What images does that conjure for you? VW vans pulling up to the camping area? There were some. A sea of tie-dye-clad concertgoers? Yes. Burning sage and incense? Drum circles? Drugs? All of these things were here. But that's not the sum of the experience, they're the easy surface details, the things the uninitiated eye will notice.
Listening for the secret, Searching for the sound
The primary reason people were here (maybe - this deserves its own paragraph, dissecting the reasons people would attend a Dead show) was of course the music. Every night at 8pm, Furthur had a show scheduled. Friday night was a "sound check", and Saturday and Sunday were full shows. The sound check was its own show, a full set of songs. Why bill it as a sound check? I'm not sure, but the Dead has always had the attitude that their performances are the rehearsals, and vice-versa. You see, the special thing about jam bands, and the Grateful Dead in particular, is that the music is much more than just songs. This is key to understanding almost everything about the culture surrounding the band. A concert appearance is not like another bands' shows - there's not a set list, they don't play 'live' versions of their album hits and go home. The music, instead, is based around the Jam - long sections of improvisational harmony, bending and twisting the songs and the notes, responding to what the other musicians are doing so that they may respond to you in turn. The songs are starting points, almost literal leaping-off points for this musical group exploration.
And it's not just the jamming - the Dead had a fundamentally different way of playing music than most bands. The Dead's bass player, Phil Lesh (one of the members of Furthur) studied avant-garde classical music and free jazz as a trumpet player. He had never before played bass when he joined the Dead, thus he had no preconceptions about the role of the instrument. So he brought this wealth of out-there musical skills, in a melodic role, to a traditionally 'background' instrument. The difference this makes is amazing - as I'm listening to the first set on Saturday night I'm paying careful attention to the role of the bass, especially in the jams. It leads the way, often - sketching out the direction that the melody attempts to fill in behind - but the music is always moving, and the bass prances ahead, leaving the melody to tumble joyously in its wake, attempting to catch up. The mental image springing up is one of cats playing, leaping and tumbling with abandon but also with skillful, instinctual precision. It's interesting to note that after the death of Jerry Garcia and the dissolution of the Grateful Dead, Phil's solo project, Phil Lesh and Friends, was widely considered to be 'carrying the torch' of the Grateful Dead music forward. It's even more interesting to realize that Phil is the driving force behind the Furthur project, leading the way forward for his bandmates just as his playing often leads the music forward into the unknown future.
But back to the music. These jams are important, defining the very concept of the "jam band". They're somewhat a mystery to me, still, no matter how carefully I listen. The band is playing the song, and then one starts improvising - like a solo. But another will follow, playing off of that improvisation, and another and another, until all the band members are individually improvising with each other - and yet, somehow, they're still playing the same song. It's similar to the Ship of Theseus, where each individual part is replaced and yet somehow it's the same ship. Or maybe it's pulling the band up by their own bootstraps - however, it's very strange to listen to as they wander through the jam, playing nothing like the melody yet still playing the song. The music often changes, sometimes drastically, during these periods as well; sometimes this is a transition point between songs, where the music ascends into the clouds as one song and comes back down as another. "Scarlet Fire" is the Deadheads' name for one such common transition, the blend between "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire on the Mountain". Another common, more clumsily-named sequence is the three-song set of Help/Slip/Frank - "Help is On The Way" to "Slipknot" to "Franklin's Tower".
At other times, the music isn't changing to another song, just another rhythm or time signature. Sometimes these can feel initially jarring - like moving from a steady rhythmic dance to falling down the stairs - but then you realize that you've, in fact, pirouetted down the stairs, and downstairs is actually a pretty great place to be. Sometimes they return to the melody slowly and subtly, reintroducing it an element at a time until the song is back again, reconstructed under your nose like a magic trick. And then other times the jam ends suddenly with the exciting, crashing notes of the chorus returning.
