Dead & Company fans twirled on the floor of Citi Field in New York in June. The last shows on the band’s Final Tour are this weekend in San Francisco, where the Grateful Dead got its start.
The first time Albie Cullen said goodbye to the Grateful Dead was on Aug. 9, 1995.
A co-worker told Cullen, an attorney for a Boston-area music label, that Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s iconic lead guitarist, had died that day. Cullen had attended dozens of shows. He reveled in the Dead’s improvisational spirit, the way no two performances were alike: “When you saw the Stones a dozen times,” he explained recently, “it was pretty much the same show.”
Despite the Garcia news, Cullen kept his plans to see RatDog, a side project of Garcia’s bandmate Bob Weir, play a concert in Hampton Beach, N.H., that evening. Weir, a rhythm guitarist, told the crowd that Garcia — who at 53 suffered a fatal heart attack at a drug rehab facility — “proved that great music can make sad times better.” During an encore of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Cullen, 59, recalled, “There was not a dry eye.”
“Everybody kind of knew that was the end,” he added.
The Grateful Dead had replaced departed members before, but this was different. With his rootsy tenor, Santa-gone-gray beard and unmistakable plucking, Garcia had defined a touring juggernaut and its vibrant subculture, which had become synonymous with the ’60s. The band’s four surviving original members agreed they would never use the name “Grateful Dead” without Garcia.
But the Dead did not die. The next year, several members participated in a tour. They maintained side projects that mainly played Dead songs. Different permutations toured together — as the Other Ones, as Furthur, as the adjective-less the Dead.
Finally, in 2015, the band staged another goodbye, playing five shows with Phish’s Trey Anastasio on lead guitar. The mini tour was called Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead.
That adieu, too, did not take. That fall, Weir and the Dead’s original drummers, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, assembled a new act, Dead & Company, with the keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, the bassist Oteil Burbridge and the lead guitarist John Mayer (yes, that John Mayer).
A funny thing happened as this new band wound its way across the United States: The Dead became a cultural touchstone again. Dead & Company attracted a new crop of younger fans, as did tribute bands like Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Last August, the Dead had its largest week of record sales in 35 years, according to its publisher; in February, it won its first Grammy. Between 2012 and 2022, U.S. streams of Dead songs increased at nearly double the rate of the Rolling Stones, according to the tracking service Luminate.
The Dead had found its moment again.
“This could sound wildly corny, but I don’t care: The community of the Dead is a necessary community in a year like 2023,” said Bethany Cosentino, 36, of the indie rock band Best Coast. She became a fan just a few years ago thanks to her “Gen X boyfriend.”
“There’s a real ethos of joy to be in a room with a bunch of people who are just connecting to music in their own way but having this communal, collective experience,” she added.
Cullen said the Deadheads have taken note: “I joke with my friends — they’re bigger now than they ever were.”
Now there is yet another farewell. After more than 200 shows, Dead & Company has sold out stadiums across the country with its so-called Final Tour. The run concludes this weekend with three shows at Oracle Park in San Francisco, the city where the Grateful Dead formed nearly 60 years ago.
“It’s a part of the life cycle. In life, there’s death,” Hart said in a video interview. “But it all depends on what you call death. Because there’s life after death — in music, anyway.”
Bands led by Weir, the original Dead bassist Phil Lesh and Kreutzmann (who was replaced for this tour by Jay Lane) all have concerts scheduled in the next couple of months. Hart allowed for the possibility of a future for Dead & Company, while confirming this was its last tour.
“The music’s never going to go anywhere — and one of the brilliant things about the music is there are thousands of concerts we all have access to,” said Andy Cohen, the Bravo host and executive producer who has been a Dead fan since high school. “But the communal feeling of all of us being at Citi Field together and enjoying two banger shows,” he added, “that’s something I don’t envision we’re going to get again.”
We are, it seems, always saying goodbye to the Grateful Dead. But Weir and Mayer warned fans not to expect a eulogy.
“I think everyone’s had enough loss in their life to go to San Francisco and have this be funereal,” Mayer said.
“I’m dead-set against that happening,” Weir added. “I’ll be stir-fried if I’m going to let that happen.”
Mayer continued: “If I had my wish, it would be for people to say goodbye to Dead & Company without the pain of goodbye.”
THE PROMOTER PETER SHAPIRO, who owns the jam band redoubts Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y., and promoted the Fare Thee Well shows, observed that the true volume of people who would pay to see the Grateful Dead — a band that stopped touring the year before Ticketmaster sold its first ticket over the Internet — wasn’t revealed until 2015, when Dead fans broke the site’s record for most buyers in a queue.
Ticket sales for the five concerts that year — two at Levi’s Stadium near San Francisco and three at Chicago’s Soldier Field — brought in $40 million. Nearly 71,000 people attended each Chicago show; many more viewed theatrical and pay-per-view simulcasts.
“Fare Thee Well was supposed to be an ending,” Shapiro said, “and it was a new beginning.”
Mayer was secreted away during the Chicago shows, already a planned addition. He had met Weir and Hart through Don Was, the producer and record executive. Mayer gushed to them about the Dead’s music, which he came to well after his formative listening years; he compared it in a recent interview to “cilantro, if all I’ve been eating is meat and potatoes.”
