EAST TROY, Wisconsin — Despite local fears of an out-of-control Deadhead invasion, the reunited members of the Grateful Dead staged a triumphant return over the weekend, playing two nights of good ol' rock and roll amid the grassy fields and grain silos at the crossroads of America.
The two-day festival, billed as Terrapin Station - The Grateful Dead Family Reunion, marked the first time all four core members of the improvisational rock powerhouse shared a bill — going by the moniker "The Other Ones" — since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.
Guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart had spent recent weeks criss-crossing the country separately with their own bands before joining forces here at the Alpine Valley Music Theater, playing to 35,000 jubilant fans in the Midwestern summer swelter.
"I want to thank you all for having the faith to join us in this adventure, and make it a community," a visibly pleased Lesh told the concertgoers, many of whom traveled from as far as California, Florida, New York and Texas, filling the hotels and campgrounds between Chicago and Milwaukee.
The concerts were nearly cancelled last month after local authorities predicted that over 100,000 ticketless fans would show up for the Dead's legendary party scene — but fears of unbridled mayhem were largely unfounded. According to local news outlets, the Walworth County Sheriff reported some 300 arrests over the weekend, mostly minor (though expensive) citations for marijuana possession.
Still, security around the amphitheater was tight. Interstate rest areas were closed for miles around, and tow trucks lined the highway medians, apparently prepared to prevent derelict Volkswagen buses from piling up roadside. Guards stopped every car to check that each passenger held a ticket before allowing passage into the vast fields that served as parking lots.
Inside the lots, the scene was swinging, though notably more subdued than on Dead tours past. Dreadlocked teenagers fresh off the String Cheese Incident tour mixed with tie-dyed doctors, bikers, lost dogs, mechanics, and families with rugrats, wandering the aisles amid mellow tailgate hangouts, cars blaring a surprisingly wide assortment of tunes, and the impromptu vending zones known collectively as "Shakedown Street."
To warm up for two headlining Other Ones sets each night, Hart's Bembé Orisha, Kreutzmann's Trichromes, Weir's Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends, and Dead lyricist and troubadour Robert Hunter tag-teamed the main stage, highlighting different facets of the reborn Grateful Dead collective. The set lists were coordinated against repeats, and on Sunday, Ratdog played the rare and complexly orchestrated "At a Siding" portion of the "Terrapin Station" suite, then the Other Ones picked up the 1978 opus at an earlier movement, "Lady With a Fan."
Friends such as Jorma Kaukonen, Karl Denson, and hot upshot jam band the Disco Biscuits filled a second stage, while members of the Dead and their extended family fielded questions from a "conversation stage." A steamy exhibition hall showcased relics of Dead lore such as Garcia's 1968 concert amplifier, outsize stage props from tours past, album artwork and original master tapes from the band's legendary Vault. Vendors filled the entry concourse, peddling tie-dyed clothing, hemp jewelry, books, CDs and other goodies.
Trials for a tentative fall Other Ones tour, the shows coincided with what would have been Garcia's 60th birthday — and the seventh anniversary of his death. While in past Other Ones incarnations the iconic guitarist's presence was sometimes felt as a palpable void, the new band reinvented the Grateful Dead sound to simultaneously embrace and move beyond Garcia's shadow. Without the lead guitarist in the de-facto bandleader role, the music was subtle and rhythm-based, with Weir and Lesh taking turns steering the band. Guitarist Jimmy Herring played a mix of Garcia's and his own lines, but rarely grabbed the reins. Two keyboardists worked in tandem, Jeff Chimenti washing Hammond organ swells, while Rob Barraco twinkled electric piano tones.
"In a way, they're reasserting their relevance," said Mike Shay, 27, of New York. "This is all about reminding the fans and themselves who they are. It's all about their roots. The music becomes really literal. They aren't just playing those songs."
The Other Ones' Saturday set was upbeat, with the songs indeed seeming to tell the story of the past seven years — a rough road along which Garcia died (and along with him the Grateful Dead, as it were), Lesh nearly died of liver failure, and the veteran musicians had bickered publicly about the direction of the Other Ones and the group's business entity. Slamming through tunes such as "Iko Iko," "That's It for the Other One," "One More Saturday Night," and especially on the long-dry-docked "Born Cross-Eyed," the Other Ones displayed chops tighter even than the Dead's in their later days.
At the end of Sunday's easy-rolling set, the Other Ones lined up and did a few Rockettes-style chorus line kicks, then huddled into a group hug and jumped up and down en masse, clearly signaling a new beginning — and, likely, a fall tour.
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