In order to play improvisational rock music on stage for hours at a time, it turns out, the musicians actually have to get along. Which was a problem for the surviving members of the Grateful Dead during their 2004 tour, when they were so miffed about online concert bootlegs, money and other issues that they could barely talk to each other.
But, thanks to a Rhino Records archive contract, a healing Barack Obama benefit early last year and a friend acting as a mediator, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann have eliminated the internal strife in time to open a new Dead tour this year.
“Yeah, that’s gone. The last tours were a little tough, none of those problems are coming up,” percussionist Kreutzmann says by phone from Washington, D.C., the day after the Dead’s tour-opener in Greensboro, N.C. “That had to go away at the beginning of the rehearsals. If there had been any of that kind of tension, I would have blown the whistle on it - because I won’t tolerate it anymore.
“We’re there to have fun and, most importantly, give the Deadheads a joyous time, especially with the economy the way it is,” he adds. “If you can provide happiness with a group of people, boy, do it, because it comes back to you.”
The Dead opened the tour April 12 on a symbolic note, with 1975’s “The Music Never Stopped.” That’s true - even after the last Dead tour, which grossed $18 million, guitarist Weir performed regularly with Ratdog, bassist Lesh went out with his Friends, drummer Mickey Hart’s band played several gigs, and Kreutzmann performed with his trio BK3 and veteran singer-guitarist Papa Mali.
“It’s really great to play with a lot of different musicians,” Kreutzmann says, “because when you bring it home to the Grateful Dead, you have new things to do and new stories to tell.”
Kreutzmann, 62, joined an early incarnation of the Dead known as the Warlocks in 1964. He was 18, and the perfect rock drummer for the band as guitarist Jerry Garcia, keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Weir and Lesh transitioned from San Francisco folk-scene jug band to a louder electric-blues style. Hart joined the band, by now the Grateful Dead, in 1967, ushering in a long, legendary creative period in which the two percussionists formed the basis of the band’s jamming sound.
Over time, the band that once existed to play free-form folk, country and blues songs in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury area in the late ‘60s turned into a hippie juggernaut, the focal point of a massive international community that regenerates obsessive fans on a regular basis. Garcia’s death in 1995, though, sent the surviving members scattering temporarily in different directions.
Kreutzmann’s immediate response to the loss of his longtime friend was to buy a house in Kauai, Hawaii, where he lives today. Whereas Lesh, Weir and Hart re-emerged quickly with other bands, Kreutzmann didn’t perform publicly until 1998, with a trio called Backbone. He didn’t participate in the Dead’s first reunion that year, as the Other Ones, but joined up in 2000.
“It wasn’t really a vacation,” he recalls. “I really moved there - I didn’t realize it - for healing.”
Eventually, the Other Ones morphed back into the Dead, touring in 2003 and 2004 before hitting the road this year for 18 dates. With Allman Brothers Band regular Warren Haynes in place of Garcia, and Jeff Chimenti as the latest in a long line of keyboardists, the Dead rehearsed for 12 days before the tour.
For the new gigs, Kreutzmann’s son, Justin, 39, a veteran documentarian who has produced films about the Dead and The Who, is on hand with his video camera. Discussion of the percussionist’s family leads to a recollection of his own parents, who weren’t exactly thrilled about his rock ‘n’ roll career early on.
“A lot of parents make the mistake of ‘my kid has to be like I am,’” he says. “Both my parents went to Stanford and got master’s degrees, and my dad really wanted me to go to Stanford, and he really wasn’t too excited when he found out all I really wanted to do was play the drums. But he let me follow my passions.
“He got a divorce from my mother, and his new wife was a classical piano player. She said, ‘How dare you not support your son in his music?’ He showed up at a Grateful Dead gig with a Grateful Dead T-shirt (in roughly the late ‘70s) and that was it,” Kreutzmann continues. “It was great. I laughed like hell! And everybody that was there that saw the shirt laughed like hell.”
GRATEFUL FOR THESE DISCS
Aside from a few studio albums in the ‘70s, the Grateful Dead are far more famous for their concerts than for their recordings. “Early in our history, we tried to make hit singles - ha ha, that didn’t work,” percussionist Bill Kreutzmann says. “‘American Beauty’ and ‘Workingman’s Dead’ have shorter songs, and that’s wonderful music, but we stretch those songs out today.”
Nonetheless, a large segment of Dead fans appreciate the studio classics as much as the live jams. Here are the best three full-album examples of both:
“Workingman’s Dead” (1970) - Opening with “Uncle John’s Band,” a sort of mission statement for the Dead’s folky side, “Workingman’s” has some of the band’s most beloved country songs (including “Casey Jones”), in an endearingly rickety style.
“American Beauty” (1970) - The same idea as “Workingman’s Dead,” this classic is even more packed with Dead classics, many of which regularly show up in live sets - “Truckin’,” “Box of Rain,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple,” “Friend of the Devil.”
“At the Mars Hotel” (1974) - The Dead never quite recaptured the studio magic of those two 1970 albums, although 1977’s “Terrapin Station” and 1987’s “In the Dark” have their moments. This one has “Ship of Fools” and “U.S. Blues.”
“Live/Dead” (1969) - When Dead aficionados speak rapturously about the band’s endless jams, this is what they produce as evidence. It opens with a 23-minute version of “Dark Star.”
“Europe ‘72” (1972) - Documenting the last tour with founding keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, “Europe ‘72” captures the band at its early peak, with epic versions of “Truckin’,” “Ramble on Rose” and “Morning Dew.”
“Two From the Vault” (1992) - “On solos of over a chorus or two, Jerry Garcia stands as the era’s most inventive guitarist short of Hendrix and Page,” critic Robert Christgau wrote of this document of an August 1968 show.