Sonic waves. Rock and roll sensibilities. Psychedelic blues guitar and rhythmic creativity that very few manage. Superlatives do not exist to describe the sonic treat that met the audience at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina the night of April 12, 2009. I rode from Asheville with a friend and a buddy of hers from high school to the concert. The anticipation was great, but no one knew what to expect. The typical Dead crowd was partying in the parking lot; the bazaar selling everything from beers and burritos to stained glass, t-shirts and intricately designed pipes (plus the stuff to smoke in them). The police maintained a constant but low profile. No major incidents in the parking lot. About an hour before the show I headed indoors. Bought a beer and wandered around, running into a couple friends from various locales.
Once the show began all bets were off. The band began with the song “The Music Never Stopped” — a rock and roll stomper dedicated to those who always hear the music, even when the band has packed and gone. Next was “Jack Straw,” one of the classic Robert Hunter tales of the outlaw who is part hustler, part loser, and an essentially good guy who finds himself in situations that have nothing but morally ambiguous endings. The band’s work in the first thirty or so minutes was tight yet meandering in the way that one expects a jazz combo to be on a great night. Or, it was like the Grateful Dead was on a good night when Jerry Garcia was still alive. Taking the honors from Garcia was Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes. Haynes is a blues and rock guitarist extraordinaire whose legend just continues to grow with each gig he plays. As the set progressed into the sometimes sarcastic, sometimes celebratory “Estimated Prophet” and then the Dead’s paean to its fallen inspirations (from Beat legend Neal Casady to Jerry Garcia and beyond) “He’s Gone,” the music began to reach that space where the best Dead music has always gone. I can’t tell you exactly where it is, but it’s not of this earth yet is positioned firmly on the firmament the audience is dancing on. Finishing off with what might be termed the Dead’s Top 40 hits, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir led the band and audience through “Touch of Grey” and “I Need A Miracle.” Replete with the almost mandatory singalongs to certain songs and verses that each listener has hung their own special meanings to, the first set ended in a celebratory version of “Truckin’.”
The rhythm section of Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart remain much more than a mere rhythm section. It’s not just a backbeat, it’s a melodic riff. This would become even more apparent in the second set when they took over the stage for close to half an hour when the rest of the band took their leave in the middle of a jam that began as soon as they hit the stage after intermission. The disco tinged “Shakedown Street” broke the ice and, while folks made their way to a place where security wouldn’t insist they sit down instead of dance, the first strains of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” unleashed themselves from Haynes’ guitar. From there it was back to the early psychedelia of the Dead’s catalog. A jam that began with Haynes singing “Caution, Do Not Stop On Tracks” from the Anthem of the Sun album proceeded into a rhythm section performance that had its roots in the place in the human soul that resides somewhere between the Garden of Eden and the future we do not know. That’s a mighty big space, but this rhythm crew can fill it like no other. Entwined in the rhythm section’s recital were guitar notes that seemed to come from that space Sun Ra called the place. The rhythm section solo came back around with another hippie classic titled “Cosmic Charlie” from the 1969 album Aoxomoa and then bassist Lesh lent his vocals to “New Potato Caboose” — a song that sometimes sounds like it was written by Arnold Schoenberg after he attended a blues club on acid.
The set continued with a sonic adventure lifted from the first side of the 1975 Blues for Allah album. This series pf songs, which begins with the jazzlike “Help On the Way” slides into the instrumental “Slipknot” and releases itself in the anthemic “Franklin’s Tower” with its directive to “roll away the dew.” It was during this part of the concert that I was reminded of John Coltrane’s album Ascension. The music that came from the stage in Greensboro during this segment came down in walls without dimensions. Walls that overwhelmed the structure they were meant to contain. Walls that crumbled from their own depth and breadth of sound. Walls that became waves of musical substance without limit. Walls that resolved themselves in the dance that “Franklin’s Tower” insisted on.
And then, it was over. The band played the blues classic “Samson and Delilah” for an encore. This is a song that claims that “if he had his way, he would tear this whole building down.” Although the Greensboro Coliseum was able to contain the Dead this evening, if they continue to perform as they did the opening night of their tour, there may come a time when no building can.