In July 2004, 4 weeks before my wedding, I had the rare opportunity to see the Dead and the Allman Brothers at the Gorge Amphitheater with some of my bandmates, sort of an unofficial bachelor party under the stars. At the time it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, and the show exceeded expectations. The Allman Brothers delivered a knockout set culminating in a Mountain Jam>Whipping Post and a Layla encore. The Dead followed with one of the best shows I have seen from any incarnation of the band. Haynes and Herring brought fire and energy throughout. Needless to say, the Mystic Canyon caravan hit the road once again to relive the experience on May 16, 2009.
We arrived inside the grounds just in time to hear the end of the Doobie Brothers set while we got water and snacks. Our friends had snagged a spot on the lawn Phil-side, much further back than last time, but there was plenty of room to get down. Or, as it turned out, lie down and watch the stars. The excellent show 5 years earlier had my hopes high for a rockin’ tour closer. What we got instead was a very mellow evening with moments of adventurous improv and stellar playing, accents that popped from an otherwise pastel and impressionistic canvas.
The Allmans are a force of nature every bit as powerful as those that created the breathtaking landscape behind them. The set-opening Mountain Jam sent a clear message that they came to play, and they did so with power and grace throughout a late afternoon set of Allman goodness. They ended with a Mystic Canyon favorite, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, that included hints of Les Brers in A Minor and just generallly kicked our asses. In hindsight, the Dead were wise not to attempt to match the energy of the Allman Brothers’ set, creating instead a mellow denouement and an ambient soundtrack for the natural wonders all around.
The first set opened with a lot of promise with The Music Never Stopped, then Loose Lucy, which I had been thinking about since earlier in the day, when I saw a shirt from the 1990 Buffalo show. Crazy Fingers was the highlight of the show for me and led to some great moments in Dark Star and Dire Wolf. Tom Thumb, Into the Mystic and Man Smart, Woman Smarter closed out what felt like a short first set that peaked early, but the peaks were very enjoyable.
Second set just did not feel like a tour closer to me. Passenger>Hell in a Bucket, then Althea all felt like filler until Eyes of the World got every one grooving. Drums took on a fresh techno groove with Chimenti adding some electronica that may have been lost on some of the older heads. Any energy they had injected into the crowd by this point would evaporate into the night sky during a 45-minute excursion through Space>Days Between>Dark Star that had the whole lawn on their backs, enjoying a specatular panorama of stars. Nightfall of Diamonds indeed, words that were repeated over an intensifying jam that eventually brought everyone back to their feet for a set closing One More Saturday Night.
All in all, a good show when appreciated for what it was, but perhaps a bit underwhelming for anyone who had built up their expectations. I suppose I am guilty of that, though I should have known better. My history with the Dead has a few highlights, but I never had that transcendental epiphany that so many others have. I have had that moment with Phish, Umphrey’s McGee and a few other bands, even my own. But for me the Dead have been enjoyable live but never quite measuring up to the stuff from the 70s that keeps me going back. Still, it was hard not to get a little choked up listening to Phil sing the Box of Rain encore for what could very well be the last time.