From the moment he stepped on stage at the Sylvee on Feb. 28, Bob Weir invited his audience to “enjoy the ride,” and for three hours and two sets I did just that.
Understanding this abstract concept of “the ride” is essential to appreciating how Weir and the Grateful Dead’s mystique have endured for nearly six decades despite an ever-rotating cast. To the passengers we call Deadheads, the ride is not simply part of their personality — it is their reason for waking up each morning.
Deadheads like Randy who have attended over 250 shows are not the exception in the audience but the key to understanding the band’s six decade legacy as a transcendentally American North Star to the forgotten citizen.
The Jam Band genre, pioneered by the Grateful Dead, is characterized by heavy improvisation. Weir and his Wolf Brothers do not construct a set list before the show — they simply kick on the amp and let the moment guide them. Any member can pull the melody east and west as songs they may never have intended to play bubble up to the surface, ensuring their key principle that no two shows will ever be the same.
“It’s like the energy we give them, they give right back to us,” one Deadhead told me.
Since their hippie days in Haight-Ashbury, the drug lens is how many Americans understand the Deadheads and for good reason — it’s how many Deadheads understand the Dead. Spliffs are lit at the first chord, bearded men approach you asking if you’re looking for ketamine and the shoeless guy on the second floor is eagerly willing to let you enjoy his psychedelic wonder plant. The present is intoxicating, and many are eager to be intoxicated by it.
Judge them if you wish, but they never sought your approval in the first place. As Weir declared from the top of set one, “I might be going to hell in a bucket, babe, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.”
“You can’t hop the freights anymore but you can chase the Grateful Dead around,” late lead singer Jerry Garcia once said of the band’s legacy. “You can have all your tires blow out in some weird town in the Midwest and you can get hell from strangers [and] you can have something that lasts throughout your life as an adventure.”
In its early iterations, the Dead was far edgier than it is today, and their music often summoned dark underworld figures from the peripherals of society. But, both the intensity of their music and of the crowd have softened over the years. Khaki pants and flannel jackets now pale the bright kaleidoscope of color and flowers which defined the 1960s and ‘70s.
“It’s because we’re the ones who survived,” Deadhead Randy tells me, grimly.
It’s a heavy, yet important reminder that their ride is not always high times and good vibes — it’s dangerous and it can consume you.
I met Randy and his partner Nate, each wearing stickers reading “Another Dopeless Hope Fiend” at the “Wharf Rats” table — a community of sober Deadheads who show up at every concert for anyone struggling to put a foot back in reality. Randy will be 30 years sober next month and has tried to give back to his community by working the table at hundreds of shows over the past two decades.
“We’re not here to say don’t drink or don’t smoke weed,” Nate says. “We’re just saying we aren’t, and you don’t have to either.”
Both credit the community for saving their lives. They, along with numerous friends living coast to coast, follow the preaching of Garcia’s 1971 epic “Wharf Rat,” which tells the story of a homeless man on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf who has served time for crimes he did not commit. Through no fault of his own, he is never able to stay clean. Yet, through it all, he retains some irrational sliver of hope for a better tomorrow.
“I know the life I’m livin’s no good,” Garcia sang in the transparently autobiographical song. “But I’ll get back on my feet again someday, The good Lord willin’.”
What keeps Randy and Nate aboard these days is the music, not the drugs. The music is why they both originally fell in love with the Dead, and drugs are certainly an avenue to explore that, but not the only avenue.
How long you stay on the ride is a matter of personal choice, but what ultimately matters more is who you are sharing the experience with on any given night.
Many Dead purists, like my parents, have refused to see them since Garcia’s fatal heart attack in a California rehab facility nearly 30 years ago. His presence was essential to the others’ creative performance, and it’s impossible for some to imagine the Dead without him.
But while the band might not be quite as good as its earlier variation, “It’s still good most nights and some nights it’s better,” Randy contends.
Weir and his cohort have managed to persist through continual evolution. In recent years, the Wolf Brothers have incorporated jazz, a genre rhythmically at home with their jam roots. They’ve added a string and horn section and, early in the second set of the show in Madison, the chemistry between drummer Jay Lane, bassist Don Was and Jeff Chimenti’s fluttering piano melody merged with the saxophones and trumpets, creating a beautifully improvised piece that would have felt at home in a French Quarter piano bar.
Bobby Weir and the Wolf Brothers may not produce the “once-in-a-lifetime” Dead show my dad still reminisces about, but they have created an experience that is possible to enjoy on any night, a feat the original Dead never truly achieved. For all the nights they caved the roof in, they “sucked a lot too,” Randy admits.
By drawing from The Great American Songbook, Weir has found a stabler way to keep his music consistent, yet fresh for even the most intense Deadhead.
His tamer, more mature side was on display in the first set with highlights including an extended interpretation of “Lazy River” and the rolling “Peggy O,” a 2,000-year-old acoustic melody from Scotland.
But the second set was where Weir truly worked his wizardry.
He leaned heavily on the horns, giving a fresh interpretation to old classics like “Estimated Prophet” and “Franklin’s Tower,” which he masterfully shepherded into a beautiful, crescendo-ing version of “Terrapin Station,” spinning the crowd into psychedelic frenzy.
Towards the end of the hymn, as Weir sung the existential line “the compass points to Terrapin,” the man next to me rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a tortoise at the train stop, ready to hop on board.
Some experience it through substance, some simply cannot. But all those along for the ride on Tuesday night came to the conclusion that the stop in Madison was special.
“How about that Terrapin, man,” everyone in tie-dye seemed to say as they headed for the exits.
Who knows how long the ride can continue. The track must surely end somewhere. Weir, after all, is 75 years old and looks every bit a man who has lived far too many lives. But if the flowing white mane and wrinkled complexion show his maturity, his talent must too.
So, for now, the ride keeps going, just as it always has. It won’t be smooth in the future, but it wasn’t smooth in the past either. They will get by, and it will survive for all those seeking to be the heroes of their own adventure stories, in a country that seems to have forgotten the power of chasing the indescribable.