Unbroken Chain: Revisiting The Grateful Dead at UMass

Doug Collette By

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Attending this three-day event would have provided abundant insight into the Dead's posthumous staying power.
Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead in Music, Culture and Memory
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA
November 16-18, 2007

Attending this three-day event might not have wholly transformed a skeptic's view of the Grateful Dead, their music and their culture, but it would have provided abundant insight into the reasons for the group's posthumous staying power. That understanding would have come as a slow-growing realization because Unbroken Chain so closely mirrored this influential band's musical approach along with the dutiful, often-defensive devotion of its fans.

Rebecca Adams' Friday morning analytical presentations on the traveling legions of Deadheads coexisted with PhDs' scholarly dissections of the group's performances later that afternoon—neither of which approach could recapture during the course of the weekend that elusive element so often dubbed "magic," despite the scholars' obvious passion for their subjects. Those academics did, however unintentionally, demystify scholarship at least to some degree by proving, elaborate PowerPoints aside, that some phenomena cannot be represented neatly in a category, even one of its own making.

It was no real surprise (and no reflection on chairman David Gans—host of The Grateful Dead Hour on radio and editor of Conversations with The Dead book—that a panel discussion of criticism bogged down in near argument about the downside of the Dead's rise to fame: it was the one moment otherwise coy references to drug use over the weekend carried a darker undertow. But such narrowly escaped discord was in marked contrast to the illuminating likes of David Lemieux' insight into the archiving of Grateful Dead music, both the technical and esthetic challenges.

Likewise photographer Herb Greene's portfolio of images from the Sixties: his photographs—together with an honest account of his personal travails as related to his vocation—suggested more than any self-referential statement might communicate precisely because it was so ingenuous.

But it was the self-effacing presentation of Grateful Dead sound engineer Dan Healy that supplied the most insight into the Dead philosophy. Full of laughter and colorful language, Healy described from his vantage point behind the soundboard in various venues how he sculpted the live sound of Grateful Dead shows, the two fundamental principles of the band's operations: enabling the band to play better because they could hear themselves accurately and therefore assuring the audience enjoyed themselves more because they could all hear the band clearly no matter the venue. His casually pragmatic approach—to only a slightly less degree comparable to Bob Bralove's more high-tech approach—seemed the antithesis of the stereotyped laissez-faire hippie attitude so pervasive in mainstream cultural perceptions of all things Dead.

With the benefit of some academic hindsight combined with his insider perspective, keynote speaker Dennis McNally's whimsical yet erudite presence provided a thread of continuity for the symposium. Appearing in panel discussions about the significance (or lack thereof) of the Sixties decade in which the Grateful Dead came to be, contributing a sagacious perception of the evolution of the band's business (including face-offs with Ticketmaster) and attending the November 16th concert of The American Beauty Project, the Dead biographer/publicist became a symbol of continuity at the heart of the Grateful Dead spirit.

The aforementioned concert was, not surprisingly, illustrative in its own way of the Grateful Dead ethos. Playing the entire songlist, though not in sequence, of Grateful Dead's early Seventies watershed works Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros./Rhino, 1970) and American Beauty (Warner Bros./Rhino, 1970), the group, led by ace guitarist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh), created some scintillating moments: an exquisitely sung and played "Box of Rain that brought out every bit of melody inherent to the tune and an intimate rendition of "Attics of My Life, with Campbell's soft electric guitar accompanying angelic vocals by his wife Theresa Williams and Amy Helm (daughter of ex Band drummer Levon).

The overall performance, often rendering all-too glossy arrangements via musicianship lacking the Dead's inimitable charm, yet held its share of merely pleasant moments. Likewise, Unbroken Chain contained its own merely entertaining intervals. The storytelling of Healy, Jerry Garcia's wife, Carolyn Adams Garcia (aka Mountain girl) and late arrival Bill Walton played to the preconceptions and biases of their after-lunch audience on Saturday November 17th. And with the synchronicity appropriate to the moment (the theme of same an undercurrent to this event and its subject), a UMass student given the floor to explicate the rationale for the student strike that occurred coincidentally with Unbroken Chain, was only slightly less articulate: "...it wasn't just to cut classes...".

It's often been said that "there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert," and this multi-day affair including photo and art exhibits, its efficient organization still prey to technical difficulties that prevented recording of some speeches and panel discussions, would fit that summary. And while there may not have been true epiphanies to convince a naysayer, there were enough enlightening moments to lend credence to the philosophy behind the event. For instance, to hear a twenty-year-old, in the midst of a spirited discussion of Robert Hunter's lyrics, state that her curiosity was been piqued about music recorded before she was born, was more than a little provocative.

More important, perhaps, is how this symposium planted and nourished the seed of inquiry about how the Grateful Dead evoke such passion, and in so many diverse demographics, more than a decade after the band's demise with the death of figurehead Jerry Garcia. The first intellectual enterprise of its kind, Unbroken Chain, would ideally only set the stage for reprise and, by extension, regular recurrence. In that respect, as with a concert by the group itself, 2007 would constitute only the first set...

Visit Unbroken Chain on the web.

Visit Grateful Dead on the web.


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