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Misplaced controversy lingers over Grateful Dead announcement

The rumor had been circulating for a good while already, to the point where hotels in the greater Chicago area were being gobbled up at an alarming rate. But when the official announcement came down last Friday – the Grateful Dead’s remaining “core four” would reunite for three shows celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary, with Trey Anastasio of Phish standing where the late Jerry Garcia once stood, and it all would go down over the July 4th weekend at Chicago’s Soldier Field – it still came as a bit of a shock.

For most, the shock was a thrilling one. How could it not be? Though Phish has never really sounded like the Grateful Dead – I’ve always heard much more Frank Zappa, Talking Heads and Little Feat in the quartet’s ambitious sound – Anastasio has spent the last 30 years proving himself to be the finest and most consistently inventive guitarist in the world of improvisational rock music. He clearly deserves the gig.

Others interpreted the announcement differently, however. And thanks to the Internet, their abundant cry-babying was given a massive platform that it simply did not deserve.

We’ll leave to the side for the moment the opinions of those who take great delight in trashing the Grateful Dead and anything and everything related to the band, and concentrate instead on Deadheads who have taken issue with the selection of Anastasio as guitarist for the momentous occasion. Social media virtually exploded with trash-talk surrounding Anastasio from the moment of the official announcement of the July Chicago shows. The general gist? Anastasio is deemed unworthy of ‘filling Garcia’s shoes.’

This could simply be written off as a matter of opinion, a subjective interpretation made on an individual basis, and one best left alone. However, a disturbing element informs much of the Anastasio-bashing going on. And it comes down to an alarming inability among certain factions of the still massive Dead fan base to come to terms with the fact that Garcia has been dead since August 1995. Yes, I said it – Jerry is dead, folks.

As a singular guitarist, songwriter and the unwilling leader of one of the longest-running and most influential musical movements of the 20th century, Garcia meant an awful lot to a vast amount of people, myself included. He is greatly missed. The passage of time has done nothing to diminish this fact.

One needn’t look far to find Garcia’s music being celebrated in cities all around the country, Buffalo among them. The man left a massive footprint. Following his death, many fans found the prospect of taking in one of the many post-Garcia Grateful Dead offshoots – the Other Ones, the Dead, Ratdog, Phil & Friends, Furthur, et al, to say nothing of the hundreds of Dead tribute bands – too painful to consider. This was and is their right.

It must be said, however, that the spirit of improvisation, of musical searching, of close inter-band listening, and a willingness to risk failure by taking chances - these are not ideas that died with Garcia. Nor should they have. These concepts form the man and the band’s legacy. And what is slated to happen in Chicago in July is a celebration of that legacy.

That the core four – Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart – unanimously agreed that Anastasio was their man, and that the guitarist was invited to participate via a personal letter from Lesh, should have been enough to silence the naysayers. “Trey’s well-schooled in the style of music we play – listening intently to what’s going on and reacting meaningfully to what other people are playing,” Weir told Billboard over the weekend. “If there’s a key shift or modality shift within a given section, (he) can hear that and relate... meaningfully.”

Which is musician-speak for “Trey gets it.” And yet, an attitude of ‘How dare they?’ pervaded much of the discussion in the ether-sphere.

I was out over the weekend, mostly in music clubs, and I ran into dozens of people who exchanged a “See you in Chicago?” by way of greeting.

The Soldier Field site was chosen, according to the band, for its central location. Based on my discussions over the past few days, as well as the abundant local social media traffic, it’s my expectation that there will be several thousand representatives from Western New York in Chicago.

That said, with only three shows on the docket, and a capacity to accommodate some 60,000 fans for each of those shows, it is more than likely that the demand will far outstrip the supply, ticket-wise. Many serious fans are viewing this as a pilgrimage.

Interestingly, the odds are high that many of those who have been doing the complaining will still end up at Soldier Field. This is the official end of the “long strange trip.” The surviving members will not be carrying on together after these three shows. The event is being billed as “Fare Thee Well” for a reason.

However, I’d like to urge anyone thinking of attending these shows under protest to stay home instead. There are not going to be enough tickets to go around. Why not leave them for folks who think this is an exciting and entirely appropriate way to say goodbye? The rest of you? See you in Chicago.


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