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Tear this old building down: The Dead walk in Greensboro

by Ryan Snyder

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There was a resurrection of a different sort this Easter Sunday, though this time the faithful where there to bear witness. The Dead, on a touring hiatus since the summer of 2004, opened their spring rounds with a highly anticipated show at the Greensboro Coliseum, a venue that the Grateful Dead-proper last visited just over 18 years ago. Conditions for the tour kick-off show really could not have been any better, as tens of thousands of friends and family began congregated in the sunny, 65-degree weather, just as the parking lot opened at 10 a.m. Veterans of this scene know what to expect: entire families spilling out of modified school buses; chemically enhanced vagrants twirling around to the music in their heads; two-dollar beers from the bottom of the cooler; and plenty of scrumptious hippie cuisine with suspect ingredients. If you came just for the lot happenings, you no doubt left fulfilled. But if the show was on your agenda as well, your satisfaction might have been a little up in the air. Aside from a pair of one-off shows in support of Barack Obama in the past year, this was the first Dead tour stop in close to five years, so a little bit of rust was to be expected. Even with the Warren Haynes holding down a certain someone’s spot, the band just couldn’t seem to shake out the cobwebs that have accumulated since the Wave That Flag tour. There was a lot of talking and signaling between band mates during and between songs, with excessive noodling as a result of their attempts at synchronicity. But being that it was the first show, their sea legs will undoubtedly come sooner rather than later. The show did open with a lot of promise, however, with the time-honored opener “The Music Never Stopped” serving as a reminder for something we all already knew. Bassist Phil Lesh took over the vocals early and often, beginning with the final verse of “Jack Straw” that followed. It was surprising to hear “Estimated Prophet” in the first set, an event that only occurred during the original band’s 1977 tour and during one Dead show in 2004. But then again, it wasn’t a typical night by any means. The show’s inconsistencies first reared their head at the end of “Prophet,” which seemed almost incomplete due to a weak transition into the stirring “He’s Gone.” The latter was a cathartic tribute to their fallen compadre that drew deafening applause with the much-adored line “steal your face right off your head,” and made even more arresting by its pairing with a slow, steady build into the cultishly-maligned “Touch of Grey,” which featured Haynes on lead vocals for the first time. The bridge between the following “I Need a Miracle” and first-set closer “Truckin’” seemed to be one of the few occasions that Haynes and guitarist Bob Weir were on the same improvisational page, as they settled into a major-key blues trip that would have made Jerry proud. They eased into a lengthy second set with some discordant jam before one of my favorite D-minor chords of all dropped on “Shakedown Street,” which had plenty of heart in the hours before the show. The incongruency between Haynes and Weir became more frequent with the outro jam, as Weir seemed to lean heavily on the wah wah pedal, thus squashing any momentum being built between Haynes and Lesh. Instead of blowing through with a full head of steam, they seemed to limp into “All Along the Watchtower,” which diminished one of the most powerful intros in all of rock music. If you needed to stand in line for beer, call your parents or do your taxes, all of that and more could have been accomplished without apology for missing what was to come. “Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)” opened what would be a painful 40-minute foray into noodling psychedelia that included the mini-set break of “Drums” and an abysmal “Space.” Patient fans were rewarded with the extremely rare “Cosmic Charlie,” a song that dropped out of their catalog entirely in 1976 before being revived in recent years. The second set closed out with what is likened to the Holy Trinity of the Dead’s live shows in “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot!” and my all-time favorite “Franklin’s Tower,” with Phil’s humble voice telling the tale of the liberty bell in such a way that it could render tears from the most grizzled Deadhead if it weren’t just so darn joyful. Lesh reappeared before the encore to deliver his patented donor rap, which if you haven’t already checked that box on your license, you should do immediately. I did love the nod to classic Piedmont blues and the Rev. Gary Davis for the encore, as “Samson and Delilah” was a perfect way to close out. Though featuring three guitarists was never in the game plan for the original band, especially since Jerry could do the work of three people himself, the absence of Jimmy Herring for this tour was palpable. What made the 2004 tour so great was that Haynes was freed from bearing the brunt of the traffic-control and rhythmic duties and allowed to work where he excelled: soaring leads and powerful vocals. Herring’s masterful, yet workmanlike playing will certainly be an asset to Widespread Panic, but he’s sorely missed with the Dead. Of course, one show is a small sample, but compare the set list with any show from 2004 and you’ll notice and obvious change of direction. They seemed to be able to have fun with the set construction by infusing their own classics with a small, but adventurous array of covers strictly derived from Warren’s stylistic influence. Still, there are still plenty of shows yet to be played and the rust will certainly disappear. For that to happen, however, Weir has to yield his front-man fantasies and let Haynes carry a bit more of the load. But to quote one fan on this show’s Archive page, “Warren only has to put up with him for this tour; Jerry had to deal with Bob for 30 years.” Bob Weir (left) breaks it down with Warren Haynes right during the Easter Sunday Dead show at theGreensboro Coliseum. Phil Lesh (bottom left) pounds away on his bass. (photos by Ryan Snyder)

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