Grateful for the music

Published 8:30 pm Friday, June 21, 2019

By: Shane Starr

My wife and I recently accepted an invitation from my niece to join her in George, Washington (I’m not kidding; there really is such a place), at the Gorge Amphitheater for a Dead & Company concert, the current evolution of the old Grateful Dead band.

I don’t know how many of you have been to a Grateful Dead concert. While the best word to describe the crowd is “eclectic,” that word in that context has the same understatement as calling Atlanta traffic at five o’clock on Friday afternoon “busy.”  There were people in feathers, people in tie-dyed jumpsuits, people on stilts, and people in their original 1968 bellbottom denims and paisley tunics.  More than a few had a vacant look of disorientation, sort of like the people running down the street naked at 3:00 AM on the television show Cops. Washington’s liberally-controlled substances laws might have contributed to that; by the time the concert started, the hill smelled like the Corps of Engineers doing a controlled burn.

For many, the music of the Grateful Dead is an acquired taste, like eating lutefisk or living in Siberia.  The easiest way to become familiar with them is through osmosis. If your friends are Deadheads, the probability that the Dead will be constantly playing in the background is approximately the same as the chance of hitting a red light at the corner of Whitesville Road and Lukken Boulevard. Grateful Dead songs make no attempt to conform to normal pop formulas – they tend to be long, rambling, with no real attention-grabbing commercial hooks. The Dead’s meandering music style is wildly attractive to some, and puts others off. In fairness to the naysayers, when the Dead jam, it can be like the convoluted story your wife tells when she explains how her sister’s husband’s friend’s daughter’s cousin came to own a three-legged mongoose.

This was the fifth time I’ve seen the Dead in concert. The last time was a few months before lead guitarist Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995.  The drive to that concert necessitated me leaving immediately after work, so I arrived at the Charlotte Coliseum in pressed grey slacks and a blue button-down shirt.  Two different security guards tried earnestly to direct me across town where Celine Dione was performing, and several fans asked me directions to their seats, assuming I was part of the event staff.

I couldn’t avoid mentally comparing the Gorge venue with our own Sweetland amphitheater. The Gorge is physically very different than Sweetland; it holds twenty-seven thousand people, and behind the stage is a breathtaking view of the Columbia River winding its way through the foothills of the Cascades. But when the sun goes down, it’s still a bunch of people sitting on a hillside listening to good music. In that regard, the Gorge and Sweetland are identical. And Sweetland offers much easier access, convenience to concessions and restrooms, and other logistical realities not possible at a venue ten times that size.  The Gorge was beautiful, but the ease and intimacy of Sweetland makes it a great place to watch a concert.

Now, if I could just circumvent economic reality, and get the Dead to come to Sweetland.