The first time Albie Cullen said goodbye to the Grateful Dead was on August 9, 1995.
A co-worker told Cullen, an attorney for a Boston-area record label, that Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s iconic lead guitarist, had died that day. Cullen has participated in dozens of shows. He delighted in the improvisational spirit of the Dead, how no two performances were alike: “When you saw the Stones a dozen times,” he explained recently, “it was pretty much the same show.”
Despite the Garcia news, Cullen kept his plans to see RatDog, a side project of Garcia’s bandmate Bob Weir, play a concert in Hampton Beach, NH, that evening. Weir, a rhythm guitarist, told the crowd that Garcia – who at 53 suffered a fatal heart attack at a drug rehab facility – “proved that great music can make sad times better.” While an encore of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Cullen, 59, recalled, “There wasn’t a dry eye.”
“Everybody knew that was the end,” he added.
The Grateful Dead had replaced departed members before, but this was different. With his rootsy tenor, Santa-away gray beard and unmistakable pluck, Garcia defined touring champion and its vibrant subculture that became synonymous with the ’60s. The four surviving original members of the group agreed that they would never use the name “Grateful Dead” without Garcia.
But the Dead are not dead. The next year, several members participated in a tour. They kept side projects that mostly played Dead songs. Different permutations traveled together – like the Others, like Furthur, like the unadjective the Dead.
Finally, in 2015, the band staged another farewell, playing five shows with Phish’s Trey Anastasio on lead guitar. The mini-tour was called Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead.
That goodbye didn’t take either. That fall, Weir and the Dead’s original drummers, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, assembled a new act, Dead & Company, with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, bassist Oteil Burbridge and lead guitarist John Mayer (yes, that John Mayer).
A funny thing happened as this new band toured America: The Dead once again became a cultural touchstone. Dead & Company attracted a new crop of younger fans, as did tribute bands like Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Last August, The Dead had their biggest week of record sales in 35 years, according to their publisher; in February, it won its first Grammy. Between 2012 and 2022, US streams of Dead songs increased at nearly twice the rate of the Rolling Stones, according to the tracking service Luminate.
The Dead have found their moment again.
“This might sound really corny, but I don’t care: The community of the Dead is a necessary community in a year like 2023,” said Bethany Cosentino, 36, of the indie rock band Best Coast. She became a fan just a few years ago thanks to her “Gen X boyfriend.”
“There’s a real sense of joy in being in a room with a bunch of people who just connect to music in their own way but have this shared, collective experience,” she added.
Cullen said the Death’s Heads remarked: “I joke with my friends – they’re bigger now than they’ve ever been.”
Now there is yet another goodbye. After more than 200 shows, Dead & Company sold out stadiums across the country with its so-called Final Tour. The run ends this weekend with three shows at Oracle Park in San Francisco, the city where the Grateful Dead formed nearly 60 years ago.
“It’s part of the life cycle. In life, there is death,” Hart said in a video interview. “But it all depends on what you call death. Because there is life after death — in music, anyway.”
Bands led by Weir, the original Dead bassist Phil Lesh and Kreutzmann (who was replaced for this tour by Jay Lane) all have concerts scheduled in the next two months. Hart considered the possibility of a future for Dead & Company, confirming that this was his last tour.
“Music is never going anywhere — and one of the great things about music is that there are thousands of concerts that we all have access to,” said Andy Cohen, the Bravo host and executive producer who has been a Dead fan since high school. . . “But the sense of community of us all coming together at Citi Field and enjoying two banger shows,” he added, “that’s something I don’t foresee us getting again.”
We, it seems, are always saying goodbye to the Grateful Dead. But Weir and Mayer warned fans not to expect a eulogy.
“I think everybody has had enough loss in their life to go to San Francisco and have this be a mourning,” Mayer said.
“I’m dead set against it,” Weir added. “I’ll be jumped if I let that happen.”
Mayer continued: “If I had my wish, it would be for people to say goodbye to Dead & Company without the pain of saying goodbye.”
THE PROMOTER PETER SHAPIROwho owns the jam band redoubts Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY, and promoted the Fare Thee Well shows, observed that the true volume of people who would pay to see the Grateful Dead – a group that stopped touring the year. before Ticketmaster sold its first ticket over the Internet – it wasn’t revealed until 2015, when Dead fans broke the site’s record for most shoppers in a queue.
Ticket sales for the five concerts that year—two at Levi’s Stadium near San Francisco and three at Chicago’s Soldier Field—brought in $40 million. Nearly 71,000 people attended each Chicago show; many more watched theatrical and pay-per-view simulcasts.
“Fare Thee Well was supposed to be an end,” Shapiro said, “and it was a new beginning.”
Mayer was hidden away during the Chicago shows, already a planned addition. He met Weir and Hart through Don Was, the producer and record executive. Mayer gushed to them about the Dead’s music, which he came to well after his formative listening years; he compared it in a recent interview to “cilantro if all I ate was meat and potatoes.”
Hart only apparently knew Mayer’s music, but knew he was a great guitarist. “On our stage, he’s not a pop star or anything like that,” Hart said. “He has so much respect for the Grateful Dead — I respect him a lot for that. He treated the music as his own.”
