The Final Dead Shows: Part One



John Mayer looking good.

Walking into a Dead & Company show is more or less how you imagine it would be: there are nearly forty thousand people converging on a baseball stadium wearing some of the worst outfits you have ever seen in your life. “This is really a lot of different types of white people, huh?” a first-time attendee said as we walked into the show at San Francisco’s Oracle Park (formerly AT&T Park, SBC Global Park, and PacBell Park.) On the street, a white guy with dreadlocks offered us mushrooms. Another white guy with dreadlocks held up a sign that said, “Cash, grass, or ass—I’ll take it all.” A friend, stunned by the famous Northern California fog, bought an ugly tie-dye sweatshirt at a makeshift stand outside the stadium for seventy-eight dollars.

It was the first night of a three-night run of the final shows for this iteration of the Grateful Dead—the last tour ever, the last shows ever, though, as everyone knows, the Grateful Dead has been ending for nearly twenty years. When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, everyone thought that was the end. In 2015, many of the original band members played a tour that was literally called “Fare Thee Well.” And yet, miraculously, it continued. But this time: Bob Weir is seventy-five, and John Mayer, the unlikely force behind this version of the band, has other things to get on to. At the very least, this is probably the last time they’ll ever sell out huge stadiums. So this was a major event that I had flown out from New York to see with five friends. I had been hearing for days that SFO was “like Bonnaroo for Deadheads.” On another friend’s flight in, the pilot told them they were flying over a wildfire in Colorado. “Wow, it’s literally ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ ” someone behind her said.

In line, everyone checked out the scene, craning their necks to see how good other people’s tie-dyes were. One guy was wearing a cape.

“Is that Andy Cohen?” someone asked.

“That’s Andy Cohen. We literally locked eyes.”

I didn’t see him, but we are all grateful for Andy Cohen’s support of the cause. Inside the stadium, the queue for tour merchandise snaked up flights of stairs, because everyone needs a T-shirt that says something like DEAD & CO., THE FINAL TOUR with an emblem of a rose or a dancing bear.

In another line, this one for beer, I stood behind some clean-cut guys in Dead & Company shirts from last summer. These are the kind of guys—nicknamed Co. Bros—that Mayer has brought into the fold. They were complaining about their friend Connor, who had recently gotten a girlfriend.

“He’ll text me, ‘hey wanna hang out, I’m not free for the next four weekends,’ ” one said.

“Connor got out of his MSG jam as soon as he started getting paid what he was worth,” the other lamented. (Presumably Connor is no longer going to Phish shows at Madison Square Garden, which is fair.)

A man selling beer out of an ice bucket was yelling, “Iced cold, ice cold,” in that universal baseball-game voice. “It’s my first Dead & Company show,” he said. “Interesting vibes.”

In our seats, waiting for the show to start—Dead & Co. shows are typically quite punctual, in part because they go on forever and probably also because the oldest band member is seventy-nine and the average age of the crowd is definitely above fifty—everyone was taking the same selfie: themselves and their friends against the backdrop of the stadium, which happens to be the same baseball stadium where I went when I was a kid in early-aughts San Francisco, in the heyday of waiting for Barry Bonds to break the record, before the steroids stuff. They started with “Not Fade Away.”

There can be a little game that happens when the band starts playing a song—everyone starts guessing which one it is. “ ‘Tennessee Jed!’ ” my friend exclaimed.

“No,” I said, “it’s ‘Ramble On Rose.’ ”

“Definitely ‘Tennessee Jed,’ ” another friend insisted, moments before the chorus of “Ramble On Rose” came on. I was right, and I certainly didn’t let anyone forget.

“I want to be a spinner,” my friend said, looking down at the part of the floor near the general admission section where women in long skirts were engaged in their perpetual whirl. “Society doesn’t really make a lot of room for spinners anymore,” our other friend said. We all agreed this was true, and a shame.

In line for the bathroom, three girls and I agreed that John Mayer was looking really good tonight. John Mayer is of course famous for being handsome, and good at guitar.

“Don’t re-dose before set break,” I heard a woman with a crown of roses in her hair warning her friend by the sink.

“Oh. I already did.”

Back in my seat, I looked up at the empty part of the stands, the seats that aren’t for sale, and saw one man who had somehow gotten up there dancing alone. He looked perfect.

“Let him cook!” someone yelled, as Oteil Burbridge—possibly the most talented musician in the band—came on the jumbotron during “Fire on the Mountain.” Oteil, like Mayer, is not an original member of the Grateful Dead but adds something arguably way better. Lo-fi graphics flashed across the screen, Oteil’s face consumed  in a graphic design version of flames. “Need more Oteil time,” the guy next to me said, lighting a joint.

The songs went on and on, as they do. What is anyone doing while all this jamming is happening? They take up an astounding amount of time, some of these songs, and they do especially all added together, plus so much of it is pure instrumental noodling. Everyone is dancing a little bit, bobbing, but really they are having an extended, possibly endless, interior experience. Sometimes after an eighteen-minute version of “Eyes of the World” I find myself wondering (and I quote the Dead): “Where does the time go?”

Then “Drums” started and everyone around me went to pee or get a beer. (“Drums” and “Space,” for the unfamiliar, are a portion of every show that can really only be described as the longest instrumental noodling you have ever heard.)

“It’s so dumb to pee during Space,” a woman in a Boston Red Sox–Dead crossover shirt said, and everyone in the endless bathroom line agreed. But there really is no other time.

A friend and I bought four beers in large cups, and as we headed back to our seats, a woman knocked into me, spilling an entire beer on my shorts. “Oh my God, babe, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ll buy you another beer!” “It’s okay,” I said, even though it wasn’t totally okay, because my Birkenstock was now full of beer that had cost $16.75 and didn’t even come in a souvenir cup. A lot of people were watching this play out. I considered the karmic nature of spills, as I am always spilling on other people and myself, while we headed back to our seats. Two minutes later, the woman rushed down to my seat and handed me a twenty-dollar bill. Everyone around us cheered. I tried to refuse it, telling her it really was okay, but she said, “Use it for something else.”

“That’s what the Dead is all about!” said some of the old guys who had been watching nearby, and gave me a high-five. In my Notes app, I wrote, “the dead is so perfect :(”

The band launched into their dirge “He’s Gone.” The line “He’s gone, he’s gone, and nothing’s gonna bring him back”—is it possible to hear that without getting chills? I thought about my favorite live version of this song, which Weir dedicated to the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981. I marveled, as I often do, at the passage of time. I tried to say something about this to one of my friends, but it got lost in the noise. I then watched someone try to fit an entire package of Red Vines into the tiny back pocket of their jeans for what felt like five minutes.

The band made their usual move, from “China Cat Sunflower” into “I Know You Rider.” “Wow, is this the last ‘Rider’ ever?” someone asked. “Shut up,” said someone else, as everyone yelled, “I wish I were a headlight on a northbound train!” Then, even louder, “I’D SHINE MY LIGHT THROUGH THAT COOL COLORADO RAIN!” (Many people at Dead & Co. shows have spent significant time in Colorado, so that line always goes over well.)

Two of my friends, under the influence of psychedelic drugs, were passing back and forth a pair of small pink sunglasses for the majority of the night. Every time one of them put the sunglasses on, she would reexperience the amazing experience of wearing the sunglasses anew, oohing and aaahing. Finally, the man behind them—a gray-haired guy who had been swaying solo all night, sipping a beer—asked if he could “try the sunglasses.” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone more disappointed. “That’s it?” he asked. You really have to wonder what it was that he expected.


Sophie Haigney is The Paris Review‘s web editor.