Dead & Company’s cancellation of Florida shows demonstrates the true spirit of the Grateful Dead


While in the midst of a critically acclaimed, 31-show tour, supergroup Dead & Company suddenly announced on September 28 the cancellations of its sold-out October 6 and 7 shows in West Palm Beach and Tampa, Florida. The citation of “routing and production logistics” rings hollow, given that the State of Florida appears to have been singled out as the location of the only cancelled shows of the tour, while the remaining thirteen shows in states from coast to coast (including Colorado) are expected to be held as scheduled.

There is a lyric in the Grateful Dead tune, “Bertha,” that couldn’t be more apt in this context:

Try to see what’s going down /

Maybe read between the lines

For the uninitiated, Dead & Company is the latest and most successful of a series of bands to be handed the Grateful Dead baton since the death of band leader and countercultural guru, Jerry Garcia, on August 9, 1995. For the casual observer, Garcia’s death merely took its rightful place in the interminable list of popular music figures fallen prey to the hazards of the rock star lifestyle. For us Deadheads, there was a feeling of panic, a sort of “what are we going to do now?” moment, the sort that shakes you to your core and threatens your very identity.

This led to the inevitable question: Could there be a Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia? My knee-jerk reaction at the time was an emphatic NO! And I became increasingly steadfast in that position as I faithfully attended post-Grateful Dead concerts by bands like The Dead, the Other Ones, and Furthur. In each case, despite lineups including various surviving members of the band, I was left with feelings of emptiness, sadness, and disappointment—particularly after hearing another member of the band sing one of Jerry’s songs.

Then came the 2015 50th Anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows, all five of which I faithfully attended and wrote about at length, most notably in a piece entitled, “Ladies and gentlemen, not the Grateful Dead.” While the preceding post-Jerry bands exhibited the propriety of refraining from calling themselves the Grateful Dead, this group was actually billed as the Grateful Dead, and in many ways was less worthy of the moniker than its predecessors.

But a funny thing happened on the way out of Chicago after the final show on July 5. John Mayer, a brilliant guitarist better known as a pop star, had become infected with the Grateful Dead’s music and culture, and formed an unlikely collaboration with founding member, rhythm guitarist, and lead singer Bob Weir. Consequently, Dead & Company was born. The band played its first show together on October 31, 2015, and included Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, along with bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. 

I have seen Dead & Company a dozen times now, and have found a new favorite band. Not because they are the closest replica of the Grateful Dead to date, but because they’re a great band in their own right. Instead of trying to be the Grateful Dead, Dead & Company is the next evolution of the Grateful Dead, in much the same way that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young grew out of Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds, and Led Zeppelin and Cream grew out of The Yardbirds. Dead & Company is its own band, while keeping the vibe and music of the Grateful Dead alive for a new generation of fans and longtime Deadheads alike.

After a pandemic-forced hiatus in 2020, Dead & Company announced a full concert tour in 2021, and out of deference to the safety of their fans, crew, and themselves, subsequently restricted attendance to those who are vaccinated or can present a recent negative COVID-19 test. The tour went on without a hitch, and along the way two shows were added at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, CO, which makes the two cancelled Florida shows seem all the more suspicious. 

To read between the lines of the allusions to “routing and production logistics,” we must travel back in time to May 3, 2021, the date on which Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law Senate Bill (SB) 2006, which prohibits Florida businesses from requiring proof of vaccination as a precondition of service. 

But more recently—in the midst of Dead & Company’s tour—the State of Florida doubled down on its May 3 statute: Effective September 16, a $5,000 fine per incident can be assessed to any business requiring customers to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. And this despite the fact that infections in Florida have skyrocketed over the summer, as the state has been one of the hardest hit areas in the country from the Delta variant in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

What this means is that hundreds or even thousands of individuals could show up for a Florida concert, sans proof of vaccination, and the band and its promoter, Live Nation, would have a choice between admitting them and turning the concert into a “superspreader” event or facing millions of dollars in fines (just 1,000 such incidents could lead to a fine of $5 million).

This is what reading between the lines means when applied to the phrase “routing and production logistics.” What choice was there but to cancel these shows to indemnify the band and promoter from a financial nightmare, while protecting tens of thousands of fans from exposure to a potentially deadly virus?

Nevertheless, this decision has unleashed a firestorm of debate that follows suit with various pandemic-induced controversies that have afflicted all of us for the past 19 months. Unfortunately, even among the hippie-infused culture of the Grateful Dead, the discourse has turned hateful and largely divided along party lines. One fan criticized the band for taking action that can only be seen as politically motivated:

“This is a really stupid decision. Did you see the CDC just announced that college football games are not super spreader situations? 85,000 people at these events, no vax proof needed. This is a political statement by the band and it’s super lame.”

Much of the criticism focused on the financial losses fans would suffer due to the timing of the announcement (not understanding that the $5,000 fine provision was enacted less than three weeks prior to the concerts):

“These things should have been worked out before they announced the concerts; that’s responsibility to your fan base. Their fans have spent good money on flights and plenty of non-refundable things, and this is wrong!”

Others defended the band and directed the blame towards Florida’s state government:

“Everyone bummed out by this should direct their negative feelings toward Gov. Ron DeSantis. Say what you want and think what you want, but they would still have been playing if not for the Gov’s stance.”

Finally, the point was made that the state’s policy left the band and promoter no choice, due to the reality of insurance logistics:

“GA pit [referring to the general admission section of the venue immediately in front of the stage] has to be vaxxed, according to the band’s insurance plan for the tour. He [DeSantis] outlawed asking for a vaccine card, so no show. No rumors here, all facts.”

What is especially revealing about the way Florida Governor DeSantis has handled pandemic-era leadership in his state is summed up in a comment made by his spokesperson, Taryn Fenske. In defense of the decision to enact a $5,000 fine for violations of SB 2006, Fenske echoed the rallying cry of Donald Trump’s ill-fated 2020 reelection campaign, saying, “Promises made, promises kept.”

This face-off featured DeSantis’s adherence to Trump’s failed COVID-19 policies versus Dead & Company’s commitment to the safety of their fans through sensible policies. It is truly unfortunate that many fans will miss the chance to experience a terrific band and the most authentic Grateful Dead concert experience of the post-Grateful Dead era. But the band should be admired for its courage and sacrifice (it is estimated that the cancellation of these two shows represents a loss of around $4 million in revenue), for within this decision we find a model of putting the needs of the public ahead of the desire for wealth and political power. The Grateful Dead always placed financial gain in its proper place, beneath higher priorities. In this situation, Dead & Company has proven itself to be the worthy carrier of that still-burning flame.

Please keep that in mind as you cast your ballots during this political campaign. It matters who we place in a position of power and trust, and too many of our political “leaders,” Ron DeSantis included, are not worthy of the trust we have placed in them. We need to do a much better job of choosing who will represent us—whether on a local, state, or national level. Let that be the silver lining of Dead & Company’s decision to cancel their 2021 Florida shows.

Stewart Sallo, founder and CEO of Boulder Weekly, is The Deadhead Cyclist