The 8th Annual Grateful Dead Meet-Up at the Movies was thankfully more about musicianship than marketing. Pre-show publicity hinted at preview of a forthcoming vault release, Pacific Northwest ’73–’74: Believe It If You Need It, but only a short snippet concerning the vault release, hosted by archivist David Lemieux, was tacked on at the end of the main feature. That programming didn’t render any less annoying the repeated cycle of trivia about the band shown prior to the concert film itself, but the sequence was hardly so overbearing as that of last year’s occasion (more or less an extended commercial for the archive box Robert F. Kennedy Stadium July 12 & 13, 1989).
In decided contrast to the unreleased Sullivan Stadium footage featured two years ago, this 2018 occasion thus constituted not only the third excerpt in a row from that same summer tour–a complete concert from the final function at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia (7/7/89)– but presentation of content which in fact had been released by Rhino Records on CD and DVD in 2010 as Crimson White & Indigo (long out-of-print, soon-to-be re-released?). Video clips circulated on-line prior to the occasion referenced restoration and remastering of the video and audio, but whatever technical expertise had been brought to bear (as noted in the final credits), it was all for naught at Vermont’s Palace 9: the excessively high volume exhibited little if any balance of high and low registers, much less any audio separation to speak of besides nominal stereo.
That said, the energy and pacing of the performance rendered moot that shortfall, even as it also justified the ‘re-run’ and, by further extension, suggested the decision was implicit acknowledgment of the late Brent Mydland’s varied and energized contributions to the Grateful Dead. As clearly depicted in the aforementioned films (and other prior releases including Truckin’ Up to Buffalo), the band was in fine form on this road trip and there’s no underestimating the positive effect of the hirsute keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter had on his bandmates, particularly Jerry Garcia: it’s no coincidence the two were positioned next to each other on stage.
Whether singing or soloing, and just as often when playing rhythm while others were in the spotlight, the titular leader of the group looked and acted animated throughout the two sets, near three hours total, but never more so than when Mydland energetically commanded the stage, as well as the crowd, at the end of the first set on a lengthy rendition of his own tune, “Blow Away;” his lusty vocal improv had the cramped occupants of the stadium floor swaying and the camera caught Garcia in similarly rhapsodic throes, just one of a number of instances where the bespectacled musician grinned wide and long in admiration of his younger comrade.
Watching such footage of their interactions was more than enough to prompt thoughts of ‘what if’ about the latter-day history of the Grateful Dead. And, as filmed by Len Dell’Amico, the whole of the concert was a well-paced affair, including Bob Dylan tunes and blues, plus a selected extended improv on “Let It Grow” through segments of “Drums” and “Rhythm Devils,” then on to an expansive, rousing conclusion comprised of “The Other One,” “Wharf Rat” and “Turn On Your Love Light” (which Brent Mydland might surely have sung with more credible gusto than Bob Weir).
The sole exception to that inexorable momentum was Phil Lesh’s static run-through of “Box of Rain.” The bassist’s lead vocal turn was the only number of the night not afforded near-instant applause by the fifty or so attendees in this theater in the Green Mountains and, not surprisingly, the audience in the City of Brotherly Love thirty-one years ago cheered when Weir, Garcia and Mydland’s additional harmonies camouflaged their bandmate’s wavering voice. But, sequenced as it was at the beginning of the second set, the pain of that moment had dissipated by the time Garcia offered an ever-so-tender rendition of “Standing On the Moon:” radiating a combination of vulnerability and devotion, the still of those moments constituted an appropriately bittersweet memory of the man, perfectly apropos of the scheduling of this event on the day he was born.
With attendance relegated to a single room in this South Burlington multi-plex–no separate room with access to beer this year!–it’s difficult to discern incremental growth of interest in this yearly occasion. But the good-natured air around the 2018 Grateful Dead Meet-up at the Movies was in keeping with that of the band’s community at large, making it just another remarkable manifestation of affectionate loyalty to this group that created such an all-encompassing world unto itself, not to mention the man who served as their figurehead. It was no surprise that, when an image of a young, beaming Garcia flashed on the screen at one point early in the evening, a voice immediately rang out: “We love you Jerry—Happy Birthday!”