Just Listen to the Music Play
Saturday night, my family and I were on a big group video call together, catching up on the week’s events while we awaited a replay of a Dead & Company concert to stream live on YouTube, from a show that the band originally performed live at Citi Field in Queens on June 23, 2019.
Dead & Company, a spiritual successor to the Grateful Dead that performs the band’s extensive catalog, formed their group in 2015 after guitarist/vocalist John Mayer publicly expressed interest in spending some studio time with Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir. Weir later took him up on the offer, and their chemistry was strong enough that Dead & Company formed shortly after, and they’ve been touring ever since.
I grew up hearing a lot of Dead songs. My parents have a shared love for their music, and my dad and my uncle grew up going to Dead shows together. My cousins, my brother, and I were all told that we’d get to tag along to shows, but only after our respective ninth birthdays.
Your mileage may vary on how old you’d want your child to be before you made the decision to take them to their first Grateful Dead concert, but we never got to see that social experiment firsthand. Legendary guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia passed away suddenly in 1995, just before my seventh birthday, and the Grateful Dead couldn’t continue without him.
There have been a handful of post-Grateful Dead projects that surviving members have participated in, to some degree, but none of them seemed to capture the magic of the Dead quite the way that Dead & Company has. Initially announcing just a single concert date in 2015, the group drew rave reviews, and more tour dates soon followed.
With a new opportunity to attend a Dead-adjacent concert suddenly materializing, the long-awaited promise of a family outing to a Dead show was finally fulfilled, and it’s since evolved into something of a summer tradition: group family outings to Dead concerts.
Starting with the 2016 summer tour, my family (some combination of me, my brother, my dad, my mom, my uncle, my aunt, and my cousins) has been attending Dead & Company shows together.
We went to nearly all of the local shows whenever the tour came to New York. A few summers, we even planned family vacations around going somewhere that had Dead & Company coming to town at the same time we were there. As beautiful as Red Rocks is, and the Art Institute of Chicago is, they paled in comparison to how beautiful it was seeing Shakedown Street take over Boulder, Colorado, and Wrigleyville in Chicago.
Throughout it all, my family has grown closer than ever before.
We’ve always been close, don’t get me wrong. I love them with all my heart and always have. I’ve been so fortunate to have been raised by my parents, loved by my aunt, uncle, cousins, and countless other family members on both sides of my family tree. I’m, well, grateful.
But that shared passion for this music, the feeling you get when you attend a show, the way it inspires you to get out of your seat and move, for hours on end? I wish I had the words to describe what it’s like, but I don’t. I’m not sure anyone does. You really have to be there to understand.
For the younger generation, of my cousins, my brother, and me, it’s been a way of connecting with our parents’ generation that nothing else has ever truly done. They have such love for this music, the feelings it makes you feel when you’re experiencing it, and while we grew up always hearing the songs, you can never quite feel it until you’re there in that venue.
What makes the music of the Grateful Dead unique is that every show feels like a snapshot of a moment in time. The Dead has toured and traveled the world and played live music to roaring crowds for so long that you can pull up a date and a location of any show and you almost feel like you were there when you close your eyes and feel how the music hits you.
“If you get confused, just listen to the music play.”
I will admit, I’ve never been as big a Deadhead as my mom, my dad, my aunt, and my uncle. My oldest cousin and my brother especially have fallen in love with the Dead the same way now, too.
But I’ve found that you never really find a lot of gatekeeping at Dead shows. No, “you’re not a real Deadhead,” litmus tests. You’ll find people dancing in the aisles for hours on end, balloons being bounced around the crowd, tie-dye everything everywhere, but never any gatekeeping.
Whether it’s your first show, your 40th show, or your 400th show, I’ve found the community of Grateful Dead fans to be very welcoming. People are happy to share the music and the vibrant environment, and as Jerry would say, “if you get confused, just listen to the music play.”
Our parents always told us to just wait until we got to attend a show, and we’d understand. They were so right. Every single show we’ve attended together was an absolute blast, creating memories of a lifetime. It was amazing to see my parents’ generation feeling like they were 19 again, getting to share the exhilaration of a perfect show where they play all your favorites. This time, with my generation loving it right alongside them.
That June 23, 2019 show in Queens, a couple of miles away from the old stomping grounds where my dad and my uncle grew up, was the only summer tour date the Dead played in NYC last summer.
In previous summer tours, they’d booked two nights in Queens, and it was always debated in our family group chat whether we should get tickets to the first night, the second night, or the correct answer: both nights. Having only one show here that summer made that debate moot.
Like most Dead shows, it was warm and familiar for Deadheads while also being uniquely its own moment in time. John Mayer performed with one of Jerry Garcia’s old guitars, and the setlist was absolutely perfect.
It was also the last Dead show that my uncle got to see live, just a few weeks before he passed away suddenly at 64.
With the global pandemic forcing a cancellation of a planned 2020 summer tour, Dead & Company has been streaming a different previously-recorded show each Saturday at 8 pm ET. When we’d go to the shows, my family would be debating all night what songs we thought they’d play. On the replay shows, dubbed by the band as the Couch Tour, we’re all lighting up the family group chat instead, keeping up on our own respective devices.
Saturday, they streamed June 23, 2019, the lone summer show in Queens.
Somewhere in that massive crowd, my family’s there. And somewhere in that crowd, my uncle is there having the time of his life, taking in an incredible setlist that you could swear was played just for him.
A few months after that summer show in Queens, a few months after we laid my uncle to rest, Dead & Company announced a return to New York for a couple of dates to kick off their fall tour.
Our family would always buy eight tickets any time we knew it’d be a family outing because either all eight of us would be able to go, or we could resell any leftover tickets if a few people couldn’t make it.
This time, we bought eight tickets again, but we didn’t have to resell the eighth one. We found a taker in my partner, who was excited to attend her first-ever Dead show and experience the magic with my family and me firsthand, after hearing us rave about it countless times.
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She wasn’t going in blind, thankfully. She’d listened to the Grateful Dead when she was growing up, and she knew a little bit about Shakedown Street and the environment we were walking into.
But she’d never seen them live. Not until that night, at the first show that we all attended together without my uncle, a show that he would’ve loved. I mean, just look at this setlist. How can you top that?
One of my favorite things about going to Dead shows is seeing attendees of all ages, from people who have been with them since ’69, to people who were born in 2009. Every generation of Deadheads, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, and grandchildren.
It’s not about any one song, or any one show. It’s the shared love, of the art, of the passion, of the music, of the dancing, of feeling like you’re feeling it for the first time again, of watching someone feel it for the first time, knowing that it certainly won’t be the last time.
My family always wanted to take us to these shows because they wanted us to feel what they feel when the music hits you. They wanted us to grow up and have our kids fall in love with that feeling too, one day.
Before he passed, my uncle was able to see his first grandchild take her first steps, say her first words, celebrate her first birthday, and yes, request her first Dead song. We were over the moon when my cousin sent us video proof of his daughter saying, “I want Jerry!” because, of course she knew who Jerry Garcia was, and she needed to hear some Shakedown.
My uncle won’t be there to welcome his second grandchild into the world this fall when the baby who isn’t a baby anymore becomes a big sister. My uncle won’t get to be there for any future weddings, birthdays, or housewarmings that are secretly pregnancy announcements.
But he’ll be there at the next Dead show and every show after. They’ll play his favorites all night long. He’s got the best seat in the house.
And my uncle would be proud to know that my partner was wearing tie-dye to that first show. And that she can’t wait for the next one.