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Opinion: Grateful for the Dead

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Billy Fried

“Fare thee well, fare thee well 

I love you more than words can tell 

Listen to the river sing sweet songs 

To rock my soul. 

                                                   ~ From Grateful Dead’s Brokedown Palace

Even after two weeks of consumption, random verses pop into my head from the ether. Songs I hadn’t heard in nearly half a century. I’m not sure what triggers these long latent memories or why I can remember the songs despite being unable to memorize a single verse today.

Whatever the reason, the Dead and Company show I bore witness reaffirmed my belief that music is man’s greatest invention. Nothing fuses thought, emotion, spirit and physical joy like rhythm, melody and lyrics – a sonic buffet that evokes communal feelings that unite people from distant lands, cultures and generations.

Yep, it was Dead and Company’s last shows of their alleged last tour, the latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead, once believed DOA after the 1995 death of their founder, Jerry Garcia. But great art outlives its creators, and like any source of energy, it mutates and evolves. Garcia and lyricists Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow crafted a quintessentially American songbook with compelling imagery, opaque meanings and magnetic hooks that, in Hunter’s estimation, were destined to “live forever.”

And what a songbook it is, one that pop star John Mayer gravitated to in 2013 when he first discovered the oeuvre and then dedicated himself to learning to inherit the lead guitar legacy of the great, mythic figure, Garcia. A mighty task, and not one without a minefield of cynics who believed that no one should try to fill those shoes, especially one as tabloid light as the hunky, movie star dating, sexual tell-all, pop maestro Mayer.

But original band members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Phil Kreutzman recognized a prodigy when they saw one, especially someone as reverent for the music as Mayer. And eight years ago, they formed this seminal reboot of the band, along with bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and hit the road.

For those unfamiliar, the Grateful Dead was one of the most prolific touring bands of their time, amassing a huge following of “Dead Heads,” many of whom simply dropped out of the “default” world to follow them on the road, knowing every show would be different. An entire ecosystem formed around the band: their crew, roadies, groupies, concert bootleggers and merchants sold memorabilia and sustenance. And it produced a more beautiful world of love and community that spawned the festival world we know today.

There was just something about the kaleidoscope of their music – fusing country, bluegrass, blues and rock into a cosmic, psychedelic soup of long-form, improvisation – where one song seamlessly flowed into another amidst jazz-like solos and space percussion jams. It was birthed from copious performances under the influence of LSD during the San Francisco “Acid Tests,” which challenged the band members to experiment and follow one another off course and into other realms of sonic exploration. And if you were under the influence like they were, not only were you part of the experience, you also experienced the musical equivalent of death and rebirth, when the discordant shapes and sounds would unsettle you, only to feel relief and communion when they returned to familiar, uplifting melodies that got you dancing again.

Dead shows were for sure one of the seminal experiences of my life. So when I heard this was the final tour, I wanted one more taste, one more sojourn down the rabbit hole of my youth, the soundtrack that had been seared into my consciousness on studio albums, live albums, soundboard cassettes, CDs, and finally, streaming on Sirius satellite radio.

I ventured up to the epicenter of it all, San Francisco, where, for one glorious weekend, there was more tie-dye in the streets than homelessness. The energy was palpable. When you saw another deadhead, there was a knowing smile and nod.

And for those cumulative 10 hours of music, spanning three nights and 58 songs that were never repeated (except the first and last), the world was more than perfect. There was divinity in the air, as close to an ecstatic religious experience as I’ve had. There was more nuance and variety to the songs than I had ever heard, with Mayer bringing back the blues foundation of the original band and Chimenti and Burbridge adding jazz layerings. And for those hours, you were no longer alone, in a separate physical body. You were part of a great, flowing organism of collective love and joy. You smiled and danced and twirled, and everyone smiled back because you were reflecting them and the whole experience of kinetic, sensory stimulation that took you higher yet deeper into the very heart of being human.

Yes, it’s music that transcends race and bridges cultures and reminds us that we are all part of this big soup called humanity. Dead and Company may have played their last show, but the songs will live on as a succession of players discover and reinterpret them. And it continues to confirm for us that, as long as there is art in our lives, we’re gonna be okay.

Billy is the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an outdoor adventure company, and the host of “Laguna Talks” on KXFM radio – Thursdays at 8 p.m. Email: [email protected]

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