As I stood in the same section of Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre where I’d seen Van Halen, Black Sabbath and Rush, I saw Dead & Company. But this concert was different. The music changed my life.
Since my first Dead show, the band’s music has taken me across the nation on some strange trips and given me incredibly intense and joyful experiences. I have been happy to discover that many Bruins, young and old, have had their lives changed as well.
Bob Lynn of the Daily Bruin wrote in 1971, "With regards to the live concert, it should be pointed out that on a good night there is no other rock band that can come anywhere near equaling a Dead performance."
"They will reach musical frontiers undreamed of by most rock musicians, and attained by none others," he added.
The Grateful Dead was an American touring act that played more than 2,300 concerts from 1965 to 1995. Its eclectic performances, which lasted many hours, became famous for combining various forms of American music – country, folk, blues, soul – and attracting fans who revelled in psychedelic drugs, sex and, of course, rock ’n’ roll.
I'm a Deadhead. I was shown the light on July 26, 2016, at Irvine Meadows when I saw Dead & Company, the reincarnation of the Grateful Dead that features three original members alongside John Mayer. Dead & Company reached musical frontiers that I had never dreamed of, and certainly never experienced.
A Deadhead's first show is transformative. They call it "getting on the bus,” and I’m still riding it. For each Dead concert, the loyal locals and traveling cohort of Deadheads arrive in the parking lot before showtime and form "Shakedown Street" – thousands of people buying wares from tie-dye makers, glass blowers, painters and artists of all crafts. The air is often saturated with smoke and the piercing rhythm of a massive drum circle.
Here, you'll see dozens of people with their fingers pointed to the sky, waiting for “a miracle,” the coveted free ticket. Many Deadheads will bring an extra ticket to the parking lot and give it away to repay the community.
Inside the venue, which becomes “home” for the evening, collective anticipation erupts into a deafening roar when the band takes the stage and blossoms into many hours of dancing, singing and smiling. When the show ends, the soul immediately craves another, especially if it’s your first show. Dead shows are strange, beautiful, artistic experiences.
The Grateful Dead graced our campus with its magical touch at Pauley Pavilion six times. The band took the stage in front of hordes of Bruins in 1971, 1973, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1982.
I walk by Pauley Pavilion most days – many of us do – but few know how special that venue is to the Deadheads who experienced a show there.
Bill Walton, a former NBA MVP and member of the UCLA men’s basketball team when it won national championships in 1972 and 1973, attended every Grateful Dead show in Pauley Pavilion, and has been to hundreds of Dead shows. It was in Pauley Pavilion that Walton played basketball under coach John Wooden, had his number 32 jersey retired and danced to the Dead.
Walton described Pauley Pavilion as "a sacred temple, shrine, spiritual center and home." While he was a student-athlete making history at UCLA, he was also attending as many Dead shows as he possibly could.
"It was perfect, it was our lives, it's what we did with our time," Walton said. "I was a college student, and a Deadhead, and a basketball player, and a human being, and we just did all of those things all of the time."
Walton said he draws a link between what he appreciates about the Grateful Dead’s music and being a part of Wooden’s basketball dynasty: the attention to and appreciation of quality.
"Every time you spend time with John Wooden, every time you spend time with the Grateful Dead, when you leave, you're a better person,” Walton said. “You feel better about life, you feel better about the future of the world.”
Of all the Grateful Dead shows Walton has seen, the shows at his home court were particularly emotional for him.
"It was in Pauley Pavilion, which is where we lived our lives," he said. "It was incredibly special when they would come to you."
In the liner notes from the CD of the 1973 Pauley Pavilion show, “Dave's Picks Volume 5,” Walton described the show as "like everything else during those fantastic days at UCLA – better than perfect."
Twenty-three years after the dissolution of the original Grateful Dead, Walton said the music being played today by Dead & Company, and other Dead-universe bands, possesses the same energy as years past.
"It's still going on. The roster changes a little bit, everything keeps changing, but it's still the Grateful Dead," Walton said. "It's still so powerful and so strong. That whole sense of the empowering nature of the music and the fans and the crowd and the swelling sound that just keeps coming up, it's like a giant current coming from deep within the earth, and it just comes to the surface and blossoms in a big celebration of life.”
