The Bus Came By
My car is registering a temperature of a breezy 99 degrees Fahrenheit an hour before sunset in lovely Little Rock, though my phone assures me it is only 94 degrees (though it also tells me it feels like it is 103, so perhaps I will trust the car).
I am one day back from Colorado, not even a full day back, on a trip that has maybe convinced me to move somewhere closer to mountains, which I love to look at - and climb slowly, but mostly look at.
It was my second annual pilgrimage to Folsom Field at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where Dead and Company, the currently touring iteration of the Grateful Dead, have closed out their summer tour for five years (or so. In addition to not heavily editing these blog posts, I’m also not heavily fact-checking them).
Last year I popped in and out of Colorado by myself; this year, I went with two friends who came and left at staggered intervals. Technically, I was there the longest.
I, of course, have been a Deadhead since I was a child in homemade tie-dyes, though I went through an ironically rebellious phase in my childhood where I thought I was embarrassed by or didn’t like them. That’s because when I was a child, the Dead, and Dead shows, were not cool. They were the domain of old hippies, primarily, and some young weird people, but mostly parents, objectively uncool by nature of being “old.”
Now, of course, that is untrue, as evidenced by the many Grateful Dead-branded clothing I can buy (and have bought) at one of the biggest, boxiest stores of the big box stores, and the current producer of, conservatively, 65% of my wardrobe: Target.
I don’t know how it happened, and I’d like to know, but somehow, somewhere, the Dead became cool again. Maybe it coincided with John Mayer fronting Dead and Company. Either way, college bros and pretty young girls with reasonable jobs (nearly all white) comprise a hefty percentage of the audience at Dead shows these days. They’re not just there for Sugar Magnolia or Touch of Grey, either. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, they talk through the show more than the fogies, but they certainly know the music. They sing along to the songs, some of which don’t have choruses. I think they don’t love the long, meandering jams, but perhaps that is me projecting my not loving the long, meandering jams.
(Speaking of which, this band jams much, much more than the Grateful Dead in general. It is a somewhat cliche joke to refer to a 40 minute-long Dark Star, or Playing in the Band, but you can find a Grateful Dead show where no song exceeds 15 minutes - I know, a low bar, but my point is they’re not all hours-long explorations of marijuana or mushrooms and the nature of time and space. These days, however, songs are regularly more than 10 minutes.)
Egads! Even now, in Little Rock, Arkansas, by many measures not the hippest city in the country but certainly not as hippie-friendly as a place like Boulder, a young man just this second walked into this Starbucks wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt! I tell you - they have captured the youth!!
Here is how I divide a crowd at a Dead concert these days: fans of the Grateful Dead, and fans of Dead and Company. Largely, those bases are separated by decades, though of course your intrepid blogger is one of the (I’m sure many) exceptions.
To wit: typically, fans of the Grateful Dead are older. They’ve seen the shows with Jerry (Garcia, obviously). They’ve toured, or been to dozens of concerts. They’re normal people now, with day jobs and families.
Their counterparts are also Deadheads, but were introduced to the music largely by Dead and Company and worked their way back. They lament - constantly - having never seen Jerry.
Last year I met a woman at the closing show and I swear to God, I would never have been able to peg her as a Deadhead if I’d seen her in the wild. She sat one row in front of me, wearing a visor and white linen shorts and a red polo shirt. Her hair was dyed brown in a short, maternally suburban, chin-length bob. She had bottles of water, sunscreen and I kid you not, those cheap plastic fans you can wear around your neck that spray water. She may as well have been a mom at a t-ball game.
But she had traveled to half a dozen shows on the summer tour, buying the VIP packages for each. Those tickets, which run well into the hundreds of dollars, guaranteed her various luxuries including a hotel room, a signed poster and seats in either the first five rows or the near the stage on the field. I don’t remember her name, but the incongruity of her getup and her touring schedule was jarring and highly entertaining. She sang along to every song.
This year, my friend and I had cheap, general admission tickets (“cheap,” by the way, is not cheap by any measure, which is why you see the grimy youth wandering the lot ahead of a show with one finger in the air, hoping for a miracle ticket - a practice about which I have opinions but which I do not have time to get into or I’m sure the four readers left will abandon me).
Anyway we had the cheap tickets. I pressured him into checking if there were unsold tickets on StubHub in a better section and then seeing if we could scoot our little selves into those seats. We found tickets that were being sold for $800 a piece and gave it our best.
Before getting kicked out - and I’m genuinely not sure how this happened - by people who apparently had those seats, we sat in a section which perfectly encapsulates my theory: behind us, a row of undeniable bros, probably in their mid-30s, who told me they’d gotten into Dead and Company in 2015 (which is when the band really became a thing). Next to them, an older guy with an avowedly normal career who’d been to, in his estimation, “300 shows” (sure, bud). Beside me, a retired couple, the wife in a white linen long sleeve shirt, to protect her arms from the intense, setting sun. Also a visor. Perhaps I should invest.
Some of the younger fans are presumably like me, fed live shows from birth (or before) like mother’s milk. (Speaking of whom - my mother used to ask me when I would return home from college, constantly and only half-jokingly, if my Grateful Dead knowledge had paid off yet. I rolled my eyes, because how in the world would my knowing that Bob Weir is dyslexic or that Bird Song is about Janis Joplin POSSIBLY “pay off?” Then once at trivia, there was a question about what colloquially “bones” referred to, and I knew it was dice because of Candyman, a song on American Beauty with the lyrics “roll those laughing bones.” My mother was smugly over the moon.)
But the divide is incredible. One of the younger guys in the row behind me was nostalgic for a time he had never experienced, and asked the older guy next to him to tell everyone, us, I suppose, included, tales from the road. I was unmoved, having been weaned on those types of stories. But the younger guy was eating. it. up.
It’s such a trip (pun extremely intended) to see these shows. This band sells out massive stadiums, and grandparents and grandchildren alike come to see them. Listening to 45,000 people ages 18 or younger to 80 or older singing Ripple together sure is something.
I’m so intrigued. Why is this band having this moment now? What is appealing to these younger generations? I get the older crowd, who’ve settled down but still love the music and the life, but the kids?
It’s not just the cannabis and the culture, but even then - the Dead are not the only musicians in the world to smoke marijuana. There’s something about this moment in time, the mid-teens of the early 21st century that is dragging ostensibly normal young people into a vortex that had been reserved for patchouli-scented girls in patchwork skirts and unshaven guys in ponchos. Luckily for you, lone remaining reader, I may find out. I’m one impulsive thought away from buying a van and following them - in the name of journalism, of course.