Grateful Dead Film: “Long Strange Trip” Indeed

Amir Bar-Lev’s 4-hour documentary on The Grateful Dead has its moments: Al Franken explaining the subtleties of Althea, Robert Hunter stating that his lyrics “are clear”, as well as archival footage of an army platoon on LSD. And of course there is the music – Uncle John’s Band, Sugar Magnolia, Dark Star and Playin’ in the Band and on – along with reams of concert footage. However, as melancholically sweet as these moments might be, the narrative is skewed, emphasizing the mania and addiction, a tough go for anyone not a Deadhead. The story of Jerry Garcia as the unwilling guru/god throughout his life is ironically reinforced throughout the film, focusing almost exclusively on his reclusive genius while tip-toeing around the personal wreckage an addict leaves behind, which leaves the viewer wondering how the others might have coped the past 22 years since his death.Which is the biggest gap of all in the film, ignoring the fact that Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart have all been consistently touring, chasing a sound as rapturous as ever.

Grateful Dead Showdown: Phil Lesh vs. Bob Weir

The two remaining pillars of The Grateful Dead – Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir – don’t play together anymore, which is an odd turn of events given the success of last summer’s reunion in Chicago.

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Grateful Dead play Soldier Field in Chicago on July 4, 2015

Phil tours with “Friends” and Weir plays with “Company”, leading to the question not why are they apart but which band is better?

Band members: Dead and Company appears to have this in spades, given the inclusion of original Grateful Dead drummers, Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, along with John Mayer and, of course, Bob Weir.

Dead and Company at Citi Field

Dead and Company play Citi Field, Queens, New York on June 25, 2016

That said, the focus of Phil Lesh’s bands has always been the quality of the music, with Warren Haynes, John Scofield, John Medeski as regulars, and noted guests including Melvin Seals (longtime member of the Jerry Garcia Band) and Chris Robinson from The Black Crowes. Further, given the fact that John Mayer isn’t as great as he thinks and Kretzmann and Hart are mailing it in, the Friends have it here. Advantage: Phil Lesh and Friends

Venues: Dead and Company are going for the big, fast bucks and have booked the largest venues possible; in other words, it’s all hockey arenas and baseball stadiums.

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Jerry Garcia’s ghostly projection during Phil Lesh and Friends at the Capital Theater, Port Chester, New York on May 29, 2016

Phil Lesh plays almost exclusively at The Capital Theater (outside New York City) and Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, California, with capacities of 1800 and 350 respectively.The question is only getting there. Advantage: Phil Lesh and Friends

Song Selection: Dead and Company draw from across The Grateful Dead catalog, showing favor to the early 1970’s, including Weir’s Country and Western gems. Phil and Friends have a similar bent, more in the 1960’s. Advantage: Draw

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Phil Lesh and Friends play the Capital Theater on November 7, 2015

Overall Sound and Experience: While it’s true that Bobby is losing his touch and Phil should stop singing, both know the music. However when it comes to getting inside the sound, being carried away by the interplay between musicians – the jams, man! – Phil plays and leads best. Advantage: Phil Lesh and Friends

Ratdog and Mayer

The hype on Dead and Company, the latest Grateful Dead side project, is befuddling to say the least, although the success of 50th anniversary shows have certainly led us here20150704_235138The truth is, however, that the fall tour of this hodgepodge and questionably-named band has little to do with the concerts in Chicago. Not only is founding member Phil Lesh nowhere to be seen – indeed he is concurrently playing in his eponymous band – but neither were Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio included.

This group lacks the soul of earlier post-Jerry Garcia incarnations, The Dead and Furthur, neither of which were bedazzled by all the hype.furthur_0This band, headlined by pop guitarist John Mayer who has nothing whatsoever to do with the music of the Grateful Dead, is a dubious path for Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and, if they are not careful, could lead to moments they might regret. bobby-bucket