I had a wonderful opportunity to spend time with Kid #1 when we were both visiting my parents.
We took a walk and I was gushing about my recent fortunate opportunities to hear Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) and Melvin Seals’ Jerry Garcia Revue at the Northlands Music Festival in Swanzey, N.H., and then, thanks to a dear holy buddy, to hear Dead and Company at Gillette Stadium (Foxboro, MA).
My very perceptive child, who is not a Deadhead (I tried, Ribono shel Olam) asked me, “Doesn’t it get boring hearing the same music all the time?” Not at all, I explained. It was well known that one could see the Dead three nights in a row and never hear a repeated song. In my case, in fact, JRAD and Melvin Seals had played two of the same songs on consecutive nights: “New Speedway Boogie” (a typically bold JRAD opener) and “Stella Blue.” Each ensemble brought their own feel to the songs. That’s natural for musicians in general and very much in keeping with Dead tradition. If one followed a Dead tour, one might hear a song several times in different cities, but the rendition would never be the same. This is one characteristic of the Dead world to which we Jews connect – the song is keva, that which is fixed, and each performance has its kavana, its intention. And then it hit me from a different angle.
The synagogue-attending Jew goes to their synagogue every week, and hears the same words, with the same melodies, usually presented by the same person. Boring? Adraba! (Au contraire!) We desire and find sacred space in the familiar ritual combination of word and melody in community with others who seek the same sacred space and mystical experience. In congregations of any denomination, the ba’al tefilla who deviates from the usual even with just slight changes in phrasing can expect comments at kiddush later. (As my father likes to say, “Go please everybody.”) Even visiting a different synagogue and experiencing minor differences in nusach tefilla (liturgical text) throws us off. Example 1: In the Shabbat paragraph R’tzei ve-M’nuchateinu (Have-Divine-will for our rest), the Ashkenazi world says, ve-samcheinu be-yishu’atecha (And make us joyous in Your salvation). The Sefardi nusach, used by the AR”I and brought into Chabad nusach, says ve-samei’ach nafsheinu be-yishu’atecha (And make our souls joyous in Your salvation.) I prefer Nusach AR”I now, but encountering it the first few times threw my focus off. Example 2: If your synagogue follows the egalitarian nusach for Avot, and you visit a synagogue that does not, you feel something is missing when the Foremothers are missing.
Deadheads who heard Jerry occasionally had the experience of him transposing lyric lines or an entire stanza and being distracted a bit in our reverie. We desire the regularity and familiarity of the ritual so that we can bring ourselves to it. We expect and want and are prepared for “China Cat Sunflower” to segue to “I Know You Rider”, but we are happy anyway if it leads to “Fire on the Mountain.” JRAD and the tribute bands like to experiment with openers and pairings and challenge our expectations. In February, I heard Dancing Bears, a tribute band from Baltimore (shameless plug – one of their lead guitarists is my cousin.) They performed a marvelous “Slipknot!”, and ended it with a rallentando of the riff. Sprinkled through the enthusiastic applause were calls of “Finish the Tower!” How could a band play “Slipknot!” without segueing into “Franklin’s Tower?” Dancing Bears did, and they let us appreciate “Slipknot!” for the exploration it is on its own.
One of the better performances at the Gillette show was “St. Stephen.” One person in our group had never seen a live Dead performance. I mentioned to him that the song had been a bit of a rarity in the Garcia years. Now Dead and Company, JRAD, and tribute bands play it regularly, precisely because it had been such a rarity. Then I remarked to my very experienced Deadhead buddy, “And you can never hear “St. Stephen” too many times.” He agreed. (Maybe he was just humoring my pontifications.)
“St. Stephen” is like Kedusha. It’s a high point of great depth. By the time Kedusha comes around, you are usually ready for it because the rest of Shacharit has built you up to it. Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l taught about the flow of tefilla building up to various high points. By the time you hear “St. Stephen”, you are usually well primed for it. On the other hand, JRAD could blast it out as an opener and nobody would complain. Our tefilla is quite proscribed, of course, and nobody would think to rearrange things to open with Kedusha.
There can be a flip side to the familiarity. In the Garcia years, I did become tired of “Not Fade Away” and “New Minglewood Blues.” They seemed to crop up in too many of the concerts I attended. They seemed to be easy-to-jam time-fillers that were guaranteed crowd-pleasers. Maybe you have experienced a cantor or ba’al tefilla who always embellishes a certain paragraph to the point that it becomes predictable, which in turn becomes distracting. (“Yep, here comes their Hashkiveinu again…”)
And then JRAD concluded their Northlands set with “Not Fade Away.” I had a moment of that “Not another NFA” feeling, but then I decided to give myself over to the happy experience of hearing it live again in a community of happy souls. You know that love will not fade away.
Scott A. Tepper has been a ba’al tefilla and teacher in Boston’s Jewish community and beyond for decades. He created and teaches the webinar “Grateful Jews – Exploring Jewish Connections to the World of the Grateful Dead” and is a member of the Grateful Dead Studies Association. This article originally appeared in blogs.timesofisrael.com