Frontman Jerry Garcia has been gone for 15 years, but fan infatuation lives on for the Grateful Dead
Seating capacity in the Taj Mahal’s Mark G. Etess arena is around 5,000, but that figure could have been doubled and last Saturday night’s (Feb. 27) show still would likely have sold out soon after tickets went on sale.
Demand definitely exceeded supply for hordes of Grateful Dead fans seeking to gain entry to a concert featuring two of the Dead’s most prominent and persevering surviving members — Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Hours before the event, which was enhanced by an all-day art exhibit displaying the work of the Dead’s late, legendary lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, “Deadheads” from far and wide combed the casino’s corridors looking for extra tickets. The vast majority came up empty. Some sufficed to sort of camp out close enough to the arena’s doors during the performance to at least hear some of the band’s set list, and you could not help notice a few of the more festively adorned fans drawing glances from persnickety passers-by that suggested “Who are these freaks?”
Bassist Lesh and rhythm guitarist Weir have surrounded themselves with some sensational musicians that make even the most discerning Grateful Dead fans realize that this is as good as it gets without Garcia. Saturday’s event also showed that, without a shadow of a doubt, Deadheads did “Not Fade Away” with Garcia’s 1995 passing.
“They didn’t retire,” says Bill LeConey, who saw Saturday night’s show with his wife Linda. “They come out of the woodwork for things like this.”
The LeConeys’ first Grateful Dead experience was nearly 29 years ago — on March 7, 1981, at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House — and the two have since seen scores of others. Some of Saturday’s attendees were barely born before Garcia died, but were enlightened to the music by their forebearers. Such was the case with Zach Steinberg, who was seeing the show with his father, Mark, and two friends from Southern Regional High School, Ian Dorgan and Zach Dugan.
“I saw them all through the 1980s,” says Mark Steinberg. “Then I had a family which sort of put a halt to a lot of concert-going for a while, but now my first born is old enough to enjoy it and completely into the scene, and quite a musician himself.”
Steinberg said he had some early apprehension about the Grateful Dead’s popularity as the foremost American improvisational or “jam” band persevering past Garcia’s passing.
“Believe it or not, it was a worry,” he says. “While there were other jam bands coming on the scene, it wasn’t the same as the Grateful Dead. And all the surviving members seemed to lay low for a while after Jerry passed. Mickey Hart [one of the drummers] came out with the first studio recording, it was rumored that Phil was finishing a symphony that he was working on, and Billy [Kruetzmann, the Dead’s other drummer] moved to Hawaii and was playing in a band called Backbone, so we knew they were all staying active. But whether they would tour again — or even whether they could, really — remained a question for quite a while.”
Gary Post came up from Williamsburg, Va., with friend John Gibbons hoping to score a couple of show tickets. About an hour before its start Saturday they were still empty handed, but making the most of it.
“I’ve seen the Grateful Dead or affiliated bands about 45 times,” says Post. “I knew someone was going to carry the ball [after Jerry died], but even after [the touring] ends their music will live on forever. What I was hoping would happen was video footage or a hologram of Jerry always on stage during concerts.”
Garry Engel is the rhythm guitarist for a Grateful Dead cover band called Steal Your Face that performed at the Furthur after-party at the Taj’s Hard Rock Café. He is also the exhibit coordinator for the Jerry Garcia Art Exhibit.
“My guitar teacher first turned me on to [the Dead] around 1969-70,” says Engel, a Huntingdon Valley, Pa. resident who estimates he’s seen the Grateful Dead about 200 times. “The first time I saw them was at Franklin and Marshall College [in Lancaster, Pa.] in 1971, and it made a believer out of me. It was a totally amazing experience.
“They always say it’s one thing to hear them on record and a totally different thing to see them in concert, and that’s completely accurate,” adds Engel. “They’re more of a live-audience band because you just never know what you’re going to get from show to show, and their fans love that. There’s a ton of improv going on, they have a ton of songs they’ve written and covered over the years, and the sets lists are never the same from show to show.”
Furthur’s lead guitarist is John Kadlecik, a former member of the tribute band Dark Star Orchestra that famously recreates Grateful Dead set lists exactly as they occurred on certain dates, cities and venues throughout the band’s 30-year history (1965-’95). His physical appearance is nothing like Garcia’s, but his voice and guitar skills are astoundingly similar.
“That’s a cool story in itself,” says Engel. “It’s almost like [the movie] Rock Star — one minute you’re playing in a Dead tribute band, and the next minute you’re actually playing with members of the Grateful Dead themselves.”
Furthur at Trump Taj Mahal’s
Mark G. Etess Arena, Sat., Feb. 27
Set 1: Passenger> Next Time You See Me> King Bee, Hell in a Bucket > Crazy Fingers> Cumberland Blues> Magnolia Mountain> Sugaree. Set 2: Lost Sailor> Saint of Circumstance> China Cat Sunflower> I know You Rider> The Wheel> Dark Star> Stella Blue> Unbroken Chain> One More Saturday Night
"I never set out to emulate Jerry Garcia. I set out, in the 1990s, to learn about music and how it was constructed, and I was playing in bands that played original music."
Plus the ACUA Earth Day celebration, the Album of the Week and Drew Toonz.
Atlantic City’s proximity to two of the biggest East Coast hotbeds for Deadheads, New York City and Philadelphia, is primarily why smallish casino concert venues can draw sizable crowds with relatively little publicity when bands like Bob Weir’s Ratdog or Phil Lesh’s Phil and Friends visit the resort. But when the two Grateful Dead legends teamed up to form Furthur in 2009, surrounding themselves with other virtuoso musicians and quickly honing a tight-knit sound, tickets got gobbled up at a breakneck pace. Finding a Furthur ticket on the day of last February’s show at the Taj Mahal’s roughly 5,000-seat Mark G. Etess Arena was as tough...
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