“So you think the Dead will play a full set?” he asks, a little too eagerly.
“I think so too. Maybe two electric sets if we’re lucky.”
“Have you heard the new Dead lineup, with Joan Osbourne?”
“Ooooh. You’re in for a treat.”
The gentleman effusing in this manner is trapped in a hideously long, winding line stretched out haphazardly across the courtyard to the Berkeley Community Theater, in a manner henceforth to be referred to as Hippie Fire Drill. Are we in the ticket-buying line? The Will Call line? The terrorists-have-already-won security line?
“Can I just chill here with you, man?” asks a Dazed and Confused extra, attempting to cut into the middle of a line with no beginning and no foreseeable end.
Of course you can chill, man. Let us all chill for charity. We have gathered here at the behest of Wavy Gravy to “build partnerships to respond to locally defined problems with culturally sustainable solutions.” Also, a great many of us will smoke pot. The quote comes from the mission statement of Seva, a charity that provides eye care to poor and underdeveloped countries and diabetes care to Native Americans.
Wavy Gravy, the self-declared “psychedelic relic” with fantastic fashion sense, is Seva’s public face and trumpet-blower. Tonight is Seva’s annual benefit concert and 25th birthday party. The Dead — and Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt, and Steve Earle, and various other folks — have aligned to provide pleasant musical accompaniment. Seven hours’ worth.
There is no feeling quite so gnawing and awful as standing in an enormous line outside a rock concert that you suspect has already started. As the Hippie Fire Drill winds ’round and ’round to nowhere, the Seva show begins with a special surprise performance by Metallica, who open with “Ride the Lightning” as the Swedish Bikini Team sprays the first several rows with gigantic containers of whipped cream. Then Lars Ulrich rises from his drum stool, grabs a mic, announces he’s gay, and shouts “Ladies and gentlemen, Elton John!!” An enormous tie-dyed grand piano with Elton John splayed out atop it wheels out onto the stage. Elton greets Lars with a salacious open-mouth kiss and leads Metallica through a rip-roaring version of “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting).”
At the conclusion of the song, Elton’s piano sprouts rocket boosters and bursts through the theater ceiling.
Then the Hippie Fire Drill clears up and we all actually get inside the venue.
Hamza El Din, respected Bay Area world music icon, greets us with a simple African folk tune, with Mickey Hart providing guest percussion and star power. Quiet, subdued, hypnotic. Far outside the usual overblown Superstar Benefit Concert fare. Very nice.
Hamza gets one goddamn song.
High up in the nosebleed balcony section, a wandering dude in a Santa hat checks in on his lady friend seated behind me: “Are you okay?”
“I’m okay,” she replies. “I mean, I’m bored, but I’m okay.”
Fine, lady. Try on Buffy Sainte-Marie for size. The Canadian ’60s-era folk-rocker has the answer to the current hot-button question “Why aren’t there more great protest singers now?” Answer: Because writing protest songs is hard.
Buffy has been trying for years, and results may vary. Her long-loved “Universal Soldier” is certainly newly appropriate, though you find yourself wishing it was based on that awful Van Damme movie instead. And though that tune about uranium mining is supercatchy, her genius moment remains “Up Where We Belong,” the Oscar-winning Officer and a Gentleman tune she farmed out to Joe Cocker. Love … soaring eagles … Richard Gere … now there’s a sentiment you can tap your toes to, Buffy.
You want a badass modern protest singer? Allow me to present Steve Earle, armed with an acoustic guitar and a gravelly twang that spells out “authenticity” in fifty-foot-high neon letters. His lovey-dovey alt.country tunes do the trick, but Earle’s recent outpouring of political stuff is bone-chilling, particularly the O’Reilly-infuriating “John Walker’s Blues,” which deserved all the scrutiny and dialogue the Dixie Chicks inspired. Steve should’ve played for seven hours.
“Ehhh, another dirge,” moaned an unimpressed Mr. Santa Hat behind me. Perhaps Jackson Browne is more his speed — smooth, well-executed Old People Music featuring a few duets with as-bluesy-as-white-chicks-get-these-days Bonnie Raitt. “We want your body!” someone shouts, which, thanks to yoga or anorexia or the Atkins diet or whatever, is not an absurd thing to shout at Raitt.
But after more Wavy Gravy between-act screwball discourse and a lengthy pot-smoking intermission, the Dead hops onstage, launches into “Truckin’,” and underscores the noncharitable reason everyone’s here in the first place.
The Dead is in a strange place now, caught between nostalgia-act status for the old faithful and historical-act status for those too young or aloof to have witnessed the band in Jerry’s heyday. The dudes’ relevance and significance to millions of guitar solo-lovin’, freaky-dancin’ people are impressive and unassailable, but to the uninitiated layperson a Dead concert reads like “classic literature” — a few vivid characters and deft turns of phrase surrounded by 850 pages of yawning filler. The Dead has transformed into the jam band Brothers Karamazov, playing for what felt like the seven hours Steve Earle should’ve played.
But after one of those extended encore everyone-onstage-at-once-sharing-microphones moments perfect for Rolling Stone photo-ops and whatnot, Wavy kicks us out and we all slink out into the night completely jam-banded-out but pleasantly buzzing at the thought that we did so for charity. The road to rock ‘n’ roll glory is most assuredly not paved with good intentions. But we can’t be supercool all the time. Or it would suck if we did. But not as much as going to shows like this all the time.
Though I bet that Elton-Metallica duet was awesome.