5 Grateful Dead Songs With St. Louis Connections

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Dead & Company will perform at Scottrade Center on Friday, November 20.
  • Dead & Company will perform at Scottrade Center on Friday, November 20.

This summer, the Grateful Dead celebrated its 50th anniversary, with all four surviving members performing at Soldier Field in Chicago — an outing branded as its "Fare Thee Well" performances. For those shows, the band was rounded out by veterans of the jam scene Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti. The five concerts set records for attendance, in addition to shattering Pay-Per-View records. Even the St. Louis Cardinals got in on the act with their inaugural Grateful Dead theme night at Busch Stadium in September.

But controversy arose following the "Fare Thee Well" shows when it was leaked to the media that the band would take on an entire tour. This announcement created a backlash from fans who rang out their bank accounts and exhausted their travel budgets for the year, only to find that the band would do another major money grab in the fall.

Although the GD money machine is cranking at full throttle, an unexpected wrench was thrown into the plans when it was announced that original bassist Phil Lesh would not take part in the tour. The band would only feature three-fourths of the "Core 4" and would downgrade the lineup from Trey & Bruce to no Phil and pop star John Mayer on second guitar.

The contrary opinion is that Deadheads are just happy to have any shows, as the surviving members are in the twilight of their careers.  And early returns on the Mayer-led lineup have been quite positive.  All the particulars aside, it appears the famous Grateful Dead concert vibe will be in full flight this Friday, November 20 in St. Louis.  In addition to the concert at Scottrade, downtown St. Louis will also host two "After-Parties" with the Schwag at Ballpark Village and Jake's Leg at the Broadway Oyster Bar. (Disclosure: The author of this piece performs in the Schwag.)  

So with perhaps the final large-scale Grateful Dead(ish) show in town happening this weekend, one can't help but think about the long history between our city and the treasured American rock & roll band. Beginning in 1968, the Jerry Garcia-led Dead played the St. Louis area 26 times before his death in 1995. In honor of the big night for Deadheads here in St. Louis, here are five possible song choices out of the Dead's massive catalog that have St. Louis connections. The band is known for using their songs to allude to location, weather and whatever other major events might be going on in the world, so keep your ears peeled at the show. 

"Big River" 
Johnny Cash's ode to a traveling heartbreaker with droves of male admirers who makes a stop on her way south to New Orleans is a staple of the GD catalog. St. Louis is proudly a River town, and with so many of the Dead's characters and stories being set on the river, there is a natural camaraderie between St. Louis and the GD.  

"Well, I followed her down to St. Louie later on down the river / Trader said she's been here but she's gone, boy, she's gone."

"Stagger Lee" 
Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia offered up their own take on the infamous pimp Stagger Lee, who shot Billy Lyons (in this version, "DeLyons") on the Landing in 1895 after a game of cards went awry.  In Hunter's account,  Billy's wife Delia DeLyons, now a widow, marches down to city hall and demands retribution from the cowardly sheriff, who pleads,  "How in the hell can I arrest him when he's twice as big as me."  I can't help but imagine this scene every time I go to St. Louis city hall to get a tax waiver or pay a fine, as it has existed in the same building since long before Stagger Lee pulled the trigger in 1895. The GD version offers a happy ending when Delia finally tracks down Stagger Lee in a local saloon and shoots him in the balls.

"Black Throated Wind"
A requiem to living a difficult life on the road makes a stop in St. Louis. In the song, a storm rages within the hitchhiking protagonist's mind and also in the struggles of dealing with the loss of innocence within a dying form of travel on the American highway. With nowhere to go after being dumped by his lover (who lived in St. Louis), the hitchhiker is now desperate, pleading during the song's finale, "I'm going back home; that's what I'm gonna do." I can't help but imagine the response that might come with Bob Weir bellowing the line "Well I left St. Louis, city of Bluuuues" for 21,000 people inside the St. Louis Blues' arena.  Chills.   

"Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo"
Two things that we know all too well in St. Louis: gambling and rivers! Enter this early '70s Hunter-penned tune with a title influenced by Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodleloo."  The protagonist in the card-dealing, pool-playing, riverboat-rambling themed Dead song isn't much different than the people you would find on the Landing in the 1880s or even at a 3 a.m. bar in Soulard in 2015.  When the protagonist yearns "across the lazy river" during the song's conclusion, we can only imagine what kind of trouble one might find on the East Side.

"Johnny B Goode" 
The Dead have always paid tribute to their influences and heroes. Among them is St. Louis's most famous musician, Chuck Berry.  The Dead and Garcia have covered many of Chuck's tunes over the years, including "Promised Land," "Let it Rock," "Around and Around," "You Never Can Tell" and of course "Johnny B Goode."  This is my prediction for the encore, unless the band offers up a river-related ballad like "Brokedown Palace" or "Black Muddy River."

Dead & Company
7 p.m. Friday, November 20. Scottrade Center, 1401 Clark Avenue. $47 to $96. 314-622-5400.



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