It was worth attending the 7th Annual Grateful Dead Meet Up at the Movies if only for the first twenty minutes. With Jerry Garcia beaming wide and often and Brent Mydland singing (and smiling) with as much gusto as he played, while drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart bounced along in tandem behind them;“Touch Of Grey,”,“New Minglewood Blues,”,“Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” were a collective harbinger of things to come. The duration of the near three hours of the film devoted to the Grateful Dead’s July 12, 1989 performance at RFK Stadium merely expounded upon those themes.
If the nationwide screenings offered by Fathom Events on August 1 (what would’ve been Garcia’s seventy-fifth birthday) now seem like nothing so much as a teaser for the release of the next mammoth box set—the announcement of which came the next day—hindsight in this case is a very pleasing 20/20. Much like the live concert tribute across town at Higher Ground in South Burlington, this film of the first of two shows in Washington DC featured a setlist peppered with moving choices of song, all of which the band rendered with spirit and aplomb.
Perhaps because of that very local event, there were less than fifty sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of the Palace 9 theater. But there couldn’t have been a more relaxed audience nor a more genuinely enthusiastic one: with increasing frequency and intensity (albeit respectful restraint)applause whoops and hollers rightfully arose as the show proceeded. Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux notes this summer tour as an early stage of a protracted period of consistently superior performances and it’s hard to argue otherwise, especially if you’ve seen and heard other such excerpts including Truckin’ Up to Buffalo, Crimson White & Indigo or 2016’s Meet Up showing from the old Sullivan Stadium in Boston.
All of those concerts reinforce the perception of Jerry Garcia’s singing, guitar playing and general demeanor as a rightful bellwether of that (greater or lesser) level of excellence. His long silver gray hair tied back in a ponytail, beard neatly trimmed and admittedly heavy in the body but not bloated to excess, the titular leader of the band sounded as good as he looked, with energy to spare on vocals even late in the set around “Eyes of the World.” And he exhibited no lack of ideas for solos like the one that cuts a swath through “I Need A Miracle.” He was even dancing during “Man Smart Woman Smarter!?”
And Garcia exchanges more than one nod of approval and knowing smile with Brent Mydland, the two purposely positioned next to each other on stage. The latter was only slightly less of a revelation than the titular leader of this band even if you’re conversant with how deeply the keyboardist/vocalist inspired the Dead in the decade he was a member (he passed away under tragic circumstances a little more than a year after this show). Reported accounts of Mydland’s low self-esteem disappear with all the delighted grins and animated body language as he sings and plays piano, synthesizer, clavinet, but most notably (and often) Hammond B3 organ; it is telling, however, those traits are less prominent during his self-composed “Far From Me” than his spotlight on “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
At that point, band seemed poised to engage in its usual segue to the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” from that Traffic tune, but instead took a quick, quiet turn into “Black Peter” from Workingman’s Dead. Along with the sole encore number, “Black Muddy River,” Jerry Garcia sung this number with a depth of feeling that signaled its personal meaning for him: together the two songs represented opposite ends of the emotional spectrum for a man that, just in recent years around the time of this concert, knew despair about living as directly as a will to survive.
Garcia and Mydland were not the only highlights of a film so ably directed by Len Dell’Amico, just the most striking ones. The director’s camera angles moved and meshed as fluidly as the musicianship. Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” for instance, was so comfortably within Phil Lesh’s vocal range, the bassist hit all the notes resoundingly as he took some humorous liberties with the lyrics (and Dell’Amico caught him dancing in his own inimitable fashion a couple times). Similarly, it was clear the interval of “Drums” tested Kreutzmann’s patience, not to mention endurance: he wasn’t exhorting Hart when he yelled out loud toward the resulting conclusion of this segment.
A stylized presentation the likes of which the Grateful Dead preferred since returning from their hiatus in the mid-Seventies, the ‘Space’ segment that followed was far less evocative than the more spontaneous improvisations involving the whole group. The one that arose during a deliciously slow version of “Friend of the Devil” was exactly just such an instance, largely because Garcia instantly picked up on the opening for a transition and led the ensuing jam.
And speaking of inclusivity, Bruce Hornsby’s sit-in on accordion, but even more so his seemingly impromptu turn as the piano, tickled Garcia no end. At this point, the audience that filled the floor (but curiously not the upper decks) of the stadium responded in kind, which is to say, like the one at the movies in Vermont, with equal parts affection and appreciation.