BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
January 1, 2016
DEAD & COMPANY | DECEMBER 31, 2015 | LOS ANGELES FORUM | “SCARLET > TOUCH > FIRE! OH MY…OH MY GOD!”
2015 was a rollercoaster of a year, and there was no better way to end it than to take one final musical voyage with the current version of the band who dominated my listening and showgoing habits this year like no band has done in a long time. The ticket listed a start time of 8:00 p.m. and no opening act was listed, and so I had it in my head that the actual New Year’s Eve celebration would take place towards the end of the second set. As I settled into my seat next to the soundboard and waited for the lights to go down, the guy next to me thought the plan was to play three shorter sets, with the third one starting at midnight. Turned out he was almost exactly right - the show turned out to be one of the longest I’ve ever seen, running almost five hours with the intermissions. It was also one of the best in the strongest year of live music I’ve had in a long time.
SET I (8:18 p.m. - 9:17p.m.)
Just after 8:15 the house lights dropped, as and the band came out John caught everyone’s eye with his blue floor-length robe and the most perfectly coiffed hair I’ve ever seen on a Grateful Dead-related stage. I was trying to think of an Obi-Wan Kenobi joke to inset here, but I couldn’t Force my brain to come up with one. It quickly became obvious they were tuning up for FEEL LIKE A STRANGER, and it made for a great opener. The sound was much better for me compared to last night, and the band was loose and grooving from the start - Stranger seems to serve the band well in that regard. Bob’s voice was also in much better shape than last night too; whatever they did to restore his voice over the previous 21 hours has worked. This show got up and running quickly as the band went into a full jam after the second verse - this used to be a short, structured solo that was over in 30 seconds or so but it’s now an open-ended jam, and by the time Bob sang the third verse started we were a full 7 minutes into the song. There was a time when the song would be over after 7 minutes, but not now. This is a band that genuinely enjoys playing together for long periods of time. The closing jam was a bit shorter but still spot-on.
Without any waiting around John started the intro to THEY LOVE EACH OTHER and also took the vocals. The slower, reggae-infused song made for a nice counterpoint to Stranger, and tonight Jeff got into the act early with a nice Hammond B3 solo during the mid-song break. And just to ensure that Bob doesn’t retain the monopoly on forgetting lyrics, John spaced a line during the final verse to much amusement onstage and in the crowd. The momentum carries over into RAMBLE ON ROSE, with Bob on vocals, and Jeff got another chance to shine during the early part of the mid-song jam with a beautiful solo on the grand piano. Come to think of it, did he have a grand piano onstage in Las Vegas, or is that a new thing? Either way, it sounds great, and once Mayer takes over for the guitar solo he leads the band to an unusually hot peak for this song and for so early in the show. Oteil’s bass lines during this moment rumble so loudly that everyone feels it and doesn't just hear it. Now that I can really hear him and not just see him, I spend a great deal of time over the evening watching his fretboard hand, which is astoundingly busy. He is a truly exemplary bass player with his own style, he really knows how to play counterpoint to John, and he’s making Phil Lesh’s absence from this band a lot easier for me to bear. These six guys have truly coalesced into something special over the space of the last two months.
LOOSE LUCY ups the tempo a bit more, and surprisingly Bob takes the vocals for this one - because it’s in a higher register I was expecting him to pass this one to John tonight, but nope. You can hear him straining a bit on the first notes of each line, but he gets through it. It bops along in the usual way for a solid nine minutes, and then John takes over for SUGAREE. Once again John forgets a line in the second verse and everyone just grins (wouldn’t it be nice if everyone’s employers just cheered employees’ small mistakes and then moved on?), and soon after the set’s highlight occurs: the jam after the third verse of Sugaree is easily the most powerful one I’ve seen live. John starts fanning away and jumping up and down to raise the energy levels, and it’s as if he played the legendary version of the song from 1/11/79 to formulate his plan of how to play it tonight. The band pick up on all his cues and hit the right chords and boom the right booms, and they make full use of this song’s potential. The only downside is that it overshadows the set-closing HELL IN A BUCKET, which rocks along nicely but doesn’t hit the incendiary heights it sometimes can. But it’s a nice choice, and it ties it up in a bow rather neatly after an hour.
I spend most of the first break just wandering around the lower depths of the Forum and watching everyone else do whatever it is they’e doing. They’ve divided the floor into two mutually exclusive sections (GA up front, seated in back), and it relieves congestion - it’s not claustrophobically crowded at all. It’s also becoming apparent that it’s going to be a 3-set show, and I start thinking about the possibilities. Seems that the best way to do this might be going the route that they did at Winterland on 10-18-74 and making the second set the psychedelic blowout so the third one can be the rocking New Year’s set.
That’s exactly what happened.
SET II (9:50 p.m. - 10:53 p.m.)
