Now in existence for nine years, the annual Grateful Dead Meet-Up at the Movies has on occasion functioned as a marketing tool for dead.net archival projects. For instance, the 2013 event featured the music documentary film Sunshine Daydream, subsequently released on CD, DVD and Blu-ray after the theatrical showings. Likewise, four years later, the Grateful Dead’s performance of July 1989 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. preceded the issue of a deceptively lavish box set.
The 2019 Meet-Up follows suit with those occasions in an overt commercial slant. Chief archivist David Lemieux appears in a short clip extolling the virtues of the film, as representative of that era of the band, further noting its recording as a component of the Giants Stadium 1987, 1989, 1991 set announced that very day (its various configurations available for pre-order then flashed on screen,). Lemieux’ unaffected passion for the music transcends the somewhat mercenary gesture and, at least to some degree, mitigates the insertion of his monologue prior to the main content (a preview of the vault release Pacific Northwest ’73–’74: Believe It If You Need It was tacked on at the end of the main feature last year).
Thankfully, this year’s programming also precluded annoying cycles of trivia about the band shown prior to the concert film itself. More importantly, the 2019 Meet-Up was also distinct from its predecessors as the very first global distribution through Trafalgar Releasing (who also handled the Trey Anastasio documentary Me And My Mind). Yet such entrepreneurial interests nevertheless remain something of an ironic gesture on behalf of a group that, for most of its thirty-year duration, took great pride in not actively pursuing careerist goals, at least to the detriment of its creative pursuits.
The Meet-Up movie itself, the Grateful Dead’s complete concert on June 17, 1991 at Giants Stadium, heightens a skeptical perspective all the more since it was held, as is usually the case, on August 1, the anniversary of the late Jerry Garcia’s birthday. During the course of the near-three hour of Len Dell’Amico film, the band makes a valiant (and largely successful) attempt to instill a fresh element of surprise into the musicianship and, as was so often the case during the course of Grateful Dead history, its titular bandleader is the bellwether of that effort.
Garcia’s appearance, body language and facial expression were striking, at least in comparison to the two previous features, both from 1989: at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin and Foxborough Stadium outside of Boston a lively Garcia cut a dashing figure, portly to be sure (though not so much as in 1991 shrouded in very loose-fitting attire), but neatly bearded and coiffed, his gray hair in a ponytail so that he resembled nothing so much as a pirate.
Two years later in East Rutherford, the gleam in his eyes has decidedly dimmed, a change directly proportional to the waning strength and increased hoarseness in his singing voice at times. The seemingly effortless surety of his guitar playing was missing as well: as with the setlist choices and rare segues, the exertion he expended may have equaled but did not surpass, the precision or novelty of its execution. All those endeavors were unquestionably deserving of the audience’s acclamation during the movie, yet the impact was as muted as the vocal and applause response; the hundred or so in attendance in the T-Rex Theater at Essex Cinemas in Vermont, seemed to pay no more attention to Jerry Garcia’s state of mind and body than to the opening ‘advertisement.’
Such a mixed impression, however, cannot undermine the courage he and the group exhibit in opening with “Eyes of the World.” Likewise laudable were the multiple teases of “Dark Star,” a jam emerging from the quietly stirring “China Doll” into a “Playin’ in the Band” reprise and the shared authority within the encore of “The Weight.” Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir was his usual irrepressible self, during Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and even more so on the formal show closer “Sugar Magnolia,” while double drummers Micky Hart and Bill Kreutzmann displayed no little glee as they swung in tandem, neatly syncopated their respective beats and alternated between acoustic and electric percussion during their “Drums” spotlight.
But as much as that somewhat truncated interval brought effective pacing to the show, so did some of the song selections hearken to stories of conflicting agendas within the Grateful Dead organization at that juncture of their career. In the wake of the commercial success of “Touch of Grey,” an upsurge in the group’s mainstream popularity led to difficulties on tour (some of which were serious enough to preclude visiting certain cities). Garcia’s reported ambivalence on these issues was elevated by his ongoing devotion to his solo endeavors, even as he sought to regain and maintain his health after slipping into a diabetic coma in 1986.
Thus, his direct reading here of “Ship of Fools” turns the tune into a pointed, if understated, commentary on those circumstances. A similar interpretation might also apply to this somewhat rare inclusion of “New Speedway Boogie:” a song originally composed in the wake of the 1969 Altamont concert debacle, it’s a litany of contradictions and paradoxes that might well sum up the Grateful Dead predicament of those times. And while that business/operation situation is not the only factor, strain is evident in Garcia’s demeanor as the concert unfolds, an image especially evident in closeups. It is true, though that, more than once, he also displays obvious delight in the judicious contributions of multi-instrumentalist Bruce Hornsby (toward the end of his days as ad hoc bandmember).
After the somewhat off-handed selections of “Loose Lucy” and the unintentionally-telling tone of “Might As Well” in the first set, the septet was floundering in New Jersey, that is, until Jerry becomes more fully engaged, a positive progression that continues throughout the remainder of the performance and into the closing with the Band’s famous composition. There, verses sung in turn by Garcia, Weir, bassist Phil Lesh (otherwise in his own zone for the duration) and Hornsby, plus group harmonies on the chorus, create at least the facade of solidarity in the face of yet another Grateful Dead personnel transition, this one involving the incorporation of keyboardist Vince Welnick; the sound of the latter’s playing is mostly flimsy and synthetic, especially in contrast to his counterpart’s fulsome grand piano, notably positioned stage left, right next to Garcia (as was, not coincidentally, the departed and then recently-deceased Brent Mydland).
With a full and present stereo mix filling the four-hundred seat room in the Green Mountains, the recently-enhanced sound quality did full and complete justice to the stellar audio of this film. Likewise, the visual transitions of director Dell’Amico’s were smooth and unobtrusive except for a few random insertions of animation, perhaps from Candace Brightman’s light show at the sixty-thousand seat football venue); the long-time video collaborator of the Dead’s allows the natural drama of the stage to speak for itself even if, as in this case, it’s not altogether flattering theater.
It might otherwise go without saying that the Grateful Dead were nothing if not persevering during the course of their thirty-year history. So, despite the cautionary observations implicit in this snapshot of their later years, its preservation for posterity at the Meet-Up at the Movies (and as included the aforementioned archive release) is nevertheless worthwhile.