Music: The resurrection of The Grateful Dead
Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30
Even for an industry which has hyperbole as its default setting, there was something quite extraordinary about the clamour for tickets for the final shows of The Grateful Dead.
The band, who formed 50 years ago this summer and saw their idiosyncratic leader Jerry Garcia die 20 years ago, shifted $50m of tickets for five farewell concerts, the last pair of which concludes in Chicago's Soldier Field stadium tonight and Sunday. Several Irish cinemas will be showing the show on Monday in its entirety.
It's thought the quartet (with Trey Anastasio of US rockers Phish taking on the Garcia mantle) could comfortably have shifted six million more tickets had they been interested in partaking in a proper US tour, although that doesn't appear to have been of interest to a group whose members include 75-year-old Phil Lesh. With revenue from T-shirts and other merchandise set to net them $5m alone, one feels they won't be entering their dotage short of a bob or two.
Despite an unwillingness to spend months on the road, they have been keen to cash in on the fact that they came together half a century ago and were progenitors of the counter-culture movement that helped define the late 1960s in the popular imagination.
September will see the release of what's got to be the most ambitious box set of all time. Thirty Trips Around the Sun will feature - wait for it - 80 discs and will take four days of continuous listening to get through the whole thing. You'd want to be a pretty serious Grateful Dead fan to want this in your life and you'd need deep pockets too - it's set to retail for around €700.
Far more digestible, even to those who can't get enough of their cosmic brand of rock, is the forthcoming Martin Scorsese-produced documentary, which is set to air in the autumn.
Soldier Field was not chosen at random for the band's final concert: it was in this same venue that their final gig with Garcia took place in July 1995. Within a month, the lead guitarist who always disputed that he was frontman of the band, had died from complications arising from an addiction to heroin and cocaine. He was residing in a drug rehabilitation clinic at the time.
Few bands in rock history are as inextricably linked with illicit substances as The Grateful Dead. When they emerged from the 'anything goes' Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1965, they were already veterans of LSD, 'cooked up' by their soundman Owsley 'Bear' Stanley.
Their music - especially the early stuff with its lengthy guitar riffs - has long attracted adjectives like 'druggy' and 'hypnotic', something the band now embrace rather than attempt to deny.
"I knew instantly that this combination - acid and music - was the tool I'd been looking for," Lesh told music magazine Mojo last month. "We found that while high we were able to go very far out musically but still come back to some kind of recognisable song structure."
From the start, they attracted a large and devoted following, 'Deadheads' as they're popularly known, who bought into the band's hippy ethos just as much as the music.
But since the Fare Thee Well shows were first announced, there has been grumbling among ageing Deadheads and a new generation of fans that Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann have sold out on their counter-cultural ideals.
There is certainly nothing hippy-like about the prices the band have been charging for the gigs' 'enhanced experience' packages: how about the $2,200 Golden Road package which includes floor seats for three shows, plus private lounge and free food and drinks on each of the nights? Those who fancy travel and accommodation on top of that have had to cough up $5,700.
It was all so different in the band's first 30 years when they helped foster a relationship with music buyers that gave the fans a sense that they were being valued and treated fairly. And decades before social media and Spotify, and before U2's Apple deal, The Grateful Dead pioneered the idea of giving away music for free but charging for tickets and merchandise.
US entrepreneur Barry Barnes even wrote a book about how Deadheads such as he co-opted much of the band's ideals in pursuit of capitalism. Everything I Know About Business I Learned from The Grateful Dead argues that their true genius lay in their 'strategic improvisation' - the ability to adapt to changing times and circumstances and an obsession with creating and fostering top-quality fan relations.
Barnes believes that the band's decision to web-stream the shows -and make one available as a cinema experience - demonstrates both a willingness to move with the times, and an acknowledgement about the importance of their 'customers'.
But what about the music and those never-ending jams? How well does their back catalogue stand up today? Not very well, truth be told. Very much a product of its time, the songs seem terribly overblown and faintly ludicrous by contemporary standards. One feels Garcia and friends could have been a lot more ruthless in the studio than they were, and reigned in their propensity for excess.
The New York writer David Shaftel wrote last week about the "pangs of embarrassment" he feels when thinking about how much he once loved the band. And he now wonders just how anti-mainstream they really were: "With hindsight, I realise that what The Grateful Dead really provided for suburban kids like me was an easily accessible counterculture. The scene surrounding the band had anti-establishment trappings but was actually mainstream, bourgeois and ultimately quite safe."
Whether or not the Deadheads flocking to Soldier Field draw a similar conclusion remains to be seen.
Album of the week
Oscar glory and the phenomenal stage success of the Once musical have ensured that Glen Hansard's long-term future looks secure. But for many years, the Dubliner struggled to make a living as a songwriter, and despite the adulation that greeted them at home, his band The Frames found it difficult to make inroads abroad.
Much of that frustration is to be found in Frames songs like the 'Fitzcarraldo', which was inspired by the cult Werner Herzog film about a crazed dreamer who wanted to build an opera house in the depths of the Amazon jungle, and the abrasive, anthemic 'Revelate', one of the best-loved Irish songs ever.
Billed as "an introduction to The Frames", these 12 tracks give a good sense of the band's eclectic 25-year career, although fans will quibble about how such-and-such a song was not included.
A new one, 'None But I' suggests their songwriting smarts are still intact after nine years of studio inactivity. Hansard, of course, has been busy with first The Swell Season, and then his own fine solo album, and it will be intriguing to see if the next chapter of his recording career involves his old bandmates, whose number include that fine fiddler, Colm Mac Con Iomaire.