February 11, 2010

Cornell Relives Its Past: Grateful Dead Return

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The Grateful Dead, although it began on the periphery of mainstream culture, has secured a place for itself as an iconic American band. This Sunday, members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh will return to Barton Hall, the site of one of their most famous performances in 1977, as part of a new band: Furthur.

Formed as the Warlocks in San Francisco in 1965, the Grateful Dead contributed much to the development of the psychedelic counterculture. At Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests throughout the Bay Area, the band found large audiences for its unique musical style, which combined elements of folk, bluegrass, pop and jazz. The band’s anti-authority message also resonated with young people who had been disillusioned with the goverment by the war in Vietnam. The Dead’s sound, along with the anarcho-communist views of Diggers and the psychoactive supplies of the Merry Pranksters, came to represent the era’s iconic lifestyle: living communally in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, partaking in large quantities of hallucinogenic drugs, practicing free love and following the maxim of “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out.”

After the decline of the hippie movement, the Dead continued to maintain a massive following. Incorporating aspects of the electronic “Space Rock” used by David Bowie and Pink Floyd allowed the band to keep up with the popular shift to progressive rock and hard rock that occurred over the course of the 1970s.

The band also encouraged fans to record their music, allowing more than 2,200 of their 2,350 performances to survive.

“The fact that they were not interested in producing singles, they were not interested in producing commercial music, made it so they were not well represented in industry-style products. Their albums are not really what they are all about,” said Prof. Judith Peraino, music. “They were much more about the live band: They encouraged bootleg recordings. They encouraged that sort of grassroots engagement with the music.”

Followers of the Grateful Dead, or “Deadheads,” exchanged bootleg-recordings of individual shows as a means of circulating the music. Highly dedicated fans used their tape collections as symbols of their dedication to the band, citing shows by their specific date or location.

A New York Times poll in 2009 placed the Dead’s performance at Barton as their greatest. Shortly after the release of their studio album Terrapin Station in 1977, the band performed at Spring Fling, the precursor to Slope Day. The band filled two sets with popular entries from its catalogue like “Morning Dew” and “St. Stephen” as well as their iconic improvisation.

“It had to be one of the pinnacles of your existence to see the kind of concert you did at Cornell,” said Patricia Garr ’79. “To hear that music, on key, with a million people just bouncing their heads up and down you thought you yourself: ‘Yeah I get it. There is nothing better than this.’”

Many fans made personal recordings that night. Sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson would frequently record personal stereo bootlegs from the soundboard, rather than through a microphone. These recordings, known as the “Betty Boards,” first went into circulation in 1987. Barton Hall, one of the first of these tapes, was heavily circulated among both Deadheads and casual listeners.

“I don’t mean to sound holier than though, or as we in the Deadhead community say ‘Dead-er than thou’, but a lot of the popularity and ranking of the Cornell show as the greatest thing ever comes from the mass popularity and easy of access to tapes of the shows in general,” said Noah Weiner, creator of DeadListening.com. “It’s like listening to a Beatles record you have worn thin: you know every song. It’s impossible not to recognize it.”

Like any event that has gained a large cult following, rumors and conspiracy theories have arisen concerning the famous Barton Hall tape.

“When the Internet was just starting to take over and large numbers of Deadheads were hanging out on the first online message boards, I can promise you that there were rumors and stories that the Barton Hall show never happened,” Weiner said. “Between that and the snow, there was always a certain mystic nature to the show.”

After the death of lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia in 1995, the band took a brief hiatus. It resumed touring in 1998 as The Other Ones, but later changed its name again to The Dead. The group toured on and off for the next eleven years with a revolving lineup of former members of the band and replacements, including Furthur keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. In September 2009, Weir, Lesh and Chimenti, joined by John Kadlecik, Jay Lane and Joe Russo, formed Furthur and began touring throughout the United States.

For many fans, the influence of the music is secondary to the community it helped create.

“If you’re of the ilk of a Deadhead, there is nothing that can quite compare to strolling into a concert scene and being surrounded by 20-50,000 people who are just like you,” Weiner said. “The weird community release, the comfort happiness, joy, is palpable and addictive as much as the music is.”

Furthur will be performing at Barton Hall at 7:30 pm on Sunday night.

Original Author: Evan Preminger