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The Great Unifier
Spotting a Deadhead is easy. Even if they were approaching 50, something about their youthful, carefree, “I’ve seen it all” faces just said it. When Jake’s Leg, a popular St. Louis area Grateful Dead tribute band, played the family-oriented Manchester Homecoming at Schroeder Park this last September, nobody expected to see any die-hard Deadheads in attendance. Adolescent middle school kids wandered and gossiped through the main drag of the carnival, while lights flashed in every direction like fireworks. A sleazy booth operator with a six o’clock shadow shouts at them to “give it a go and win a prize every time.”
Where the drag widened, a large white pavilion tent had been raised, and under it a make-shift stage had been set up. Card tables and folding chairs had been thrown down to accommodate whoever would sit and watch “that hippie band”. The typical carnival fodder had already entrenched themselves with their chili and chicken-kabobs in the seating area: old women getting out from under the sun; mothers straining to push three-seat strollers that were full of bored, tired children; the local Cub Scouts getting ready to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance; none of them were here to see Jake’s Leg, they were just here to see free music. Out in front of the stage, there was a grassy no-mans-land devoid of tables and chairs. It was an area designated for dancing, but this drowsy crowd wouldn’t be using it; they were far too busy spreading the neighborhood tittle-tattle to get into the music.
When the Pledge of Allegiance had been recited and mayor had said his piece, the musicians took the stage. There was one who was tall and thin playing bass, and another who was squat and chubby on lead guitar. An older guy with a long salt-and-pepper beard and round sunglasses played the keyboards, while a younger, muscular guy played the drums. The last one, in short-shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, sang and played rhythm guitar from the middle of the stage. Together, the five of them made up Jake’s Leg. They immediately went into their first song, the rousing and guitar driven U.S. Blues; “Red and White/ Blue Suede Shoes/ I’m Uncle Sam/ How do you do?” Out of nowhere, throngs of people flooded the tent. Men and women. Black and white. The old and the young. Grizzled and bearded. Clean-cut and fresh. Every person you could think of came into the tent and planted themselves at tables near the stage. They hugged; they laughed; they danced. They ALL wore tie-dyed shirts. The carnival fodder exchanged nervous glances. So the Deadheads had shown up after all.
“Leave it to a Deadhead to show up late” the Deadheads joked to each other.
The no-mans-land in front of the stage remained empty, waiting for a brave soul to come and expose themselves to the crowd’s judgment.
As the sun began to breach the horizon on its downward decent, Jake’s Leg began to play their second song, the much slower Cassidy. All of the Deadheads clapped and cheered when they heard the crowd favorite. A couple that looked like they had been following the Dead since the 60’s stood up and slow-danced near their table. Ruby-colored lights flickered on and weaved about the stage.
As the song progressed, a lone figure approached the no-mans-land. He was a thirty-something who looked like he was in his fifties. He wore a rainbow spiral tie-dyed shirt, and had a light brown beard. His hair was pulled back and braided into one long strand that hung to his belt. He had a dazed look that said he had smoked one too many joints in his life. He surprised everyone when he began to do what looked like a one-man conga-line. He would lift his legs up and hold them, and move his hips like he was hula-hooping. All the while, he was closing his eyes and mouthing the song’s words to himself. When that song ended and another began, he kept dancing, unaware of the crowd now focused on him.
“Good for him- he’s havin’ fun,” one Deadhead chuckled.
“Back in the day, it was like that times ten thousand” another Deadhead added, referring to the Grateful Dead shows of the past. After a couple more songs, the lone dancer was joined by children and other Deadheads. The kids would do that bobbing-up-and-down dance while their parents held their hands and swayed back and forth rhythmically.
By the time the sun had set several songs later, and after many beers had been drunk among the crowd, the no-mans-land had become a full-blown hoedown. It wasn’t just the Deadheads anymore; the old ladies trying to get out of the sun had joined in, as had the block-headed college guys and their girlfriends. They were all feeling the groove of the Dead’s music, expertly recreated by Jake’s Leg. Yellow and purple lights flashed on and off of the musicians. The crowd cheered on the short and squat guitarist when he soloed during Sugar Magnolia, and hooted and hollered during the bass solo in the middle of Eyes of the World. They were feeling the vibe of not just the music, but the crowd as well.
When Jake’s Leg played their last song, Shakedown Street, the mass went absolutely crazy. A chorus of people sang along, while others danced like mad-men. There was no one sitting down now; every person in the tent was stimulated by the atmosphere and the music. A girl in a flowered dress did an impressive spinning routine than had gathered a small pack of on-lookers. Couples danced and swung, while others played air guitar. The groove of Shakedown Street pounded on; “Nothin shakin on Shakedown street/ used to be the heart of town/ Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart/ You just gotta poke around”. As the band played their final note, a thunderous cheer swept the crowd. The musicians congregated at center stage and did a group-bow to momentous applause. People that would never have thought to go to a Grateful Dead show were cheering, and joyful, and back-slapping. People from all walks of life had been united under that small tent by the one thing that everyone can agree on: good music.