That wasn't the plan when I recently headed out on vacation to reunite in Wisconsin with some old friends to attend the Grateful Dead "family reunion" shows on Aug. 3-4 at Alpine Valley amphitheater. For three days, it would be bratwurst instead of smoked sausage, the Packers instead of the Saints, "Truckin'" over "Fire on the Bayou," Alpine Valley instead of the Fairgrounds. I took a reporter's notebook out of sheer habit, but didn't intend on using it.
And in the early stages of the trip, there was no need for it. It was enough just to gaze at the Northern Lights appearing in a crystal-clear Wisconsin night sky at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, watch chipmunks that looked like miniature prairie dogs scurry around our campsite, or drive through country roads flanked by pastoral fields dotted with silos.
But once showtime rolled around, it was impossible not to wonder how these concerts could have played out in Louisiana.
For starters, the tolerant, laid-back vibe that accompanies big local events like Jazz Fest was sorely lacking. There was a figurative police state on hand for the shows, including cops on horses, bicycles and golf carts at every turn. Undercover officers patrolled inside and outside the venue and were searching backpacks, confiscating contraband and ticketing offenders. Crowd bottlenecks were the norm in the main vending areas, and many patrons took to bleating and mooing to voice their displeasure.
Tickets for the shows cost $49.50 (plus the usual surcharges if bought through Ticketmaster), a reminder of what a bargain Jazz Fest still is at $25 a ticket. The gates opened at 11 a.m., and bands were scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., with the Other Ones -- the revamped, Jerry Garcia-less Grateful Dead -- slotted from 8 p.m. to midnight each night. The first signs of trouble came when the food booths started running out of food at 2 p.m.
To say that these were the longest lines I've ever encountered at any concert is an understatement. Ever lamented that the line for crawfish bread is long at Jazz Fest? Picture this: waiting in line for a burrito that costs $10 (!), and finding out that at the end of that line, you only got the burrito shell. Then you had to go to the end of a second long line, which held the promise of chicken, beef or falafel filling. Then you had to go back and wait in a third line for toppings. The whole process took an hour -- and it was the closest I've ever seen the peaceful Grateful Dead crowd come to rioting.
Still upset that Jazz Fest raised its beer prices to $3? How does $6.50 for a Miller draft sound? Welcome to Alpine Valley. If that sounds unconscionable, you could always wait 45 minutes in line for a $5 lemonade -- only to find out that there was no lemonade to be had at the end of the wait, because the vendor had run out of water.
It was inexcusable. This is a major concert venue that has other sold-out shows, such as Jimmy Buffett, booked throughout the summer. Who's responsible for such atrocious customer service? Clear Channel Communications, the media conglomerate who owns and books 127 venues across the country and is now America's largest concert promoter. Classic rocker Steve Miller perhaps sums up Clear Channel best; in a recent interview in Billboard, Miller said of Clear Channel, "I don't like the way they run their facilities, and I don't like the way they treated me as an artist. Their lack of a sense of humanity is shocking."
Service nightmares aside, the music was outstanding -- and one of the first night's most electrifying moments came when the Other Ones did a rollicking version of "Iko Iko" (their version of the Sugarboy Crawford classic "Jock-a-Mo"). The band also pulled a number of surprises, including a breakneck-tempo version of "Casey Jones," an epic "St. Stephen," and a beautiful take on "Box of Rain" as the Sunday finale. Guitarist Jimmy Herring filled Garcia's shoes admirably, capturing Garcia's magical guitar lines and stamping them with his own personality through hard-edged Telecaster leads and some deft harmonic touches.
The Other Ones have a limited fall tour planned, and unfortunately, there's no New Orleans date scheduled. That's a shame, but after the tumult of Alpine, the intimacy of the New Orleans club scene and the promise of Jazz Fest 2003 is a welcome return home. To quote the Dead classic Scarlet Begonias, "Once in a while, you get shown the light/ In the strangest of places if you look at it right."