The Grateful Dead simply won’t die.
The Jerry Garcia-led band played its final show at Chicago’s Soldier Field on July 9, 1995. Weeks later, Garcia was dead.
But the cult of the Grateful Dead lived on. A new crop of improvisational “jam bands” — most prominently Phish and Widespread Panic — sprang up to give folks prone to tie-dye and set list obsession a reason to hit the road.
Eventually, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead decided they’d been dormant long enough. They regrouped in various configurations and under various monikers, including The Other Ones, The Dead and Further.
In the summer of 2015, the surviving core four from the Grateful Dead’s 1960s lineup — drummers Mickey Hart (who joined the band in 1967, two years after its formation) and Bill Kreutzmann, bassist Phil Lesh and guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir — reunited for a handful of shows at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and Chicago’s Soldier Field. The last gig at Soldier Field was just days away from the 20th anniversary of the final concert with Garcia.
The "Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead" concerts were billed as the swan song for Hart, Kreutzmann, Lesh and Weir as a unit; they would supposedly never share a stage again. Phish’s Trey Anastasio filled the lead guitar role; keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, of Weir’s RatDog side project, and pianist Bruce Hornsby rounded out the roster. Deadheads turned out in droves, snapping up all available tickets.
Given the success of Fare Thee Well — the five concerts grossed a total of $52 million in ticket sales, plus many millions more in merchandise sales — it was perhaps inevitable that they would find a way around the “farewell” designation.
In order to carry on but not break the never-again guarantee, Hart, Kreutzmann and Weir elected to carry on without Lesh, christening themselves Dead & Company. Chimenti signed on to this same-but-different configuration, as did former Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge.
They recruited contemporary guitar hero and late-blooming Deadhead John Mayer to step into the Garcia/Anastasio slot. He would seem to be up to the task. During his own headlining show at the Smoothie King Center in August, Mayer not only demonstrated his versatility and guitar mastery, but he sported a T-shirt that referenced the Grateful Dead favorite “Box of Rain.”
As any Dead-related band must do, they took their music to the people. Dead & Company’s fall tour rolls into the Smoothie King Center on Tuesday. Reserved-seat tickets start at $47 and range up to $300 plus service charges; tickets for the standing-room-only “pit” directly in front of the stage are $223.
That tickets are still available at every price point is not surprising. New Orleans has never been a particularly strong market for the Grateful Dead and its descendants.
On Jan. 30-31, 1970, the band shared a bill with Fleetwood Mac and the Flock during the opening weekend of the Warehouse, the legendary brick concert hall along the Mississippi River on Tchoupitoulas Street. Following the first of the two scheduled shows at the Warehouse, 19 members of the Grateful Dead entourage were arrested on drug charges at the Bourbon Street hotel where they were staying; the incident inspired the “busted down on Bourbon Street” lyric from the song “Truckin’.”
The musicians were released on bail in time to perform the second night at the Warehouse. They and Fleetwood Mac also returned on Feb. 1, 1970, for a hastily arranged “Bread for the Dead” benefit to raise money for the band’s legal fees.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Grateful Dead rarely found their way back to the Big Easy. They finally returned a decade after the bust for a two-night stand at the Saenger Theatre on Oct. 18-19, 1980, playing both acoustic and electric sets. The second night's show included the first and apparently only performance of "Truckin'" in the city that inspired its most famous verse.
They returned to the Saenger again on Sept. 9, 1982. On Oct. 18, 1988, they made their debut at the UNO Lakefront Arena, a year after the single “Touch of Grey” became an unexpected MTV hit. They didn’t play “Touch of Grey” at the Lakefront Arena.
However, members of the pop band the Bangles — who had opened for George Michael at the Superdome earlier that night — and the Neville Brothers joined the Grateful Dead onstage for the final encore of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Tuesday’s Dead & Company gig will be the first New Orleans concert by any of the major quasi-Dead bands (not counting the occasional local appearance by Weir with one of his side projects, or random local appearances by other individual members) since that Lakefront Arena show nearly 30 years ago.
It’s unlikely any of the musicians will be busted down on Bourbon Street this time around.