So there was this moment on the PLF spring/summer tour when everything made sense to me. We were in Columbus, Ohio scheduled to play at this wonderful outdoor amphitheater (the name escapes me now) and Levon Helm was about 30 minutes into his set when a horrific thunderstorm struck. It literally came out of nowhere. It was immediate. The downpour was intense and the wind blew the rain sideways and everything on the stage began to get drenched. Within seconds, guitar amps were shorting out and microphone stands were being toppled. Levon’s band had to leave the stage but Levon kept playing. (to be fair, Levon and Larry) He finished the song and ran to the side stage to dry off. His set was cut short.
The image of Levon Helm playing his heart out in the middle of a storm – with the biggest shit-eating grin you’ve ever seen – is something I will NEVER forget. In retrospect it was almost a metaphor for the music business. Playing through the struggle, paying dues and all that. It was a powerful moment, and I am lucky to bear witness first hand.
What happened next was even more remarkable:
The venue had completely cleared out – thousands of people vacated the ampitheater. It looked as if the show was over. PLF would not be performing that night.
All the gear was shot. The rain had come so fast and so hard that there was no time to cover anything up. One of my amps was filled with water and Steve’s electronic keyboards were messed up. Not to mention the house sound system and microphones and monitors.
It took several hours for the crew to dry the equipment enough that we could use it safely. I remember seeing a bunch of stage hands with portable hairdryers working diligently to dry the little nooks and crannies of the sensitive gear.
We didn’t know if we were going to go on that night. It looked as if the crowd went home. I thought for sure they went home.
Well, we ended up going on several hours later. And to my surprise, every single person came back and the venue was again filled. They had all been waiting around the corner or across the street. I was so amazed. It literally brought a tear to my eye. It was this moment when I realized how monumentally powerful music can be.
I mean, here’s a band (the grateful dead) who’s body of work is SO important, SO revered that fans are willing to wait for hours in the rain to go to the show!!! And there wasn’t any definitive call on weather or not there would be a show that night! They waited just for the CHANCE of a show….
…it was as if the storm NEVER happened.
And therein the magic lies. The grateful dead songbook is one of the most impressive and powerful catalogs modern history has known. It’s a staggering body of work that reaches into the lives of so many people and captures the spirit of the human experience so well, and with such honesty, it’s difficult to deny. Once you are in – it is impossible to escape.
Honestly, I’ve never seen such dedication before in my life. Most bands are lucky if they have fans that will go to two shows a year. The deadheads are unprecedented in their passion and unmatched in their appreciation and kindness.
Halfway through the first tune, it all clicked: ”The love you take is equal to the love you make”. Of COURSE we had to go on. How could I have doubted it? These fans have been coming to shows for decades. Probably not the first storm they waited through either!!
I know so many bands that would have said: “fuck it, lets call it. Crowd’s going home anyways”. And they would have been right. Their fans probably would have gone home. But not these fans. Not deadheads.
Now I realize that it probably never even occurred to Phil that we might not go on. Even though the rest of the band and crew were wondering if we would. As long as it was safe – we go on. Period.
I learned one of the most important lessons of my life that night, and it has brought a beautiful new meaning to my life.