“Always a Hoot!”

— Jerry Garcia’s parting words to Bob Weir after the final Grateful Dead concert

We last saw our intrepid hero heading up to Boulder, veering eastward on a known shunpike northward. Pleasantly uneventful, that drive took more time than the straight shot up I-25 but I still managed to get there just after noon, plenty of time for a snack and a nap. I was staying with my old friend, Joanna, and her husband, Ken, who would drive us to the show. I once again parked the car until time to drive home just like our most recent trip to Boulder.

I would’ve been planning to stay with Joanna anyway, but when I touched base with her about getting tickets, we discovered that we had coincidentally bought seats right next to each other. That is, despite each of us buying a separate batch of 4 tickets from different locations, she and I both got tickets on row 41. She had seats 58-61 and I had 62-65.

Some say there are no coincidences. I’ve heard it said coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous. Sweet coincidence, anyway, and then when my usual running buddy, Albert, couldn’t make the show after all, I had 3 high-demand tickets I was able to offer to her friends.

Up till now, every trip I have taken to Red Rocks seemed like a pilgrimage to a religious shrine. It never once took on the feeling of going to a regular show. From getting the high-demand tickets to making it to the venue itself, it took on aspects of a grand quest, rewarded by a transcendent concert experience. It’s not that this time wasn’t that, but once I handed myself over to my hosts, I was in the hands of seasoned veterans of dozens of Red Rocks shows of every kind. To attend with well-practiced fans who know their own pre-game protocol was great. They headed for a parking spot I remembered seeing when Albert & I were there in June, a rock overhang just a short walk from the top of the venue.

After backing cars into one of the few parking spaces there, you still have room behind the vehicle to set up chairs, coolers, and relax before showtime. With reserved seats, we were able to hang out there longer than most other folks striving to get the best general admission seats. So, we kicked back and noshed on cheese, salami, pasta salad, green salad, chips, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and other delights while sipping wine, beer and homemade margaritas. Yes, we did quite well with the pre-show proceedings.

Being with a group of 8 people at a Dead show is rather unusual for me, and sometimes makes me feel fully included and sometimes makes me feel like I’m just outside the bubble of familiarity. I’m often nearly silent throughout a whole show while many others chat or comment. I guess sometimes I look mildly antisocial but really I’m just really into the music. Hanging with this group was great, though. I could overhear some chatter from a couple of the guys and Joanna likes to guess what song they’ll play next. Me, too, somewhat, but I can usually only do that at the split second I catch a final musical tease before everyone recognizes the song.

Sitting on row 41, we were near the top of the reserved seating, and those Red Rocks seat assignments really fit about 85% of your width, so it can be a cozy fit. Being in a group helps moderate any crowding and we did well all evening long, never really getting crowded or overwhelmed. Even as the full moon cracked the horizon early in the first set, we were still comfortably able to enjoy the show.

As to the music, well, I’m no music critic and I embrace the saying, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Let’s just say that with founding Dead drummer, Billy Kreutzmann, out with a minor illness for the evening (“Not COVID!” they announced), the line-up changed up again a little, with Ratdog/Wolf Brothers drummer Jay Lane sitting beside Mickey Hart on the dual drums, so the music never stopped. They didn’t play that song that night, but it felt more like a continuation of the thread of the music than a disruption.

Now, I am usually not one to call out favorites from a show. Often, I simply say my favorite Dead song is the last one I heard. This show contained many highlights and I loved them all. For me, the 1st set sweet spots included a bluesy “Black-Throated Wind,” followed by a quick & punchy, “Mr. Charlie.” Closing out with “Bird Song,” they flew that one out into open space where we all nearly got lost before they brought us back to earth for a short set break.

The 2nd set continued apace, opening with “Playing in the Band,” an open-ended lead-in for a set. My favorite from that set was a jazzy intro that sneakily slipped us into “All Along the Watchtower.” As is the band’s wont, they later reprised the set opener, “Playing in the Band” and further reprised the opener from the first night, “Not Fade Away.” I love how they use tunes as parentheses like that. With the full moon high above the beautiful amphitheater by now, “Standing on the Moon” was a predictable choice — and predictably powerful. Closing out with an encore singalong of “Ripple,” they sent us off into the chilly night, our bodies and souls warmed by dancing and blissful camaraderie.

All in all, the evening reminded me a great deal of a song Jerry Garcia used to play with some of his side bands, written by legendary New Orleans composer, Allen Toussaint:

“I’ll take a melody and see
What I can do about it.
I’ll take a simple C to G
And feel brand new about it.”

With a half a hundred years performing some of these songs, the Dead — in whatever configuration they reappear in now and in the future — still bring a new sensibility, joy, and playfulness to each of these songs every night. That is the power of truly great music lovingly played by talented musicians. It remains unchangingly the same while forever shifting shape at every stage. If that sentence is not highly descriptive, I’m sorry. The magic involved in pulling it off really is rather indescribable.

My westward shunpike home the next day included a marvelous final hour of driving with no one else going my way, either in front of me or behind me. It felt so much like a “new car ad” road — rolling open spaces with autumn leaves in the distance with no traffic visible anywhere — that I nearly expected our old car to morph into a new car. That uncrowded drive continued straight onto US 50 and eastward into town. I only encountered traffic at 5th and Royal Gorge Blvd. and then I was home within 5 minutes, unpacking and relaxing.

Right again, Jerry: “Always a hoot!”

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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