Brent Mydland isn’t merely serenading a stadium packed with 60,000-plus people when he begins to sing “Dear Mr. Fantasy” on July 2, 1989 in Foxboro, MA. The Grateful Dead keyboardist is in the process of turning the Traffic staple — a collective plea to a musician to break an overriding gloom by playing an upbeat tune that puts everyone in a good mood — into a resonant biographical statement. In the song, communal happiness comes at a simple albeit exacting cost, spelled out in the lyrics: Laughter for many in exchange for the tears of one, namely, the performer. Mydland knows the deal all too well. So does guitarist-vocalist Jerry Garcia.
As Mydland gazes at his white-and-silver-haired counterpart, who stares back and stands just a few feet away, facing the keyboardist, the pair revels in a shared chemistry and unspoken understanding. The ever-stoic Mydland even cracks a smile, an expression the audience likely does not see but which Garcia — and this film’s viewers — doubtlessly notices. In direct communication, they appear to occupy a private universe while acknowledging the sacrifice they’re making for the greater joy of those around them.
Two souls in communion, each plagued by personal demons, Mydland and Garcia would pay a steep price for their troubles. Both passed away from health-related vices at a relatively early age; Mydland is already on borrowed time here. But as depicted in the pro-shot video of this exceptional concert, the opening salvo of the Grateful Dead’s memorable 1989 summer tour, dark clouds don’t seem anywhere on the horizon. Nor should they be.
The exploratory drive the band displayed during its ‘70s peaks returned, along with important counterbalances, not the least of which involved high levels of deceptive ease and group symbiosis.
Riding momentum that began in earnest when Garcia started his recovery in mid-1986 from a diabetic coma, a scare that forced him (temporarily) to better his health and spurred his interest in scuba diving, the Grateful Dead found itself in the midst of a creative resurgence — as well as a commercial renaissance triggered by the unexpected hit “Touch of Grey” and even more-unexpected MTV airplay. Then-novel technologies, such as MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), afforded the group new sonic vistas and tonal opportunities. In addition, the exploratory drive the band displayed during its ‘70s peaks returned, along with important counterbalances, not the least of which involved high levels of deceptive ease and group symbiosis.
Such hallmarks course throughout the 158-minute show, beginning with the opening “Playing in the Band,” making its first appearance in a first set since December ‘86, and continuing with the even-rarer placement of the followup, “Crazy Fingers.” Tellingly, the band establishes the overall vibe before either tune sends the Deadhead twirlers in motion. Shortly after walking on stage, a jovial Garcia greets the crowd. Guitarist-vocalist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh converse and bond in front of their amp cabinets. Drummer Mickey Hart flashes a huge smile from behind his kit. Insightful clues, all, none of which can be gleaned from audio-only sources.
Ditto the privilege of watching Mydland command the Hammond organ. Akin to a puppet master controlling a gaggle of marionettes, his performance balances physicality and finesse. His hands and arms stage a ballet of strokes and swipes; his legs, torso and head channel the sound in the form of abrupt, spontaneous movements. Every last fiber of his being is invested.
Though less animated, Mydland’s cohort matches the enthusiasm. We hear — and see — the zeal everywhere: In close-ups of Weir spitting words and Garcia delivering throaty grit during a cover of Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle”; Hart and fellow percussionist Billy Kreutzmann embracing their “Rhythm Devils” nickname on a poetic read of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”; Lesh using his six-string bass to bear-hug the framework of “Tennessee Jed,” a romp that comes on as the equivalent of a refreshing dip into a Southern spring on a hot day.
Once the sun goes down, the Grateful Dead continues to pour it on. Weaving together a loose narrative tied to exploration and travel, the sextet blends an array of disciplines — folk, rock, blues, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, fusion, old-time country, psychedelia — with sublime effortlessness. For “Truckin’,” a freewheeling favorite the collective had already performed more than 400 times onstage, the group finds another gear. During the climax, Garcia turns from the crowd and locks eyes with Kreutzmann, daring him to bring the heat. Challenge accepted. The Grateful Dead pulls a ripcord and, in an instant, all the years and gray melt away.
Similar inspiration strikes toward the end of “He’s Gone.” Graced with extended refrains and Mydland’s Sunday-service-ready pipes, the loping song winds down and segues into uncharted territory. A brief jam witnesses Garcia hinting at a direction before laying down riffs in an attempt to draw the band into “Smokestack Lightning.” Not this time; the Grateful Dead wades into “Eyes of the World.” Just another in a history of unscripted moments that help make select shows live on in memory and myth.
All of which circles back to “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” which triggers one of the most transcendent segments the band plays in ‘89 — or any period, for that matter. When the Traffic tune can be taken no further, Garcia raises his right arm, his trusty signal to make a major change, and the band transitions into the finale of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Weir, Lesh and Garcia unite on the choral parts. Mydland, about to leave his seat as he pushes his falsetto to the upper limit, sings the refrain from “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Complimentary and contrasting, the layered harmonies swirl, and Garcia rejoices by doing a few half-windmills on his guitar. So much for criticisms pegging the Grateful Dead as a boring visual band.
Indeed, “Foxboro, MA 7/2/89” captures the look and sound of a band bent on creating adventure, letting loose and having a hell of a time doing it. Amid the set-closing “Sugar Magnolia,” a top-down jaunt complete with the pony-tailed Weir serving as chauffeur and emphasizing lines with glottal interjections, Garcia beams with delight. Wearing an ear-to-ear grin, and raising his eyebrows in playful manners, he relishes every minute.
It’s a beautiful and heartwarming sight, and one that became increasingly rare once the calendar ventured past spring ‘92, when a confluence of pressures, expectations and other issues began to turn the idea of touring into more of a chore. But here, and for the next year, at least, the Grateful Dead would enjoy the ride.
Playing in the Band —>
Crazy Fingers —>
Wang Dang Doodle
We Can Run
Queen Jane Approximately
To Lay Me Down
Don’t Ease Me In
Friend of the Devil
He’s Gone —>
Eyes of the World —>
The Wheel —>
Dear Mr. Fantasy —>
Hey Jude Finale —>
The Mighty Quinn