For the second time in a month, the band kicks off a second set with DARK STAR, my all-time favorite song. The tuning made it obvious it was coming, and once the band dropped into the song and started exploring the main theme, the Forum folks turned on the flickering star lights that are embedded in the rafters to make it a truly starry, spacey environment. After a solid five minutes Bob stepped up to sing the first verse, and his voice well and truly cracked on the first word. But by that point the band had established such a lush musical setting that Bob just smiled, and so did everyone else. He altered his delivery to get through the rest of the verse, and from there it was straight into an insistent, forward-moving journey into the deepest reaches of musical space. At about the ten-minute mark the jam hit a clear peak, and by this point the tempo had increased to the point where someone could have listened to a snippet of the song and mistaken it for the middle section of The Other One. Jeff’s work on the grand piano complemented John’s leads beautifully, and off to my left a moment of levity occurred when two guys dressed in Wookie onesies came dancing down the aisle. The bigger of the two was a massive, bearded, dreadlocked guy who really looked the part, and they were offering hits of whatever it was in the large pipes they were smoking to anyone who wanted some. It was so freakishly funny, and not one security guard even thought about stopping them. A few minutes later Bob led the band back into the second verse, and after 16 minutes this segment of the journey wound to a close.
By now it already felt like a set that was only going to feature the most expansive songs in the Grateful Dead’s catalog, and the appearances of UNCLE JOHN’S BAND and TERRAPIN STATION did everything to confirm that notion. The former started as a short folk song in acoustic form, but once converted to electric form this one mushroomed into a wide-ranging vehicle for musical exploration, and tonight was no exception. The verses and mid-song solo travelled along at the perfect speed, and the song’s long, more structured closing jam was a great counterpoint to Dark Star. Eventually it wound down after 11 minutes, and instead of the vocal reprise and code Bob made a couple motions with his hands and signaled the transition into Terrapin. It was simultaneously the perfect landing point and the perfect launching point, and at this point the energy in the room was thick and full - even on a party-hearty night like New Year’s Eve very few people seemed to be doing anything other than concentrating on the music. John sang the Lady With A Fan section of the song with power and then led the band through the delicate mid-song solo before handing the vocals off to Bob, who sang the Terrapin Station section before passing the baton back to John, who led the band through four passes of the closing jam. Unlike most versions of the song where each pass-through was played at a slightly quieter volume, this one stayed loud and intense all the way to the end, with John adding some staccato chords during the final pass. They finished it with a full crescendo and a full stop, and all things considered, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Off to my right I can see basketball legend and Public Deadhead No. 1 Bill Walton towering above everyone and raising his arms towards the sky in a motion of joy, so I bet he’d he’d agree with me.
The momentum carried right into DRUMS, which went heavy on the electronic loops right away and established a full sonic palette even before Oteil returned to take his now-customary place at Bill’s drum kit to make it a trio. Eventually Oteil, Mickey and Billy pound away in unison on The Beast before Mickey switches over to The Beam to usher in SPACE, during which John hits his Wah pedal and proceeds with a couple of minutes of Garcia-esque noodling. It’s a nice touch. After about four minutes all six bands members return and they ease into what sounds like a pass through the Mind Left Body Jam. The guy next to me says he thinks its going to be DEAR PRUDENCE, and he turns out to be correct. Turns out they did actually play this late-era Beatles classic a couple times on the November tour, so it’s not as out-of-left-field as I first thought. But nonetheless, even though it’s a cover it fits the vibe of the set perfectly with it its beautiful chord progression and its dreamy, syrupy tempo. However, as the song plays out over 10 minutes my thoughts somehow trail off into remembrances of some of the worst memories from the past 19 years in the music industry, one leading to another, and by the time I catch myself the song is almost over. The mind is an odd thing. I was hoping for them to tack on the reprise to Uncle John to wrap it up, but even without that it was an absolutely stellar hour of music.
The second set break started with a trip out to the concession stand for ice cream, followed a visit to the restroom to grab a thick stack of paper towels. Someone spilled a couple beers in our area during the last set, and the floor had become so slippery that it was like dancing on ice. As I spread out the paper towels on the floor to soak everything up a couple of neighbors struck up some friendly conversation as text messages continued to come in from well-wishers in other locales.
SET III (11:44 p.m. - 12:59 p.m.)
The lights dropped well before midnight, so guess there’ll be at least one song before the New Year’s festivities. There are huge bags of balloons suspended from the ceiling, and there’s also a large, S-shaped track in the rafters that’s clearly going to transport something from behind the soundboard to the front of the stage. There are a lot of people are crammed onto the sides of the stage (somewhere Steve Parish has to be watching this and wishing he could toss a few of them, just because), and Bill Walton is now conspicuously absent from his customary center-crowd spot. The band tune up amidst all of this and crash into their long-standing cover of Wilson Pickett’s MIDNIGHT HOUR, and it’s a wonderfully obvious choice. John has changed into a gold t-shirt that says “Happy Forum New Year”, and immediately I’m transported back to memories of the Grateful Dead’s December 31, 1985 New Year’s Eve show, the second set of which was broadcast live on the USA Network and which I was able to tape on VHS and watch many times afterwards. The band are taking their time and having fun with the song, to the point where Bob finally comes up to the mike and says that they “still have about 2 more minutes” to fill before they can end it. They fill ‘em, and they bring the music to a halt at exactly 11:55 pm.