Let my inspiration flow, In token lines, suggesting rhythm,
That will not forsake me, Till my tale is told and done
During the day at the Festival, when the band wasn't playing, there were some panel discussions with Grateful Dead Family members (this is part of the culture, part of the following - it's a big family, the band, the people associated with them, other musicians, promoters, personalities - even the fans are family, so you may be called "brother" by people you've never met, here). At one of these, Phil was talking about the Dead's first album and how challenging the process of creating it was for a live band. He said that the band considered its albums to be like commercials or movie trailers - a little taste to get you interested in the real show. The real show, the real music, includes the jams. Of course, you can record the shows (the tapers are one of the most famous aspects of Grateful Dead shows, freely allowed to record and share the music and even given their own section with their own tickets), jams included, but part of the reason that this band has been touring for something like 45 years now is that the songs are never the same, the music is always changing. Each "Scarlet Fire" is different from the last. The difference between the albums and the shows has never been more apparent than at the Festival, though, because here the band has made an interesting choice. They've announced that their setlist (and this is a controversial decision; the Dead are famous for never releasing a setlist. In fact, one favorite game of Deadheads is to try to guess what songs will be played, sometimes trying to figure out what the transitional jam will resolve itself into by reading the currents of notes like swirling tea leaves) will consist of full albums. Set 1 Saturday night will be American Beauty, set 2 Workingman's Dead and set 3 (Dead concerts are epically long, 6+ hours sometimes) will be Anthem of the Sun. Sunday will include Aoxomoxoa, Blues for Allah, and Terrapin Station. So this will be the perfect opportunity for anyone interested to compare the (relatively) short cuts of Grateful Dead album songs with the long jams of the concerts. (You can do this at home, assuming you have the albums - due to Furthur and the Dead's generous sharing policy, tapers' recordings of concerts are hosted at Archive.org). Of course, the difference is night and day - there are the normal live vs. recorded differences, the little hiccups and changes, the noise of the crowd - but there's also the jams, either far-out spacey jams or tight rocking, throbbing dance jams, and everything in between. And then there's the fact that the lineup might change depending on what Family members are around - fiddles, percussion, background singers, all sorts of other people are rotated in and out of the group during a show. Listening to a Dead song live is like descending into a fractal - the pattern is there, changing in precise ways as you go further in, but which branch you take changes each time. (I thought of this comparison to a fractal sitting there on the grass watching the concert, and when I got back I found this article, making a similar analogy.)
Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart
As important as the music is, though, it's not the whole story behind the Festival or the Grateful Dead in general. The band has long been known for its tours, including its touring fans. "Following the Dead" was actually a thing people did - to move with the band from tour stop to tour stop, attending each and every concert for a while. Because of this, the Festival, with its camping areas, is sort of only formalizing something that would happen anyway: people in tents, in campers, in vans and cars and out under the stars, "sleeping" each night and waiting for the next day's music. (I put sleeping in quotes because as far as I could observe, the camping area never had a time when it was free of activity - or even quiet.) The gathering of people, though - this is another, fully legitimate reason to come to a show, besides the music. There are people here willing to gather and share a community, to see others that they only see at shows like this, and to buy and sell various things, licit and illicit. At each show, there forms an area known as "Shakedown Street". On Shakedown Street, which is much more a metaphorical street than a literal place, you can purchase t-shirts, hand-drawn or painted posters or other artwork, photos from the band's history, handmade glasswork from pipes and sculptures to dreadlock and necklace beads, carved wooden things, knit hats and clothing, stickers and patches, tie-dyed shirts, pants, hats, blankets, and so forth (Shakedown Street is named, of course, after a song - there are any number of interesting facets of the Grateful Dead experience, and most of them have a name drawn from the band's countless lyrics). Most of this stuff is made entirely by fans, often handmade with a surprising amount of care and even more surprising amount of skill. None of it is officially licensed, of course, but the Dead and their fans have always had unspoken agreements like that - there won't be any lawyers showing up to an address on Shakedown Street, impounding "Stealie" artwork (Stealie is the Deadhead term for the distorted skull with lightning bolt icon, from the album artwork for "Steal Your Face", another song lyric).
