The Dead | 05.16.09 | The Gorge

Words by: Jonathan Zwickel | Images by: Dave Vann

The Dead with The Allman Brothers Band & Doobie Brothers :: 05.16.09 :: The Gorge :: George, WA

The Gorge :: 05.16.09
The thing to understand is that The Dead is not the Grateful Dead. Seemingly a no-brainer distinction, it's crucial to appreciating what the band offers at this point in its legacy.

In some ways the Garcia-less Dead is better than the Grateful Dead of 1995, directly prior to the group disbanding after Jerry took his final bow. Musically, they're feeling it more now than they were then. Saturday night's sold-out show at The Gorge - 22,000 strong - was studied and whip-tight but loose enough to feel like there was something fresh going on.

But there's something else going on in the post-Garcia era, something bigger than lead guitarist Warren Haynes hitting the proper tone in his solos. It's the thrilling sense of a ship of fools that's lost its rudder, sailing at the whim of unpredictable winds. Without a figurehead, The Dead might be closer now to the egoless ideal that Garcia longed for. More of a band, less of a cult (there was a time when it was all Pigpen all the time, but they got over that loss, too). The Grateful Dead Experience has always been a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts sort of culmination. That fact is driven home by the sum's continued evolution in the absence of what many considered its most important part.

Addressing the crowd towards the end of the second set, after Bob unleashed an extra-screamy "One More Saturday Night," Phil perfectly summed up that sentiment. "Thank you all very much for coming out here, bringing our community back together again," he said. "I know that you guys come to see each other, too. So thanks for bringing that magic to us, which is really what it takes for us to be able to make this music."

Bob Weir :: 05.16 :: The Gorge
A second fact demonstrated on Saturday was something Garcia long espoused: The song is the thing. Which lead to another cornerstone of The Grateful Dead Experience — arguing about the singer. In attempting "Days Between" in the second set, was Bobby putting his own stamp on the song or marring the unique relationship between Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter, which originally imparted so much of the song's gravity? Was Bobby's flubbing of the lyrics to "Dire Wolf" worth enduring just to hear the song?

Your answer indicates your general disposition in life. There will always be naysayers sitting out the latter-day Dead, claiming the purity and fire is gone. Which is fine — for them the Experience is ossified, history, dead. Then there will be those that derive something meaningful from every encounter they have with the band, no matter what the setting or the lineup. They argue over details not to bemoan the band's demise but to keep the band alive. These aren't apologists or nostalgists, but seekers, thirsting for the Experience because they believe there is still nothing in the world like a Dead concert. Which is like life in general. You get out of it exactly what you put in.

That said, in the context of a tour closer, The Gorge setlist was a bit disappointing. Can't blame the band for going big at their hometown shrine of Shoreline a few days earlier (read about it here), but it would've been nice if they saved more spice for Saturday. The energy coming from the stage, teetering between hungry-with-something-to-prove confidence and victory lap self-satisfaction, seemed largely determined by the setlist. The highlights came in the first set, starting with a loose and groovy "Crazy Fingers" that took an extended dip into the first verse of "Dark Star," which bled into the aforementioned "Dire Wolf," stellar despite Bobby's lyrical flubs. Deviating from the Dead songbook, the band sounded especially alive with three choice covers, a Phil-delivered "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," Warren's passionately rendered "Into the Mystic" and Bobby righteously barking out the Harry Belafonte classic "Man Smart Woman Smarter."

Lesh & Kreutzmann :: 05.16 :: The Gorge
The pinnacle of the second set came with the closing of "Dark Star," expertly integrated into the tail end of a solemn "Days Between." Here was the money shot we came for. Afterwards, during his brief monologue, Phil did his "Donor Rap" recounting his liver transplant ten years ago, making his encore of "Box of Rain" all the more poignant. It was a sweet, sobering end to a massively celebratory day.

My last official Grateful Dead Experience came in 2000, with a Phil & Friends show in Oakland, CA. It was a less than perfect show that turned me into one of those naysayers for nine years. A lot has changed since then, with the band, with the world, with my life. Saturday's set at The Gorge (America's most epic venue, sorry Red Rocks) wasn't perfect either, but it was joyous and thrilling and funny in a very welcome, familiar way. The vibe — ineffable and all-important — was right. To bite a cliché and all the beauty and baggage it implies, it was like coming home. As long as The Dead are playing at this level, they're worth seeing. They're worth believing in. The old magic is still alive, if you want it.

The Dead :: 05.16.09 :: The Gorge :: George, WA
Set I: Music Never Stopped, Loose Lucy, Crazy Fingers > Dark Star (verse 1) > Dire Wolf, Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues, Into The Mystic, Man Smart Woman Smarter
Set II: Passenger, Hell in a Bucket, Althea, Eyes Of The World > Rhythm Devils > Space > Days Between > Dark Star (verse 2) > One More Saturday Night
Encore: Box of Rain
Only "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"

Allman :: 05.16 :: The Gorge
As for The Allman Brothers — fanfuckintastic. That's a whole review in itself. After plugging in and sitting down, Derek Trucks and Gregg Allman exchanged a look and a hand signal — a sort of "go for it" finger twirl — and blew out a monumental, 15-minute "Mountain Jam" to open the set. The rest of the 90-minute slot was gravy, including versions of "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and a tease of "The Other One" that rivaled more familiar versions. With Derek Trucks onstage, the Allmans are a generation-spanning dynasty. Rumors of this being their final tour are as troubling as the oxygen bottle Gregg kept on deck next to his Hammond.

And as long as they constrained themselves to their hits, the Doobie Brothers were better than expected. "Nobody," a lesser-known song off their 1971 debut, even sounded raw and garagey. With a four-man front on vocal harmonies, "Jesus Is Just Alright" and "Black Water" were powerful. But when they brought out a 50-something dude with shoulder-length grey hair to wail a sax solo during a middling blues jam, the Doobs exposed themselves as the county fair/Indian casino re-runs that they typically are. The lyrics to "Back To The Chateau," a brand-new song about a club they used to play in the '70s, were telling of the band's preferred era: "Gotta get back, gotta get back, gotta get back..." Best reason to add the Doobs to this lineup: When was the last time you saw three bands in a row with two drummers?

Allman Brothers :: 05.16.09 :: The Gorge :: George, WA
Mountain Jam, Trouble No More, Leave My Blues At Home, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Statesboro Blues, Ain't Wastin' Time No More, Orfeo > Midnight Rider, Who's Been Talking, Black Hearted Woman, Dreams, Revival

Doobie Brothers :: 05.16.09 :: The Gorge :: George, WA
Take Me In Your Arms, Jesus Is Just Alright, Dangerous, Rockin' Down The Highway, Nobody, Back To The Chateau, Guy Allison piano solo > Takin' It To The Streets, Don't Start Me Talkin', Little Bitty Pretty One, Black Water, Long Train Runnin'
Encore: China Grove, Without You, Listen To The Music

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Continue reading for more pics of The Dead, Allmans and Doobies at The Gorge...


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