SUGAR MAGNOLIA: The music onstage stops and a tape of the Star Wars theme plays as various characters from the film appear in costume in the wings and make their way onstage to toss confetti into the crowd. Bill Walton materializes onstage as Father Time (in a robe that’s clearly Bruin blue), and he’s wielding a blue lightsaber. And behind me, the band have decided to resurrect the proceedings of the Closing-Of-Winterland show on New Year’s Eve 1978 by hoisting a float in the shape of a 15-foot joint up into the air and sending it towards the stage, complete with heavy puffs of smoke. Two people are riding in it, and they are also tossing confetti into the crowd. It’s a delirious scene, and at some point they count it down to New Year’s. It may not have exactly been at midnight, but it was still nice to exit 2015 and wipe the slate clean. Eventually the band reassembles amidst the chaos and stick with the Closing-Of-Winterland theme and start the New Year’s set with Sugar Magnolia. Balloons drop, confetti cannons blast, and it’s absolute visual bedlam for the next six minutes as gravity does its work. The band plow through the verses and the solo, and as it crashes to a close I find myself wishing for more Closing-Of-Winterland continuity via the opening chords of SCARLET BEGONIAS, and my first wish of 2016 is quickly granted. John takes the vocals as Walton parades behind the drummers and waves his lightsaber around, and the mid-song jam ends up being the song’s highlight as the outro jam takes a turn after just a couple minutes and leads into TOUCH OF GREY as Walton exits. I’m really happy about this, because this means that we might just get a repeat of the famous second-set opening salvo from the classic Greek Theatre show from 7/13/84, one of my first bootleg cassettes and still one of my favorites sets to play on archive.org. And indeed, once again a wish is quickly fulfilled with FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN. The version of the bootleg that we had in high school was an audience tape on which you can clearly hear some totally-blown-away dude exclaim, “Scarlet > Touch > Fire?! Oh my…oh my GOD!!!” early into Fire. Naturally, this became an oft-repeated tag line at school, to the point where it was used in all kinds of situations that had nothing to do with the Grateful Dead. And I’m hearing it again in my head now, and somewhere there a bunch of St. Paul’s alums that would be, like, totally vidding out, dude, and smiling as widely as I am if they were here too. Well, I’m good. I’m better than good. I’m musically sated and can ask for no more. Anything else that happens tonight is just a bonus.
And yeah, ST. STEPHEN is most definitely a bonus, and not just because Walton is back in his usual spot in the crowd, still in the Father Time costume, and still gleefully violating every open-carry lightsaber law in this galaxy and probably several others. The 60s classic crashes through its verses, and the jam at the end is split into two sections and extended out to great lengths, and by the time 13 minutes have passed Bob decides to skip the vocal reprise and bring the set to a hard-rocking close with the second half of Sugar Magnolia, aka SUNSHINE DAYDREAM. I’ll tell ya - one of the nice things about these one-hour sets is that they can become these gorgeous little self-contained universes of music if they nail the song selection, and that happened twice tonight - the second set was The Big Jam and the third set was The Rocking New Year. The latter also hit some just-exactly-perfect nostalgic spots with its striking similarities to two of my all-time favorite GD shows, and those feelings were only intensified by it happening during one of the most nostalgia-inducing hours on the planet each year. Well done.
And at this point, I have to share the text I sent to my buddy Zsolt at about 11:30 p.m.: “My prediction for the 3rd set: Sugar Mag, Scarlet/Fire, St. Stephen, 1 other, Sunshine Daydream.” Only off by one song, so some not-too-shabby guesswork there. I’d totally have won the betting pool if we’d had one.
ENCORE (12:54 a.m. - 1:00 a.m.)
For some reason I was watching John as the band came back out for the encore. He looked like he was very affected by something, and I started thinking about how much fun this all must be for him, not least after some of the things that went on in his life a few years ago. And surely enough, he approached his mike. This might be a word or two off, but it’s essentially what he said:
“They say that you’re not supposed to talk onstage here.” (Bob comes up and whispers something to him, and they laugh.) “But I want to say thank you to every person in here…for welcoming me into your house.” (loud cheers)…”This is a musical experience that has changed my life forever.” (louder cheers)….”And at the risk of rocking boats, known or unknown, we’ll see you next year.” (loudest cheers of all)
It was a wonderfully emotional moment, and it pretty much overshadowed the BROKEDOWN PALACE that closed the show. There was a nice touch at the very end when the band tacked on a few bars of AULD LANG SYNE to wrap it all up at 12:59 a.m. And at exactly 1:00 a.m. the band took their final bows and left us to fend for the rest of the beginning of 2016 on our own. What a great way to start it off. Let’s go do this.
As always, thank you for reading. Here’s hoping the upcoming year is our best one yet.