A Conversation With Comedian, Deadhead Phil Hanley About The Final Dead & Company Shows

“This is them at their absolute peak.”
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Waves. Everywhere you looked, there were waves of people – 40,000 bodies moving, swaying, and flailing in the cool San Francisco breeze. This was the final Dead & Company show, an event brimming with tears of joy, gloriously goofy dancing, and, of course, epic jamming. Grateful Dead co-founder, Bob Weir, returned home for a trio of concerts at Oracle Park, marking the grand finale.

Outside the stadium, the atmosphere exuded glee without a hint of bittersweetness. At a Dead & Company show, there was nothing to feel down about, even if it was purported to be the last gig. The crowd was ecstatic, often drunk and high, all ready to witness the band doing what they do best – just like they had over the years.

For nearly five hours, the band – Bob Weir (rhythm guitar and vocals), Mickey Hart (drums and percussion), Jeff Chimenti (keyboards and vocals), John Mayer (lead guitar and vocals), and Oteil Burbridge (bass and vocals) – played like both masters and curious students intertwined. Even when they played the Dead’s hit songs, the band delivered the unexpected, leaving you hanging on to every note and lyric. It wasn’t just because it was the final show. Plus, for a band like the Dead, and a night like the final show, that music never stops. 

There’s something about their music that dances with the soul. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words exactly, especially since the soul isn’t always the most eloquent talker and all. Comedian Phil Hanley, however, knows exactly how the Dead’s music makes him feel. Hanley has been deeply influenced by the band, especially Bob Weir, whom he idolizes. “Anything Bob Weir does, I’ll support,” he once told High Times. “My favorite dyslexic, Bob Weir.” 

Rather than writing further about the gloriousness of the final show, the smell of cannabis in the air, or the band’s inspiring balance of patience and momentum, I thought it best to let High Times readers hear from an expert. Consider Phil Hanley a doctor and a professor in all things Dead-related.

Having attended the final three Dead & Company shows, Hanley – who you can always catch at The Comedy Cellar in NYC or on tour this fall – shared his experiences in a call a few days after the last show, both of us buzzing as we reminisced about witnessing Dead & Company at both the peak and the end of their touring career.

How were your experiences at the final three shows? How did they compare?

Well, the whole time it’s in your head that these were the last shows. It was being billed as that, but I’ve been going to see Dead & Co shows since 2015 when they started in the fall. The craziest thing in your head is thinking, “These are the last shows,” but then you’re also thinking, “This is them at their absolute peak.” And not just like, “Oh, these are great shows,” but it was like a next-level situation that, as a fan of the band and someone that had seen them many, many times, I didn’t necessarily predict that they would be able to get to the place that they were at this past weekend.

And again, I was a fan. I’ve seen Dead & Co a bunch of times, and I’d never pass on a show, but it was next level and treading on totally new grounds. On Friday night, there was a jam in “Scarlet Begonias” where I was like, “This pathway in the forest has never been locked down before. Like, they were unbelievable.”

I saw it Sunday night, and I agree, it’s the best I’ve seen them. Everything felt spontaneous yet so on point. 

It’s like that line in “Terrapin Station” where they’re like, “Is this the end or the beginning?” That’s how I felt. Anyone who’s reading High Times, I highly recommend you listen to “Scarlet” or “Cumberland Blues,” ‘cause it was so on the edge of chaos, it reminded me in a completely different way. That’s the incredible thing. It wasn’t like, “Let’s go up and emulate a great Cumberland from when Jerry was still with us.”

I’ve been a Bob Weir fan since I was a kid. He’s just such a huge source of inspiration, but to see him in the pocket and just, it is the last song and he’s like, “Let’s do it. Let’s do something new.” It was phenomenal on Friday night when they did “The Big River” and “Dark Star” mashup.

Do you really think it’s the end for Dead & Company?

It is not the way people behave [on stage] when they’re like, “This is the last kick in the can,” you know? I think we’re on the brink of a new beginning. I think that Bob was kind of conducting the band for a lot of the previous years, but this time, everyone was just on their own and just completely let loose. I was blown away by all three nights.

How else do you think they evolved over the years as a group?

They started good and got better and better and better. There were ups and downs along the way, but good God, not only did it feel like a peak, but it felt just like a whole new thing. I can’t believe as musicians, they would be like, “Yeah, let’s never do that again.” They played 10 hours of music over three days. They did three encores. They did “Truckin’,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Not Fade Away.” No one left. 

Hanley
Comedian Phil Hanley

On Sunday night, I think they went 40 minutes past their scheduled end time. I thought they were going to finish with “Not Fade Away,” which would’ve been a lovely final song, but then Bob had this look on stage, like, “Let’s keep going.”

