When Neil Young pulled out of Farm Aid breaking a more than thirty year September tradition, he cited worries about COVID. In comments on his website, he called concert gatherings super-spreader events.
Against a rampant surge of cornavirus in recent weeks caused by the Delta variant is the pent-up demand for live music. On a recent earnings call for the country’s largest live music producer, Live Nation Entertainment President Michael Rapino said, “We expect to have over 6 million fans attend our festivals during the second half of the year, with about two-thirds of our festivals increasing their attendance compared to 2019.” He added that in June, Ticketmaster had its fourth best month ever.
With this resurgence in the music industry has struggled to provide a consistent and uniform approach. While the Lollapalooza festival required proof of vaccinations, the smaller Barefoot Country Music Festival held in Wildwood, New Jersey this month had no protocols. Nor will September’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival. Jason Isbell pulled out of some shows when promoters wouldn’t implement vaccine requirements.
On their late summer tour that kicked off in Raleigh, North Carolina a few weeks ago, Dead and Company has taken a strict approach. Initially only those in the front stage pit were required to show proof of vaccination but that changed to be a requirement for all attendees.
Stepping back in large gatherings has brought a certain uneasiness and mixed results evidenced by two shows, the tour’s second stop at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia and at a stadium extravaganza in Hershey, Pennsylvania this past weekend.
Jiffy Lube Live is an outdoor amphitheater 45 minutes from Washington, D.C. that comfortably holds just over 25,000 people. During Dead and Company’s second tour stop, the venue did a great job organizing initial entry into the venue with clearly marked lines and staff to direct people to the right entrance checkpoint. Attendees who had been vaccinated were directed to show their vaccination cards and a driver’s license for identification through lines were clearly marked. Attendees who hadn’t been vaccinated or didn’t have proof of vaccination could opt to take a rapid test in a tent before gaining entry to the venue. Overall it was orderly and efficient.
Less than two weeks later, on the property of the family theme park named after the chocolatier, the scene at Hersheypark Stadium was a complete contrast. At first, the leisurely tailgating and walk toward the facility seemed like all was in order. Attendees could jump on an open-air train that zig-zagged toward the entrance as we entered the magical world of chocolate ahead. (Next stop “Terrapin Station,” someone blurted ahead of multi-generations of Dead fans, including those not born when Jerry Garcia died, jumping off.)
By the time the train reached Hersheypark, all orderliness seemed to vanish. The stadium, which hosts soccer and football for 15,000, doubles in size for concerts. Outside the entrances, throngs of crowds gathered and seemed to overwhelm the facility and the miniscule number of staff. Crowds swarmed outside the initial entry gates twenty deep to pass through. Seeing no signs and assuming you would present your vaccination cards, we got stuck here before realizing we needed to secure a wristband. And here, shoulder to shoulder with everyone looking for an angle to get through the metal detectors, it felt uneasy worrying what was being transmitted around us.
Maneuvering to get out of the melee and go further back on the grounds, we presented our ID and vaccination cards and quickly got a wristband. There was a rapid testing tent alongside that was drawing some traffic. To their credit the staff was responsive and efficient and it was easy to get through. Back to a second entrance, it was more orderly standing in a straight line that moved relatively quickly.,
I couldn’t help but think of another summer night when I saw my first Grateful Dead show in Hartford, Connecticut at the now defunct Dillon Stadium. It was July 1974 and the Dead had just released From The Mars Hotel. As I waited outside Hersheypark while Dead and Company opened with “The Music Never Stopped” segueing into “Easy Answers,” I remembered I had come into the Hartford show a few minutes later and walking in looked up to see Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Donna Godchaux and Bob Weir in line, with keyboardist Keith Godchaux to their side and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman in the back. As I looked up to the banks of speakers dubbed The Wall of Sound, I reveled in its clarity that wasn’t loud so much as it was pristine and sound I’ve never heard approximated since.
Flash forward to the present, in Bristow Weir, a man of few words (save for his standard set one closing comments “we’re going to take a short break and be right back,”) stepped to the mic a few songs in and acknowledging the band’s long layoff, said “It’s all coming back.” The band’s two sets approached three hours, touching on vintage Workingman’s Dead-era songs, “Cumberland Blues” which came barreling across like a freight train and “Black Peter,” in which Weir snarled through like we were in a blues club. On the lawn near my blanket, a young man who introduced himself as “Skinny,” twirled most of the night, pulling out a card featuring an image of Jerry Garcia with a halo. The more he turned and held the card out, the closer he seemingly got to connecting with the late guitarist’s spirit. He wasn’t the only one trying to connect to other-wordly dimensions. When Kreutzman and Hart and bassist Oteil Burbridge came out of the second-set ritual of “Drums,” it segued into “Space.” In Hart’s toy workshop featuring the stretched strings of his Pythagorean Monochord instrument known as “The Beam,” it felt like he was summoning extra-terrestrial spirits and that UFO’s would soon be flying overhead in the humid summer night.
Guitarist John Mayer wore a cowboy hat all night and Weir adorned one for the second set. The two seem locked in with Mayer bending his notes and providing bluesy, twangy bent notes and guitar lines that are searing but understated at the same time. Mayer, secure enough in his own skin that he doesn’t have to be Garcia, adds an enthusiasm and revitalization to a band that still leans on its legacy but feels liberated. Granted sometimes the tempos are slower. At one point “Touch of Grey” felt like it was on life support but freshened by the multi-generation approach as Weir and Mayer alternated verses.
At Hersheypark, Mayer wore headphones, initially making me think it was to hear the sound better in a large stadium that felt like there were 50,000 there, not the listed capacity of 30,000. It’s been reported that he is experiencing ringing in his ears due to tinnitus, a condition that is increasingly being diagnosed in middle-aged people.
It’s a concession to aging for Mayer, who wasn’t born when many songs in the band’s two sets originated, but is still the face of youth among a line-up of senior citizens. Weir, who was a teenager when he first joined the band, now sports an overgrown gray beard that gives him the look of someone who’s just been released from captivity.
Peering up to the ascending lawn in Bristow, Weir could gaze upon the hills he trained on past visits that gives him the fitness of someone much younger and earned him a profile in Men’s Health and his own fitness video workout.
In the Hersheypark parking lot, the fluidity of Mayer’s lines intertwined with the anchor of Weir, traveled in the cool summer night occasionally locking in against an object to give it a slight echo and immersive experience for anyone who was lucky enough to pass by. Soon the stadium would be hosting football. Autumn gave a hint it was coming and like the change of seasons there was something timeless about a summer Dead tour—made even more special in this time of unease (and second-guessing about how safe venturing out really is.)
“Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” felt like it lit up the night, Mayer’s lines traveling and carrying the ghosts of everyone who has sung this age old lament and sought redemption for the last hundred years. Coming out of Covid it had a hymn-like feel as we fight Covid and long for community in uncertain times. One song later, Weir reached back to cover Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” It was a heavy tour de force with its heavy blues licks accentuated by Chimenti’s lush B3 keys and Weir’s brooding foreboding delivery, a metaphorical tip of the hat made heavier by current times.
The next morning Nugs.net had already posted the night’s show to stream. As they have done the whole tour, scanning your bar code gets you a free steam of the show you attended. It’s still one of the great values out there and Dead and Company remain a timeless experience.