The Grateful Dead Do Up Chinese New Year/Mardi Gras
in Grand Style
at Oakland's Kaiser Convention Center
Few bands have turned the celebration of festive occasions into an annual tradition the way the Grateful Dead have. For the 3rd year in a row, the Dead performed on Chinese New Year and Fat Tuesday with the pomp and pageantry that have earned them (and Bill Graham Presents) a reputation for throwing the best parties around.
In past years this pair of shows has been a crowd pleaser. For those of you who have never experienced it, the Chinese New Year show usually features a smoking dragon that weaves its way through the audience and onto the stage during the band's drum solo, performing a ceremonial dance in celebration of the occasion's symbolic rebirth. The Mardi Gras show offers a spectacular parade of costumed revelers at the open of the second set. In addition to the theatrical production that highlights these shows, there's the wonderful decor lovingly strung up along the rafters inside the arena as well as in the surrounding halls. Clusters of colorful balloons with tinsel hanging down bring to mind little rain clouds; netted figures that vaguely resemble apparitions come to life as rays of colorful light stream through them; and loads of hanging crepe paper designs enhance the festive mood of the respective occasions.
A lot of time and effort goes into the creation and execution of these activities. Rehearsals for the dragon's performance are conducted nightly at a remote location, usually 2 to 3 weeks prior to the show, with somewhere between 40 and 50 people participating. "To say that the performance is choreographed would be misleading." says Nirtan Lim who has presided over this activity for the four years since it began, "We basically engage in conditioning exercises and practice animating the dragon. Everyone who works on it takes it very seriously. We really try to get into it from the standpoint of it being a ritual."
If ever a ritual was so successfully guided by psychic energy it would have to be this one, for with only 12 hours to practice inside the actual venue the day of the performance, when showtime rolled around, these bearers of the ceremonial dragon pulled it off like a bunch of pros. According to Lim, the key to a successful performance is to work on what the participants have practiced and concentrate on staying within the character of the dragon. "Different people manipulate the head at different times and everyone has to follow. Since no one can really see what anyone else is doing, there's a real danger of being swept up by the crowd."
Preparations for the Mardi Gras parade are by contrast much more lighthearted and less time-consuming, generally occuring a couple of days prior to the show. Core parade participants are composed of Bill Graham Presents staff, their friends and associates, and friends of the band who are basically left to their own creative vices to put together the various floats and costumes that are used. "Some things may be suggested regarding costumes or floats" says Brian Auger of BGP "but loosely. We don't tell anyone what to wear. We don't like to put too much emphasis on advance planning. After all, it's Mardi Gras and the idea is for everyone to have fun!" The parade is then augmented by concertgoers in colorful costumes and other fitting attire who have been tagged with parade passes by BGP staff prior to the start of the show. Then there's always various members of the crowd who tag along at the last minute.
In keeping with the tradition of Mardi Gras, fun is undoubtedly what everyone has at this affair. Yours truly got to experience this year's pagan rite firsthand. After being treated to a first set that boasted two new (never played before) songs "A Little Light" and "Standing on the Moon," I made my way to the side backstage entrance during the intermission and awaited parade instructions. As the other parade participants gathered in the backstage area to take their cues I got an interesting look at the amusing collection of pranksters and revelers that partake in this event. Jesters & maidens; jokers to the left of me, snow white to the right; one guy dressed up as a carrot, another one riding an ostrich; bearers of huge, 5-foot paper mached heads painted with grotesque faces--not exactly your average parade, but it's the closest thing to a Mardi Gras parade you'll come across this side of the Mississippi!
In spite of the surrounding chaos, the parade had an order and a life of its own once it emerged from the confines of the backstage area. Eager, sweaty fans encircled us with cheers of approval as we danced and wove our way towards the stage sprinkling them with buckets of colorful trinkets and toys not to mention generous spurts of dry ice, for effect.
The first units of the procession made their way towards the stage, as everyone danced to the strains of a popular and frequently played cover of the cajun song "Aiko Aiko." From there the Dead took advantage of the receptive mood, breaking in a few new (soon to be released) songs much to the delight of its undulating audience. "Victim or the Crime," a song co-written by Bob Weir and Garrett Graham, and a new sobering Brent Mydland tune tentatively titled "You Can Run But You Can't Hide" featuring Jerry, Bob and Phil on back-up vocals, briefly captivated the audience. The Dead then worked their way into "Uncle John's Band" (always a popular choice) and the drum solo/space jam. A lucid rendition of "The Wheel" (off of Garcia's first solo album) gave way to "Throwing Stones." And probably for the first time ever, "Throwing Stones" was followed by something other than "Not Fade Away" or "Lovelight" (the former was the show opener for the Chinese New Year show and the latter, the closing song). On this occasion the band segued into "Foolish Heart" instead, a new Garcia melody that many believe is destined to achieve the same Top 40 status that "Touch of Grey" did.
What pleased many of the attendants of these two shows was the fact that the band broke up the order of their playlist somewhat. Many long-time fans complained that the order of songs played had become too repetitive in recent years contrary to the Dead's well known past tendencies to keep it varied and unpredictable.
Copyright 1989 Hot Ticket! Magazine