Grateful Dead

By Mark Clark

I have long maintained that it's virtually impossible to have a bad time at a Grateful Dead concert. Unfortunately, that theory was put to the test June 16, when the Dead played the second of two shows in Freedom Hall.

My reasoning had always been that even if the band is having an off night, the tie-dye-garbed, patchouli-scented Dead Heads offer ample entertainment by themselves. A Dead show is a people watchers' field day. On a more ethereal level, it's a trip back in time to a place in time that, if it ever really existed, vanished from the rest of the planet decades ago.

All that held true.

But an, at first, disinterested performance by the band and innumerable hassles from the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center threatened to overshadow those virtues.

Just into Freedom Hall was a considerable headache. There was a motorcycle club convention going on the same evening in the KFEC's West Wing. I can't think of a more abrasive event to coincide with a Dead show. Maybe a sermon by Pat Robertson.

Also that evening, the Redbirds were playing in Cardinal Stadium and Kentucky Kingdom was in full swing. As a result, parking at best, nightmarish at the fairgrounds was practically impossible.

Things didn't get any better once fans got in Freedom Hall. Security was tighter than I had ever seen it at the venue, especially so for males with shoulder-length hair. It was a continual test of wills between the Dead Heads, who wanted to dance in the aisles, and security guards, bent on keeping fans out of the aisles and preferably in their seats.

When the band encored with "I Fought the Law,"the song seemed uncannily appropriate.

Alas, such moments from the band were almost as rare as a parking space. The group meandered through a listless opening set, highlighted only by "Ramble On Rose,"one of only two well known originals on the evening's play list.

The Dead's aversion to playing popular favorites is legendary (write home if you catch them playing "Casey Jones"or "Touch of Gray"), but its song selections June 16 were particularly odd. Even most Dead Heads had trouble getting into tunes like "Eternity"and "Corina."

Things did liven up, however, with the band's second set. Opening with "Foolish Heart"(the only other "hit"), the Dead seemed invigorated. Jerry Garcia was especially sharp.

Garcia looks rougher than ever these days. He's more Touch of Brunette than Touch of Gray, and what hair he has appears to be falling out. But if he's not ageless, he is at least timeless.

His trademark vocals brittle, evocative are as beautiful as ever, and few guitarists alive can approach his mastery. He proved both those points with a heartrending version of "Stella Blue."

Other highlights included Bob Wier's vocal gymnastics on a cover of WHO'S?? "Good Love"and a particularly cosmic rendition of "Space."

Fans seemed to relish even the subpar numbers. There was more dancing, per capita, at this show than a dozen other rock shows combined.

There appear to be two distinct schools of Dead Head dancing, by the way. The most popular style is a head-shaking, hip-swiveling, shoulder-dipping motion. Dancers appear to be swimming to the surface from the bottom of a deep pool. The other type, generally confined to halls, concourses and roomier areas, is an equilibrium-taxing and apparently endless pirouette, executed with the head thrown back against the shoulder blades and both arms flailing. Swan Lake on acid.

Final analysis: I still think it's impossible to have a bad time at a Grateful Dead concert. But it's easier to have a good time at some shows than at others.