Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Dead: Facsimile or Reformation?

The Dead just announced a spring tour. Lots of excited chatter on the internets tubes. Then the prices were announced. Around $100 a ticket. Much grumbling ensued.

The reason for the exorbitant prices during a recession is that they are afraid. At the end of the band's thirty year run, things got ugly. The tour scene got out of hand, there were many more people at the venues than there were tickets, and at several places, most notably Deer Creek, it was bad. The idea here is clearly to make the price high enough that people will see the band once or twice, but discourage touring.

But it's also brought up something I've been thinking about for a while now. The Obama Dead/Allman Brothers show at Penn State ended with Playing In The Band->Dark Star->St. Stephen->Unbroken Chain->The Other One->Throwin' Stones->Playing -- a dream for anyone who loves the band. A series that would have made a show with Jerry legendary. Walking through the parking lot with YKW, I began to wonder, did we really see what we just saw? Yes, it is a question frequently asked in the parking lot after Dead shows, but I mean it in an ontological sense. Was that a Dead show or a facsimile of a Dead show?

After the band came back together for their first Obama concert in San Francisco, David Gans, host of the Grateful Dead Hour and author of the blog Cloud Surfing, wrote (I believe this is verbatim) "It was the best Grateful Dead music I've seen in a while," and I really was struck by the implicit distinction in there between "Grateful Dead music" and "Dead show."

But the real question -- and here's where the ticket prices brought it back up -- is what is it that we are we buying tickets for? After Pig Pen (the Dead's original frontman, singer, organ and harmonica player) died, it was still the same band, just a different incarnation. Lots of bands have had major personnel changes and stayed the same band. Roomful of Blues may be an extreme example on one end of the spectrum (they've had over 50 different players go through playing their wonderfully dancy jump blues) being perhaps more a collective than a band. Post-Pig Pen Dead and others bands like Black Sabbath, Van Halen, and AC/DC who replaced major figures on the other end, where they kept going and developed the music along a different path would offer a different species of band that reformed through personnel change.

But then there's the aborted Led Zeppelin tour. After their London gig, it was in the works. Then Plant backed out and Page, Jones, and Bonham Jr. considered going through with it anyway, but all agreed that it could not be billed as Led Zeppelin. Why is it ok to replace Bonham -- certainly a major part of the sound and mystique -- but not Plant? The answer I came up with (yes, I was recruited to write a piece for "Led Zep and Philosophy") is that in the cases of post-Pig GD and others, the bands were living, evolving, artistic entities, still seeking new fertile creative places. Led Zeppelin, on the contrary, was not reforming, but reuniting, that is, it was not bringing the band back to life trying to go new places beyond their old work, but creating a museum piece, trying to create a facsimile of a mid-70s Zeppelin show. The representational value of that facsimile requires Plant.

So, is this Dead tour a reforming or a reunion? The dream list of Penn State seems to say recreation not creation. The way they played, however, smelled of creation. Is it authentic, whatever that word means? It is Grateful Dead music in Gans' sense surely, but is it something more? By doubling the ticket price of a Ratdog or Phil and Friends show, is this an indication of reformation or a highly priced facsimile?