Yeah, dude. I was standing with a group of friends and we wanted more. It was like denial. It was like refusing to see a lover’s flaws or something like that. When a roadie was removing a mic, people just could not accept that it was over and not over as the band, but just over as the night. It was very reflective of what people wanted.

If this is the end, there was something kind of beautiful about Bob Weir finishing these shows back home, near where the band started. Did you see any significance in him playing San Francisco in the final Dead & Company shows?

I’ll try to be concise with you because I’ve brought this up to like probably 10 Deadheads, and it didn’t even register in their eyes. But to me, there was a huge moment on Friday where Bob Weir goes, “The bus came round and I got on, and that’s when it all began.” I’m getting chills. My hair is standing up on my arm right now because it’s so wild that that is true.

In 1965, he heard Jerry practicing guitar in a music store and went in and met Jerry, and like, all that’s happened… To me, I read that moment as, that’s all that’s happened. There’s so much more that will happen, you know? It was just such a wild, wild moment because so much has gone down. In true Bob Weir fashion, the next day on Monday, he announced a Wolf Brothers tour.

Did he?

Wolf Brothers on the road in the fall. When people say, “Bob is this age,” that means nothing. He arguably sounds as good or better than ever. I mean, he always sounds amazing, but he sounds like no other singer I’ve ever seen. Besides Jerry, he’s the character in those songs, and you feel it, and it just goes directly to your heart. You know, when he was singing and he’s telling these stories, oh my God.

I think his voice has such gravitas and history to it now that, you’re right, it’s evolved – not improved – into this beautiful new place.

Oh, yeah. Also, everyone was playing insanely, but Bobby is right there, and he was so in the zone. He’s so in the song, he’s not even really tapping his foot. He’s just in it, you know? Everyone else is like dancing and gyrating, and Weir is just channeled. He’s playing at such a high level and makes it look so easy and so natural. 

Last time we spoke, you talked about Bob Weir being a hero of yours, partly because, as he’s said, he’s “super dyslexic.” When you watch him play live, do you still focus on how it influences his playing?

When I found out that Bob Weir was dyslexic, I was like, “Oh, he’s one of us.” The community has Bob Weir. You know, over the last 40 years, if he messes up a lyric, it’s celebrated and a reminder that it’s a live experience. It’s not like, “Oh, Bobby messed up the lyrics to ‘West L.A. Fadeaway.'” It’s celebrated.

We approach things differently, and it’s a strength. When Jerry passed, you’re like, “How is anyone ever gonna replace Jerry Garcia, one of the greatest, if not the greatest American musician to ever live?” Just an incredible, incredible musician and disciplined and creative and all these things, obviously. That’s really hard to replace, but what I think will be impossible to replace would be if anything ever happened to Bob Weir because his style of playing is so unique.

I’ve brought guitar players to see Dead shows before, and they’re just like, “What is he doing?” Because he’s playing like an E up here and an E there, and an E there, and an E there. The way he approaches music and the guitar, there’s no rhythm guitar player that’s even similar. He’s such his own entity.

If he was able to read music too, he might have been more traditional and wouldn’t have gone down the path he did. You know, Jerry always said he followed Bob’s lead, letting his rhythm guitar lead the way. How’d you see the band play off Bob this last weekend? 

Jeff Chimenti has such a beautiful musical relationship with the band, and they play so well off each other. When you see them live, you can really hear how they play in harmony. They all kind of took turns and fell in line. Because they’re doing new stuff, I mean, how many “Scarlet Begonias” have I listened to in my life? Maybe all of them, but to hear them go in a new direction like there was a jam in the middle of “Scarlet Begonias” where I’m like, “Oh, this is crazy. I’ve never heard anything like that. The song was there.”

I was talking to a musician last night who had played with Bobby, and he said that in the past, when they played together and someone made a mistake or a bold choice, that’s when you really got Bobby’s attention. That’s me quoting, but I think that’s where they find things interesting. I also heard a Mayer interview this year where they were talking about a song going in a new direction or kind of off the rails, and that was when Weir was really like, “No, stay here. This is new.” It’s the beauty of the Dead.

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I actually took a John Mayer fan to the show, and they left a fan of the Dead. How do you think he gelled with the music over the years?

It’s so inspiring. I was blown away that he knew all those songs for the first tour, and I thought he was great. The first tour I was content with, like, “This is The Dead.” He continued to evolve, and it was his guitar playing that, I think, helped make “Cumberland Blues” so special and something that people will celebrate. There’s no way people won’t listen to that Sunday night show. 

