It had been over 20 years since I'd been to a concert by any configuration of the Grateful Dead (I saw my very first Dead concert in 1971 in Scranton at the Catholic Youth Center, when I was all of 13), and Saturday I returned to the site of my last Dead concert, the Spectrum in Philly, to see the current band, The Dead, bid farewell to the oval cylinder sports arena. The Dead hold the record for concerts at the Spectrum, 55 in all. Bruce Springsteen's 32 appearances are a distance second place.
I am showing my age when I state that I wasn't prepared for the sheer giddy humanity of the tailgate-flea-market-Shakedown Street that arose in the parking lots around the Wachovia Center prior to the concert, but good friend John Hamada, who procured the tickets for the show, made sure we were in South Philly in plenty of time to drink in the atmosphere. And we drank well. John had brought a small cooler of Magic Hat and Saranac beers (a nice Saranac Irish Red was my choice for our initial leg stretching in the parking lot), as we ventured in and around the hundreds of merchants that scattered the grounds.
What a familiarly aromatic place.
Impromptu tailgaters were grilling (and selling) burgers and hot dogs, and LOTS of grilled cheese, and almost everyone had coolers of beer for sale. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was the dominant label in the majority of coolers, but Newcastle, Saranac, Blue Moon, Yuengling, Sam Adams and Dogfish Head were also plentiful. There were some tasty discoveries too: New Belgium Fat Tire from Ft. Collins, CO and Four + Brewing's Wildfire Extra Pale Ale from Salt Lake City, UT showed up in a couple of coolers. At $3 a bottle, John and I scooped up a few as soon as I spotted them. The Wildfire, made with organic malts, was really tasty, with a nice hoppy bite. Went great with a few slices of local Celebre's pizza, which was being sold by several enterprising young men from Baltimore who had procured 30 pies from the pizzeria a few blocks away and were selling them under the sign, "Pizzas For Peace", promising that 10% of their proceeds would be donated to peace-promoting causes. Indeed.
Lots of clever t-shirts, endless tie-dyed stuff (snagged some tie-dyed overall shorts for Sophie and a snazzy diamond print t-shirt for Ben) and paraphernalia aplenty, along with over fifty locations where folks were loading up balloons with nitrous oxide.
But some of the food here was pretty damn good: homemade French bread pizza that puts that Stouffers stuff to utter shame (not really hard to do, but this stuff was terrific); a whole wheat wrap filled with hot, herby felafel, harissa and wild picked greens that may be the best felafel sammie I've ever had, served up by a non-stop dancing chef that gave new meaning to the term "kitchen choreography". Every manner of wrap was available here: veggie, vegan,pork, chicken, fruit, turkey, you name it. John grabbed a huge grilled chicken number with feta, aioli and greens that was an explosion of flavors. We snacked on a lot of stuff in just under 3 hours of roaming, fueled by several beers and the undeniable contact high of the place.
Concert started pretty close to on-time (7:40!) and the Dead began the night with "One More Saturday Night". Pandemonium at a sold-out Spectrum.
The first set was about 90 min. with an intermission and some "Space-Drums" play with Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman. John took a power nap during the break (an entrenched devotee, he went to the Dead show the night before as well) I checked e-mail and Twittered a bit. Balloons bounced everywhere. After about 40 min. the band re-assembled, and though I'm not really trying to nit-pick, they just didn't seem to have the energy of previous Dead concerts. Lots of extended solos and jams, maybe just a few too many. And Warren Haynes is a good guitarist, but he's just not Garcia.
The concert wound its way down near midnight. Bassist Phil Lesh finally acknowledged and adressed the audience, spoke about and urged organ donation. And finally, the encore: "Samson and Delilah", showing the Dead's awareness of their place in the Spectrum's history, and their legendary status as its final concert. The packed house sang along for most of the song, especially the chorus
"If I had my way,
If I had my way,
If I had my way,
I would tear this old building down."