“Lord, the band kept us so busy
We forgot about the time.”
Music is one of the greatest forces in our lives. Music guides us through weddings, graduations, football games and funerals. It is a shared system of communication. Music has led slaves away from their masters, started revolutions under a many dictators, united women in a fight for their rights and generally makes us feel good.
I’m from another country and the Grateful Dead represent one of my favorite facets of American culture. One way Dead fans can connect and experience this music today is through music festivals. Members of the band, many in their sixties, continue to perform late night sets with long, improvisational jams and don’t show any signs of stopping any time soon. When legendary guitarist Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, I was nine years old living with my grandparents in Russia. So when the remaining members, known as The Dead went on tour earlier this year in April, I was thrilled. Among several shows, I was fortunate to be present at the epic Madison Square Garden in New York City on April 25th and the last show of the tour at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington on May 16th.
Eagerly awaited, July carried dates for Gathering of the Vibes, a festival that premiered in 1996 and was accurately dubbed “Deadhead Heaven – A Gathering of the Tribe.” The event then was a forum for music lovers to celebrate the life of Jerry Garcia and each other. The following year it was renamed Gathering of the Vibes and has been mostly hosted in Connecticut’s waterfront Seaside Park. This year was my fourth and favorite year at the Vibes. Musical highlights included Bob Weir performing “Festival,” a late night set by Perpetual Groove, fresh jams from Strangefolk and a sunny Sunday set from Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Other highlights included camping with friends, a powerful but careful storm and a drum circle pounding long after the sun came up. Unfortunately, all of my belongings fell victim to a thief in the final moments of the four day musical celebration.
While still slightly bemoaning my loss, I dropped in to spend some time with a friend who was hosting an event revolving around DJ driven electronic sounds. After hovering by the DJ booth for a few minutes I took off cross-town to see my friend Andy who determined the show must go on despite the conspicuous absence of most of his funk band, Cold Flavor Repair. The drummer and Andy on the keys were the only original members of the usual seven. An enthusiastic bassist and an experienced saxophonist filled in the sound quite well and in my humble opinion, sounded even better.
The following night reggae legend Burning Spear performed in Prospect Park and united a smiling crowd of all ages, gender and color. Friday rolled around and I joined Andy for another gig, this time with a classics cover band from New Jersey. They performed an amazing four hours after which Andy and I loaded up his truck and took off for Vermont to celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday on Lake Dunmore’s waterfront.
The band, Star ’69, and I camped at Waterhouses, a privately owned campground and marina open to the public. Our campsites were spaciously spread out along an overflowing stream. We set up the stage in the afternoon at the main house and spent the early afternoon in the water and on the docks. After “Iko Iko” to tune up, the band took a break before their first set, 3-5PM. The crowd seemed to wane in the heat. Families who had come in the morning to splash with their children were now heading back for lunch and naps. Suddenly, folks started coming in from across the water on their motor boats and canoes and within a few hours the beach was crowded with lawn chairs and dancing Vermonters. I started to dance too.
There’s something magical about being close to a band. It’s an honor to be able to travel between the worlds of spectator and performer. You can get close to the music, see the sweat glisten on the drummers, watch the guitar scales with your eyes just a few feet away and simply sit inside the stage canopy and let the sound envelop you.
There’s something about music and there’s even more about music by the Grateful Dead. Originally the Warlocks, the band formed in 1964 and was renamed just a year later when in a dictionary Jerry spotted the title that would make history. With their lyrics and chords, the band continues today to push the boundaries of our existence and consciousness. Bassist Phil Lesh’s “Box of Rain” about his dying father was first played at the Fillmore East in New York City in 1970. “Sugar Magnolia,” a song about guitarist Bob Weir’s girlfriend, Frankie, is second-most played in concert song of their long career with 596 performances. A beloved classic, “Dark Star” points to the talent of the band and in 1973 was played without interruption for 43:27 min. There’s just something about music that drives us to seek out such information, the story behind the band, the song, the break up, the reunion. It is hard to explain why nearly 15 years later a group of musicians, a business owner and parents and their children decided to come together and celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday and the legacy of the Grateful Dead, “The Music Never Stopped.”