To this day, if you're at the right show and look close enough, you'll see his 7-foot figure popping out of the crowd a few feet in front of the stage. When the giant stage screens inevitably show his smiling face, the crowd erupts. Walton calls himself "a fan."
While Walton was training to win two national titles with UCLA and dancing to the Grateful Dead, Jeffrey Solomon, an engineering student at UCLA from 1969 to 1979, was discovering the Grateful Dead in the dorms.
"The reason I was interested in the Grateful Dead at that point was that I had a tape recorder, and I was collecting music from all the people on my floor at Rieber Hall," Solomon said. "There was a kid there ... and he handed me a couple of Grateful Dead albums … and when the Dead came to town in 1971, that was enough for me to go."
In between attending his first show in 1971 and second in 1973, Solomon spent time listening to live Dead recordings and trading critiques with his friend at the University Cooperative Housing Association on Landfair Avenue.
"We kind of were turning each other on to different albums of the Dead that neither one of us was familiar with, and we worked ourselves into a kind of frenzy listening to that stuff at the co-op," he said.
When Solomon walked out of Pauley Pavilion in 1973, he was strongly affected by the music, and he knew he would be a Deadhead for life.
"They became my favorite group at that point," Solomon said. "(My friend) and I, we were both excited, and we were discussing how much we enjoyed it. We both decided, ‘OK, we are going to see the Grateful Dead. We are going to find out whenever we can and try to see them as often as we can.’"
I know what Solomon felt that night. Pure ecstasy. Transcendence. Enlightenment. Solomon still remembers Jerry Garcia's intricate guitar riffs, Phil Lesh's jazz-influenced bass lines and Bob Weir's country folk singing.
He went on to see the Dead two more times at Pauley Pavilion, and almost 40 more times around California and the Southwest.
This unconditional love for the Grateful Dead is alive today at UCLA, as Bruin Deadheads keep listening to the band’s recordings, sharing their thoughts and making pilgrimages to shows.
Sophie Taylor, a third-year astrophysics student and co-founder of the Bruin Deadhead Facebook page, said she was introduced to the Grateful Dead by a friend and quickly started exploring the band’s live catalogue. Seeing Dead & Company on its 2017 Summer Tour in Mountain View, California, exposed her to the kindness and accepting nature of the fan community.
"I was being very genuine and authentically myself," she said. "You're in a community where everyone accepts you for who you are, and it's the most beautiful thing. It was such a freeing experience. ... When you're at a Dead concert, you don't care, because you know no one cares."
Taylor said Deadheads around campus meet by noticing each other's tie-dye shirts, and have a connection through the music and their shared experience of being at Dead shows.
"It's that instant connection where you don't have to be best friends, but you have that deeper connection,” she said. “People don't connect like that often.”
Jack Lyons, a third-year political science student, started the Deadhead page along with Taylor so that students could listen to live recordings together.
Lyons said Grateful Dead tunes possess a quality that make them timeless.
"It's a very interesting extended moment," he said. "There is beauty to that, just listening to jamming, listening to good instrumentation. Above all else, I'm listening for the instrumentation. ... I never feel like I've heard the same song twice."
Nathan Lopez met his Deadhead friends on campus by noticing someone who had a similar T-shirt and asking them about it. His first Dead & Company show was on New Year's Eve of 2015 at The Forum.
Lopez, a third-year environmental science student, believes what originally made the Grateful Dead attractive to fans makes them attractive to new fans today.
"The whole thing with the Dead is that they kind of didn't fit in and didn't make sense, so they made their own thing out of it," he said. "I feel like that's kind of how it is now. It doesn't really make sense to like this band. (Garcia) has been dead for more than 20 years, but I feel like that's a part of it."
The band’s influence on live performance, the massive size of their live catalogue and their collaboration with Mayer are all factors in perpetuating the group's popularity among younger audiences, Lopez said.
"(Mayer) is ushering in a new wave,” he added.
As Dead & Company keeps playing these tunes and the band keeps on “Truckin’,” all we can do is be appreciative. All we can do is listen to the music play.
It’s as simple as showing up, putting your finger in the air, and waiting for a miracle – though having a ticket beforehand never hurts. I hope to see you all out on tour this summer. It’ll be a real good time.