Playing in the band...
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why I like the Grateful Dead so much. Like many other Deadheads, I have a full shelf (and CD book) stocked with show after show, and I’ve often been asked, “Why do you have so many concerts by the same band?”
It’s a fair question.
In attempting to bring other folks into the fold, I’ve also had to answer a lot of queries about the scene at shows like Dark Star Orchestra, Furthur and the like. “Why is that person dancing like that? That’s not even a dance.” People who ask questions like this will probably never realize: that’s not the point.
In addition to listening to a group of world-class musicians perform, one of the other wonderful things about the Grateful Dead is the community they engendered. It is truly an all-accepting, always-kind nation of people who could care less how you’re dressed, where you work, or what your belief system is. But we’re all here now, and having a good time, and GAWDDAMN, THEY JUST RIPPED UP ONE HELLUVA ‘CHINA CAT,’ DIDN’T THEY, BOYS!?!?
What I truly enjoy more than anything is that everyone knows why they’re there. The band is there to put together a kick-ass night of music, to settle into a vibe that will define the evening. And the crowd is there to help them. It’s fairly rare that I go to a non-jamband show, and you do see big audience reactions there, but it’s usually for a certain song, or at the end of an obviously-rehearsed solo.
That’s not what we’re really about.
Sure, folks will get amped if they hear the beginning of their favorite Dead tune, but it’s really about where the song will go, about how far the band can push itself and still stay in the pocket. For me, that is truly what the jamband scene is about: seeing how high-flying and far-out you can push your sound and where you may be able to take it without even realizing.
The original Grateful Dead’s philosophy of never writing down a setlist is the full realization of this idea. And I will grant you, it could make for some very, very uneven shows. Then again, without that philosophy, you don’t get an utterly magical moment like the 12/29/77 show whose second set made a transition from “Playing in the Band” to “China Cat Sunflower,” which the band hadn’t even played since ’74.
And even with a band like Dark Star Orchestra, where the sets are planned out, the same philosophy still basically guides the band. But even better than that, there are occasions where the crowd guides the band. As I said earlier, people at regular concerts will give applause if they hear their song, or after a ripping solo. But crowds at jamband shows can have a tendency to push the band to go harder. I’ve been at plenty of Dark Star shows where they started what was originally a guitar solo… but then the rhythm player comes in with a slightly new idea, and the keyboards follow, and the crowd, which is already getting excited, can actually see this musical synergy happening right in front of them.
It’s a really amazing feeling to be bouncing along with 800 other people in unison and watch the band react accordingly. You see big sh*t-eating grins break out across the faces of old-school Deadheads, and you realize: this is what it’s about. It’s not about drugs or liberal hippie politics or interminable drum solos or ooey-gooey ganja balls. It’s about having a collective, inspiring musical experience with a few hundred kindred souls, doing your own thing and being completely accepted for it.
If you’re not tired and sore from dancing after a show, there’s a good chance you aren’t going to the right shows.