Man, when they briefly went into “Hey Jude” and Mayer did this guitar solo, I was like, holy shit.

Dude, yes. It was cool because you could see Bobby was kind of conducting things before, and now everyone’s just left to do their own thing. Again, it’s so weird ’cause it’s under the guise of this being their last tour. A few times in my head, I was like, “This is the future of the Dead.” It made me feel that they have a bright future and, you know, with Mayer playing, this is another eight years. I was like, “God, I can’t wait to hear them 16 or 20 years from now.”

I hope that’s the case. I’ve felt a bit down since that final show because I’ll miss these shows and something beautiful about going to them – the lack of insecurity you feel. It’s such a happy place to be, and you can dance like an idiot, and no one will laugh at you. After your decades of watching the Dead live and having that experience, has it helped make you more comfy in your skin?

100%. I always tell people, the Dead is my lifeblood. I’m from a town in Canada, and people talk about gatekeeping and all that stuff. You pick a hockey team when you’re three, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter what happens. You pick who you are, and that’s that. So growing up, you couldn’t wear a certain band shirt unless you’d seen them live. Even with Dead stuff, I never wore any Dead paraphernalia until I saw them live.

It’s wild that there’s a full-on 2023 resurgence of the Grateful Dead. I welcome it. I love it. I just think it’s such a positive thing for everyone. Like you were saying, you can’t look goofy, that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about not caring about fitting in. Normally, you fit in with people by taking into consideration what they think or how they feel or whatever. With the Dead, you fit in by not caring about those things. It’s completely letting loose. It’s phenomenal.

You meet so many cool and friendly people at these shows, too. Any favorite memories of fellow fans at Dead shows?

Every show. I remember a show at MSG, Dead & Co. I was with my girlfriend at the time, but it was a bit of a turbulent situation. She left the show. I had a split second of like, ah, what a bad buzz. And then out of nowhere, this dude just gave me this huge hug and was like, “I could see you needed that.” He didn’t see my girlfriend storm away or anything like that. He just read my face when he was dancing by and gave me a hug, and then danced away.

I remember back in the day when Jerry was alive, and we were at Soldier Field. I had lied to my parents about where I was going, and we snuck out and drove to Chicago from Ontario, which is quite a trek. I remember the show ended, and this guy was wearing a full tie-dyed, like, clown outfit. He was standing and screaming as loud as he could, “RAH!” And then the crowd would cheer, and then he’d do it again. Only louder this time, “RAH!” And the crowd would cheer. He yelled a third time, he threw himself back and just landed on the ground, flat on his back. It went from funny to dramatic. And then he stood up and went, “See you guys tomorrow night!” And everyone applauded.

There’s such genuine joy at a dead show. Other of the things that dawned on me, I always thought, like when I was a kid, it felt like the Dead, even though they’re so popular that I always kind of had sympathy for people who weren’t aware of them and were depriving themselves of that experience. It was just a subconscious thing where I was so grateful to be part of it and so grateful that I had that thing in my life – my love for the Dead.

I hadn’t thought that for years, and the [final] weekend, that thought popped back into my head. Again, this is really where it’s at. It’s almost like, if people don’t understand the band, you don’t like the human spirit. It’s a celebration of the human spirit. And it’s just encompassing so much music, you know? There are parts of it that are so heavy, but you just get so much out of it. It’s just such a wild ride and such a complete experience.

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  1. This is a lovely, exuberant conversation wrap-up of the Last Shows. I agreed with every word. (Also a Bobby devotee since I was 19 and he was 21!) i just want to add that, all through that weekend, I kept remembering, “Being at these Dead shows for 50 years was the most fun I could hope to have on the Planet!” Just pure, ecstatic fun and joy and Community! Such delightful reunions with friends during intermissions. And we were all Family, a Tribe. Every time we saw a dancing bear discreetly on a car, or a skull and roses on a backpack, wherever we were in the world, knowing, blessing smiles were exchanged. “Hey now!”
    Yes, the music in those last shows is cosmically stellar. Everyone in the band was just radiating joy and exuberance, reveling in the musical journey they were on together, never knowing quite what the next phrase might be, whether initiated by Bob or John or Jeff or Otiel. They all just said, “Okay, we’re going over here now!” It was a revelation to see.
    I haven’t been able to listen to the music since the weekend ended (although I played them all day each day up to the next show). It’s just too bittersweet yet. A pang in my heart to think, “This is the last Althea. Scarlet. Cumberland.” I need a little more time to process. Thank you, Bob Weir. Thank you for keeping the Faith since 1995.

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