While some purists grumbled at Mayer’s inclusion (as, indeed, some grumbled about the Fare Thee Well shows), most fans “made a decision,” said Dennis McNally, a former Grateful Dead spokesman and biographer, “that they didn’t fell in love. “the band” – the people – they fell in love with the music, and that it was to some extent a matter of taste as to who played it. That it was its own genre, almost like jazz or blues.”
While many classic rock artists have spawned covers, a website dedicated to Grateful Dead tribute bands has more than 600 bands in its database, 100 to 150 of which, its owners estimate, are active.
Some Dead tribute acts are simple and quite popular, such as Dark Star Orchestra, which recreates specific Dead concerts according to a set list. Others use the music of the Dead as a jumping off point. There is jazz band and afrobeat. Brown-eyed Women are all feminine. Wizards of Tokyo sing Japanese people.
Electronic artist LP Giobbi, Millennial daughter of Deadheads, uses sonic loops and stems over house beats to create what she calls Dead House. “I’m blown away by how many ravers I meet who are also Deadheads,” said the artist, who played at after-parties after many shows on this Dead & Company tour.
The uniqueness of each Dead performance is crucial to the music’s enduring appeal. To Franken, the author, former senator and longtime fan who ever open for the group, just met friends who saw Dead & Company outside St. “I asked what they were playing, and I struck out. ‘Did they make “Chinese Cat Sunflower”?’ ‘No.’ This is a big, big body of music. You can go to four nights in a row and basically not hear the same tune. And they play things differently all the time.”
The Dead’s eclectic songbook comes from rock, folk, blues, country and bluegrass; its lyrics, many by Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, tend to be ambiguous but buoyant (“strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand,” “wake up to find you’re the eyes of the world,” “what a long strange journey it was”).
“The thing about this music is that it doesn’t happen at home — nobody’s at home. People try to get home,” Mayer said.
“There’s something about the fantasy of transience for people who don’t necessarily have it in their lives, like myself,” he added. “The fantasy of the perpetual seeker, the person with the backpack who can sleep on couch after couch. Most people who go to Dead concerts don’t necessarily live that life, but aspire spiritually to have this devil-may-care attitude.”
Trey Pierce, 20, began discovering the Dead in high school through CD boxes, DVDs and the Internet Archive, which hosts recordings of free tapers from Grateful Dead shows. Now he’s a die-hard who drove for hours from University of St. Lawrence in upstate New York to see Phil Lesh and Friends perform in March outside of New York.
“That’s what got me through a lot of my life,” he said. “Any weird thing that happened to me, challenges that I had, it was related to those lyrics and Jerry” – who died eight years before Pierce was born – “girding my soul.”
IN A PARKING LOT LOT across from Citi Field in Queens before the second of two Dead & Company shows last month, car stereos blasted live Dead recordings as the subway clattered over the elevated lines. Vendors hawked T-shirts, jewelry, freshly cooked food, and less legitimate fare. Erin Cadigan, who specified that she saw 72 Dead shows “with Jerry,” performed tarot readings on a licensed, Grateful Dead-themed tarot deck she created with a partner.
The tour tended to be well reviewed by fans. “The closest thing to the original I’ve seen,” Cullen wrote in a text message after leaving Fenway Park in Boston last month. “Ironically it ends up exactly as they seemed to figure it out.”
Mariah Napoli, 45, a self-described “second-generation” Deadhead, said she’s seen “a lot more people cry the last two songs than you usually do” on this tour.
She added, “I’ve been doing this for so long, I don’t see myself stopping until they’re all dead. At that point, it will be time for me to buckle down and start growing old.”
Why do we keep saying goodbye to the Grateful Dead … then welcoming them back, and then doing it again?
“Buddhists believe that knowing every minute that you are going to die is what makes life so precious,” said Elena Lister, a New York-based psychiatrist and grief specialist. “If you know you’re going to lose anything, you cherish it all the more while you have it. If you deny it, you miss that opportunity.”
Dustin Grella, 52, a professor of animation at Queens College, has a more dramatic Dead story than most. In the spring and summer of 1995 he followed the Grateful Dead on what would turn out to be its last tour. But he missed the final two concerts at Soldier Field after suffering an injury to his spinal cord when porch collapsed at an off-show campsite near St. Louis.
“When you experience that kind of trauma,” Grella said of the recovery period, “you just want to get back to normal. For me, that was touring Deadhead.”
In 2015, he saw the Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago as an opportunity for closure — “my chance,” he said, “to make peace with the Dead.”
But that didn’t mean he would miss another opportunity to say goodbye. For Dead & Company’s final tour, Grella and a friend bought a used Kentucky school bus, attached panels to both sides and covered them with chalkboard paint. Grella, who uses a wheelchair, parked the bus in the lot, laid out chalk and encouraged passersby to add their own designs. He began the spontaneous artwork by engraving lyrics from “Scarlet Begonias”: “Sometimes you’re shown the light/In the strangest of places, if you look right.”