Surviving members of the Grateful Dead kicked off their Dear Jerry tour at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia Thursday evening by delivering a four-and-a half hour appetizer of things to come when they travel to Santa Clara, California and Chicago to celebrate the music of their fallen spiritual leader Jerry Garcia in the Fare Thee Well tour.
More than 20 acts performed 29 Grateful Dead tunes to a loyal peaceful Deadhead fanbase that packed the sold-out concert and danced nonstop to a wealth of Dead material that spans 50 years. The Deadheads — now comprised of three generations — freely smoked and shared pot, a few drew-up lines of coke and others dropped acid while standing in line to purchase $35 T-shirts and $40 limited-edition posters. Much of the drug use was in clear view of officers, who on this day for the most part, appeared to let the Deadheads dance their night away.
Bassist Phil Lesh and his son guitarist Grahame opened the show with their band, Communion performing four songs including the classic “Uncle John’s Band.” Much to the fans disappointment Lesh never returned the rest of the night to pay tribute to Garcia who died in 1995 of a heart attack in a rehab center.
Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart set the tone for the dancing Deadhead night by joining singer Jimmy Cliff with a reggae jam-type feel to “Fire on the Mountain” with the house band comprised of bassist Don Was, guitarist Buddy Miller and mandolin player Sam Bush keeping a steady beat. Weir joined Grace Potter, the only female performer, who played the keyboard and sang with Weir on a new version of “Friend of the Devil.”
Weir, Kreutzmann and Hart closed out the concert by performing, “Touch of Grey,” and the acoustic classic “Ripple.” Those wondering if Lesh will join the three on stage in Santa Clara or Chicago will just have to get tickets to find out.
The concert was intertwined with video footage of the Dead members recalling special Jerry moments that helped fill up the time between acts and allowed fans to take a dance timeout and mingle.
The concert brought out the stars from Los Lobos to Peter Frampton, who provided some nifty guitar solos and long jam sessions in the tradition of the Dead. Other acts such as Billy and the Kids — which featured American Babies guitarist Tom Hamilton, Tea Leaf Green bassist Reed Mathis and Disco Biscuits keyboardist Aron Magner, jammed to “Help is on the Way,” “Slipknot” and “Franklin’s Tower.”
Magner’s three Disco Biscuits bandmates performed “Scarlet Begonias” that turned into “I Know You Rider.” Maybe the best of the night was Washington, D.C’s own Jorma Kaukonen, of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane knocking out “Sugaree.” It should be noted Bruce Hornsby, an adopted Dead member who toured with the band for a few years did not play because of time restraints.
Jerry Garcia never liked award or tribute shows, but he probably was smiling because his music continues to have impact on generations of fans — many who attended the Dear Jerry concert were not even born when he was alive. In fact, by some accounts since the Dead often encouraged Deadheads to tape record their concerts and even set up recording areas to get the best recordings, the Grateful Dead may have the most recordings and bootlegs of any band in the world. They only asked that fans who tape their shows to give the music away free and not profit off of it. That’s a stark contrast to musicians like Prince who freak out that a fan might simply take a picture of him and post it on their Facebook page.
Holding the concert in Columbia was ironic considering the Grateful Dead decided not to return to Columbia in 1985 because they outgrew the venue and not because of an incorrectly reported Los Angeles Times article claiming they were banned because of drug use among the fans.
Nothing much has changed in 30 years because the Merriweather was not large enough to handle the Dear Jerry concert, especially with inadequate parking (two hours to park is unacceptable) and attendants threatening to tow anyone who parked at the Mall. Why Merriweather and the Mall can’t work out an arrangement — even if its paid parking — makes no sense, considering the number of empty spaces at the Mall. The venue also continues to be charging way too much for food and beverage — it costs more for food and beer at Merriweather than Oriole Park.
The sightlines at the concert are poor, considering the price for tickets. For example, at a Dead concert nobody sits — so purchasing seats only provides a closeup advantage and not a comfort advantage. If you dropped $69 for a lawn seat, you will end up spending most of your time viewing the concert from a large TV screen that has seen better days with acoustics that would make Jerry Garcia a bit embarrassed. Yes, the concert was sold out, but they should have cut off lawn seat sales much sooner so people can actually walk among the crowd without fear of being trampled. Thankfully, Deadhead fans are peaceful and courteous and not violent.
But the poor venue aside, Garcia had to be smiling in heaven because the air was full of music and weed. And what a difference compared to when Weir returned to perform in Columbia in 1991. Weir’s 1991 concert featured undercover officers infiltrating the guitarist’s fanbase and busting several Deadheads for selling and smoking pot.
The Dear Jerry concert appeared to show officers taking a page out of the Freddie Gray stand-down approach as officers just let it happen. Pot smoke filled the air so much that there was enough second-hand smoke inhaled by event gate watchers who couldn’t even provide directions on how to exit the concert.
And who really needed those directions because all you had to do was follow the dancing and smiling crowd that kept trucking along on a beautiful and long strange trip down memory lane — courtesy of Jerry.
You should have been there.
Dear Jerry Sets
Communion with Phil Lesh: “The Wheel” “Uncle John’s Band”, “Standing On The Moon”, “Liberty”
Allen Toussaint with House Band: “Get Out Of My Life Woman”
David Grisman with House Band: “Shady Grove”
Peter Frampton with House Band and Bill Kreutzmann: “(I’m A) Roadrunner”
Buddy Miller with House Band: “Deal”
Jorma Kaukonen with House Band: “Sugaree”
Jimmy Cliff with House Band: “The Harder They Come”
Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Dave Schools, Bill Kreutzmann and Jimmy Cliff with House Band: “Attics Of My Life” intro “Fire On The Mountain”
Billy and the Kids: “Help On The Way” “Slipknot!” “Franklin’s Tower”
Disco Biscuits with Bill Kreutzmann and Tom Hamilton: “Scarlet Begonias” “I Know You Rider” “Scarlet Begonias”
O.A.R.: “St. Stephen”
Los Lobos with Bob Weir: “Not Fade Away” “Bertha”
Trampled By Turtles: “Brown-Eyed Women”
Yonder Mountain String Band: “Shakedown Street”
Bob Weir with House Band: “Days Between”
Grace Potter, Bob Weir and House Band: “Friend Of The Devil”
Eric Church with House Band: “Tennessee Jed”
Widespread Panic: “Morning Dew”
Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart with House Band:“Touch Of Grey”
Most of the evening’s performers: “Ripple”
Timothy W. Maier is the founder of Baltimore Post-Examiner LLC, which runs the Baltimore and Los Angles Post-Examiner websites. He started out writing music, fiction and poetry and then turned to news writing where he spent the past three decades at news organizations in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C. More recently he was the managing editor at the Baltimore Examiner. He now spends time with his family, dogs, and guitar.