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Did We See The Grateful Dead, Or A Close Approximation?

By Casey Moffitt in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 6, 2015 4:45PM

Photo by: Casey Moffitt / Chicagoist

Heading to Soldier Field on Independence Day was this writer's first experience of going to see a Grateful Dead show. I was never a big fan of the band, but I'm no hater either. There are a lot of aspects of the Dead phenomenon that I can respect and admire, but they weren't enough to motivate me to go see or experience a show.

Since the band's last days were spent here in Chicago, I figured it was now or never to get a taste of what it was all about. But I was nagged by the feeling that I didn't know whether this was truly a Grateful Dead experience. Could I really call this a Grateful Dead show?

The debate raged on social media and other outlets. "No Jerry Garcia, no Grateful Dead," dissenters cried. Others just wanted to appreciate the surviving members' final performances and the musical legacy they'd left behind.

Photo by: Casey Moffitt / Chicagoist
Though I never saw a previous show, this looked like a gathering of Deadheads. Street vendors sold a variety of wares including glass pipes, T-shirts, beers, beads, crystals, natural cosmetics, water bongs, original artwork, cigarettes and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (but I didn't see any grilled cheese). There were the hacky sack players and street musicians and people in outrageous costumes.

However a lot of people I talked to said the scene was completely different.

"There's no camping," said John Swenger from Reading, Pennsylvania who said this was his 80th Dead show. "You could pitch a tent in the parking lot for five days and nobody cared. And they didn't put up all this fencing around the stadiums back then either."

It was the parking lot-turned-campgrounds where fans gathered before and after shows to swap stories, have a good time and meet new friends, he said, and was a big part of the Grateful Dead experience.

I tried to ask Mike Beers from Philadelphia how many Grateful Dead shows he had been to, and he gave a rather unusual answer.

"You can't ask a vague question like that," he said. "I mean, if you're counting Bob Weir and Ratdog shows and Phil Lesh shows and stuff like that, it's more than 100."

"No," I said. "I mean Grateful Dead shows. Capital 'G,' capital 'D.'"

"Oh, well, 20," he said.

Beers, however, had a cogent point about what had changed at the Chicago scene, and that's the fact there was no tour and therefore no fans following the band on the road.

"There's just the five shows in two cities and that's it," he said. "The circuit isn't there and you don't see people that you saw a few days ago in another town. You don't see some of the (unofficial) T-shirts and say, 'Oh yeah, I know where you got that one.'"

Photo by: Casey Moffitt / Chicagoist

Jerry Sklar traveled from Austin, Texas to attend his 21st Dead show since 1979, and said he was having a harder time finding drugs Saturday afternoon than at past shows.

"It's the drugs that I remember the most," he said without a hint of irony. "I don't really see any today."

"Well, maybe you're just not motivated to go looking for them anymore," I replied.

"You didn't have to look for them back then," he said. "It was just on you."

Photo by: Casey Moffitt / Chicagoist
Michael Kiernan, from New Jersey, said this was his 150th Dead show since 1978, and agreed with Sklar.

"Yeah, the drugs were definitely a big part of the whole scene," he said. "I haven't done those substances in a long time, and I'm not going to condone it or advocate for it. But it just was what it was at the time."

This writer didn't find anything too shocking when it came to drugs at the show. Pot was everywhere and people could be seen licking their baggies of cocaine clean. Balloons filled with nitrous oxide were being handed out all over the museum campus and along Roosevelt Road after the show. Of course, I wasn't in the market either.

O.K., so it seemed the consensus was that the experience of a Dead show was drastically different. But at then end of the night, could I say that I saw the Grateful Dead perform?

Jason Steudler from Pittsburg had tickets for all three shows, but sold his Saturday night ticket. "Expenses got deep, man," he explained. He said he had been to 21 Dead shows, but actually went inside and saw 13 performances.

"If you've got a ticket and you're going in there, then yeah you can say you saw the Dead," he argued. "People miss Jerry, but what are you going to say, other than, 'I'm sorry you didn't get to see Jerry.'"

"Actually people were being really rude about it last night," he continued. "I saw a guy down in the pit come up to like a 13-year-old kid and say, 'This isn't the Dead. You can't say you saw the Dead. You didn't see Jerry.' And I was like, who the hell are you to say something like that? I went up to the kid and said, 'Hey, don't listen to that guy.'"

Photo by: Casey Moffitt / Chicagoist

Jim O'Brien from East Providence, Rhode Island saw the show Friday night and argued that I can't say I saw the Dead. He wasn't rude about it and he took a moment to contemplate the question before answering.

"You know, the Grateful Dead just aren't complete without Jerry, but you're going to see a really good show," he said. "Jerry really was the heart and soul of the band."

I think Kiernan from Jersey had the best answer to my question when he said, "I think only you can answer that one."

"This is going to be as close as you're going to get," he said. "But I think Jerry's here. This is where he played his last show, and I think for sure he's here tonight."