Some come to laugh their past away, Some come to make it just one more day
The community is a huge part of why there are so many people at these things. Someone told me over the weekend that there had been something like 9,000 camping tickets sold, but 11,000 people showed up. Those extra people came probably hoping to get a free ticket at the gate (walking around with a finger held above their head, meaning "I need a miracle" - another lyric) or sneak in somehow. But they were willing to travel even if attendance wasn't assured, probably largely because they knew, regardless of anything else, that they would be among friends and Family here. There are even subcommunities within the larger community; as much as Grateful Dead shows are known for their drug associations, there's a group called the Wharf Rats (yep, lyric) that's sort of an AA/NA group for Deadheads - they come to the shows and help support each other in their sobriety, using the family and community and a shared love of the music to stay sober. People bring their children to these shows all the time - the shows are 'family friendly' in a way the Parent's Television Council couldn't possibly comprehend, with lots of bright colors, dancing, and a huge group of people willing and eager to watch out for your little ones and make sure they don't come to any harm. At the Festival there was a kid's play area, staffed by volunteers, and a children's parade led by the Merry Prankster and clown Wavy Gravy.
You who choose to lead must follow
All of this, the following, the community, the "family", the rampant symbols (I think the Dead have more symbols than any other band, between skulls, roses, dancing bears, turtles, lightning bolts, top hats, crows, and a few others - I saw one I hadn't seen before at this Festival, in fact: the palm-print of Jerry Garcia, missing his middle finger above the first knuckle) make the whole experience seem somewhat like a cult of some sort. And there is almost a religious aspect to the experience - certainly I think the community aspects of the shows fill a similar need to some of the the functions of an organized religion. It provides a group of people who will support you no matter your social standing, career, or almost anything else. People who will call you family, and will share things with you unasked or with little prompting, and help those in the community who have fallen on hard times. The metaphysical aspects of the 'cult', though, are a little less clear - there's lots of interesting views on the metaphysical among Deadheads, but nothing that would be described as "coherent". As a scientific rationalist, I generally tend to nod and smile when people tell me I'm channeling the ancestors, or when they give me crystals designed to strengthen some aspect of my spirit. There are some other mystical aspects to the experience, though - in the town in which I grew up, there was hidden on the ski mountain a small shrine to Jerry Garcia. And then of course there's the fact that the Dead and the psychedelic experience go hand-in-hand (the Dead started as the house band at Ken Kesey's first Acid Tests), and the psychedelic experience has always been described by participants as being heavily mystical. With Jerry as patron saint, blotter paper as sacred wafers, and drum circles as church potlucks, then, it's easy to see the Dead as a sort of secular religion, and these concerts and festivals as our periodic pilgrimages. For some, that's no doubt the draw, and why they might travel across the state or across the country to go to a Festival they might not even be able to get in to.
I'm there for the community, for the music, for the chance to sleep under the stars, and because this is the closest I can get to capturing the actual experience of the Grateful Dead - for I was a teenager when Jerry Garcia died, and I wasn't even a fan of the music at the time (I hadn't really heard it, which I suspect is fairly common). My appreciation grew later, and this festival is teaching me a lot about why people followed the Dead and devoted their existence for long periods of time to this experience. The thoughts that I had while listening to the music and enjoying the camp and surroundings I tried to crystallize down to this post - this isn't meant to be evangelism so much as an exposure of my personal experience and why I love this music.
A few notes I wanted to work in above but was unable to, despite the unending torrent of words I subjected you to:
The lyrics of the Grateful Dead are another difference from other bands - many can be read like poetry, and in fact Robert Hunter, one of the lyricists, has published a poetry volume of the songs he wrote for the Dead. cf Dark Star or Terrapin Station
The other primary lyricist for the Dead was John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Because of this I admire him greatly, although his lyrics tend to be less poetic, more political, and more conventional than Hunter's. Throwing Stones
Furthur is named after the bus that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters painted up to take their Acid Tests on the road. Its members besides Phil are Bob Weir, a guitarist for the Grateful Dead, John Kadlecik, the lead guitarist for the premier Grateful Dead tribute band (which is sort of a weird thing akin to the Doors touring with Val Kilmer as their frontman, but we're all family here, remember), and a few other members of various "family" bands and other musicians.