Hart had been only glancingly familiar with Mayer’s music, but knew he was an excellent guitarist. “On our stage, he’s not a pop star or anything like that,” Hart said. “He has so much respect for the Grateful Dead — I have much respect for him for that. He treated the music like his own.”
While some purists grumbled at Mayer’s inclusion (as, indeed, some grumbled about the Fare Thee Well shows), most fans “made a decision,” said Dennis McNally, a former Grateful Dead spokesman and biographer, “that they were not in love with ‘the band’ — the people — they were in love with the music, and that it was to some extent a matter of taste regarding who was playing it. That it was its own genre, almost like jazz or blues.”
While many classic rock artists spawned cover acts, a website dedicated to Grateful Dead tribute bands has more than 600 groups in its database, 100 to 150 of which, its proprietors estimate, are active.
Some Dead tribute acts are straightforward and quite popular, like Dark Star Orchestra, which recreates specific Dead concerts by set list. Others employ the Dead’s music as a jumping-off point. There is a jazz band and an Afrobeat one. Brown Eyed Women is all female. Warlocks of Tokyo sing in Japanese.
The electronic artist LP Giobbi, a Millennial daughter of Deadheads, uses sonic loops and stems over house beats to create what she calls Dead House. “I am blown away by how many ravers I meet who are also Deadheads,” said the artist, who played at after-parties following many concerts on this Dead & Company tour.
The uniqueness of each Dead performance is crucial to the music’s lasting appeal. Al Franken, the author, former senator and longtime fan who once opened for the band, recently caught up with friends who had seen Dead & Company outside St. Louis. “I asked what they played, and I was striking out. ‘Did they do “China Cat Sunflower”?’ ‘No.’ This is a big, big body of music. You can go to four nights in a row and basically not hear the same tune. And they play things differently all the time.”
The Dead’s eclectic songbook comes out of rock, folk, blues, country and bluegrass; its lyrics, many by Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow, tend to be ambiguous yet buoyant (“strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand,” “wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world,” “what a long strange trip it’s been”).
“The thing about this music is it doesn’t take place at home — no one’s home. People are trying to get home,” Mayer said.
“There’s something about the fantasy of transience for people who don’t necessarily have it in their lives, like myself,” he added. “The fantasy of the perpetual searcher, the person with the knapsack who can sleep on couch after couch. Most people who go to Dead concerts don’t necessarily live that life, but aspire to spiritually have this devil-may-care attitude.”
Trey Pierce, 20, began discovering the Dead in middle school via CD boxed sets, DVDs and the Internet Archive, which hosts free tapers’ recordings of Grateful Dead shows. Now he is a die-hard who drove for hours from St. Lawrence University in northern New York to see Phil Lesh and Friends perform in March outside New York City.
“That’s what’s gotten me through much of my life,” he said. “Any weird stuff I’ve had going on, challenges I’ve had, it’s been relating to those lyrics and Jerry” — who died eight years before Pierce was born — “belting into my soul.”
IN A PARKING LOT across from Citi Field in Queens before the second of two Dead & Company shows last month, car stereos blasted recordings of live Dead as the subway clacked over the elevated lines. Vendors hawked T-shirts, jewelry, fresh cooked food and less licit fare. Erin Cadigan, who specified that she had seen 72 Dead shows “with Jerry,” performed tarot readings on a licensed, Grateful Dead-themed tarot deck she created with a partner.
The tour has tended to be well reviewed by fans. “Closest thing to the original I’ve seen,” Cullen wrote in a text message after leaving Fenway Park in Boston last month. “Ironically it’s ending just as they seemed to have figured it out.”
Mariah Napoli, 45, a self-described “second-generation” Deadhead, said she had seen on this tour “a lot more people crying the last two songs than you usually do.”
She added, “I’ve been doing it so long, I don’t see myself stopping until they’re all dead. At that point, it’ll be time for me to hunker down and start to grow older.”
Why do we keep saying goodbye to the Grateful Dead … then welcome them back, and then do it again?
“The Buddhists believe that knowing every minute you’re going to die is what makes life so precious,” said Elena Lister, a New York-based psychiatrist and grief specialist. “If you know you’re going to lose something of any sort, you treasure it all the more while you have it. If you deny it, you miss that opportunity.”
Dustin Grella, 52, a professor of animation at Queens College, has a more dramatic Dead story than most. In the spring and summer of 1995 he was following the Grateful Dead on what would turn out to be its last tour. But he missed the final two concerts at Soldier Field after he sustained an injury to his spinal cord when a porch collapsed at a campground outside a show near St. Louis.
“When you’re experiencing that kind of trauma,” Grella said of the recovery period, “you want just to go back to normal. For me, that was being a touring Deadhead.”
In 2015, he saw in the Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago a chance for closure — “my opportunity,” he said, “to make peace with the Dead.”
But that did not mean he would miss another occasion to say goodbye. For Dead & Company’s final tour, Grella and a friend bought a used Kentucky school bus, attached panels to both sides and covered them in chalkboard paint. Grella, who uses a wheelchair, parked the bus in the lot, put chalk out and encouraged passers-by to add their own designs. He had begun the spontaneous artwork by etching a lyric from “Scarlet Begonias”: “Once in a while you get shown the light/In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”