running through it that appears on T-shirts and bumper stickers) flashed across the big screen. And while I was wondering if Bob Weir thought about Jerry Garcia while he played that song, and maybe all the older folks who had been around the band when Jerry roamed the Earth spreading happiness too, “Dark Star” started, and for the next hour inside the stadium, it felt like he still did.