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I can't complain but sometimes I still do

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Night Of The Living Dead

On Friday I did something I never thought I was capable of. Did I kill a man in cold blood? Sadly, no. Did I perform fellatio on a golden retriever? Not exactly. Did I attend a concert by a Grateful Dead tribute band? You betcha!

In my defense, I didn’t pay for my ticket—I was put on a guest list as part of an Onion promotion. Also, I became a Dead fan in the past year, which I say not in my defense (because I’m not sure it can be defended) but because it’s probably pertinent to the case at hand. I have been analyzing my recent about-face on The Dead, a band I was taught (inexplicably, in retrospect) to hate from my earliest days as a music fan, and have come up with three reasons:

1) I like live albums, and nobody has more live albums than The Dead. Of the half-dozen or so Dead albums I currently own, only one is a studio record (Aoxomoxo) and I never listen to it. (I play it so infrequently that I’m sure I spelt it incorrectly just now.) The others are Dick’s Picks releases or boots downloaded off archive.org. The thing I like most about The Dead is that lazy Dead shuffle--not quite blues, country, or jazz but a stoned amalgamation of the three, it’s precisely the perfect rhythm for sitting and doing absolutely nothing. (Which is why I’m not listening to The Dead right now because I wouldn’t have the fortitude to type.) It’s hard to reproduce well-rehearsed laziness in the studio, so Dead albums (at least the ones I’ve heard) sound mealy. I used to think The Dead wasn’t a good rock band, and now that I like them my opinion hasn’t changed—they rock like a Jimmy Buffet tribute band whenever they cover Chuck Berry. But when they mosey into that do-nothing Dead groove for 10 minutes on “Row Jimmy,” it makes me lay on the couch and wish it was grass. The Dead non-rocks like a bastard.

2) Size matters. I like double albums, triple albums, the ever-elusive quadruple album. (Chicago At Carnegie Hall is the only one I know of.) I like discographies overflowing with LPs, EPs, 7-inches, singles, unreleased tracks. I’m a Guided By Voices fan, for crying out loud. (They call GBV the Grateful Dead of beer, so there you go.) You listen to enough music and you start digging in unexpected places for something new. It’s like the explorers with the Americas. I see undiscovered territory and I rush to conquer it. So here’s a band that releases four-disc live albums like Justin Timberlake puts out hit singles. Warn the natives, sharpen the spears, and burn me a copy of May 8, 1977 at Cornell University.

3) I like the music. There, I said it.

So this is how I ended up at Pabst Theater in Milwaukee for the Dark Star Orchestra, a Chicago-based tribute act providing a meticulously researched soundtrack for the undead fantasies of Deadheads. (Is that an anagram?) DSO has played 1,000-some shows in the past several years, and almost always re-creates an entire setlist from a past Dead show. (Sometimes it plays an “original” setlist composed of Dead covers chosen by the band.) DSO can do this because so many Dead shows have been taped; Dead fans, in turn, tape DSO shows and trade them, a copy of a copy. Sometimes DSO sounds better than The Dead.

Here’s the problem with seeing a Grateful Dead tribute band: The Dead didn’t move around much on stage, which means DSO doesn’t move much on stage, which means the only movement on stage is the hippie girl “singer” that keeps twirling in circles. And contrary to what you might assume, watching a hippie girl twirl in circles is actually really annoying.

Honestly, I wanted to bolt as soon as I walked in the door. Imagine every loud, dumb, drunken hippie that has bumped into you at every show you have ever been to—a faux-Dead show is like a convention for those people. They aren’t bad people. I’m just not one of them, which was more of a relief than a buzzkill, actually. Sure, I like the Dead, but I still find out white people with dreadlocks utterly revolting. I guess the next time I watch Gimme Shelter I’ll still be cheering for the Hell’s Angels.

The band, however, I thought was pretty good. But I think I like listening to Dead by myself.

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