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POP MUSIC REVIEWS : Dead Survive the Coliseum

June 03, 1991|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The tie-dye shorts adorning the Olympic statues outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday might have seemed strange to some. But to the Deadheads approaching the stadium to see their beloved Grateful Dead in concert, it was a reassuring sight.

There had been concern among the faithful that the urban stadium might prove anathema to the Dead's counter-culture vibes. It's not that the Dead isn't big enough: A two-day event last year at Cal State Dominguez Hills sold 80,000 tickets.

But the Coliseum was untested ground for the Dead, who on Saturday joined an elite roster of Coliseum headliners that includes the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bruce Springsteen. And, indeed, some fans were apparently put off by the setting and its reserved-seating format (rather than the Deadhead-preferred festival seating): Attendance at the Coliseum was only 45,000 in a facility that can hold more than 70,000 for concerts.

So the sartorial improvements on the statues, nude torsos by sculptor Robert Graham, were the Dead's little way of telling their fans, "Trust us--we know what we're doing."

It worked.

"I don't like L.A.," said Danny Thebeau, a 25-year-old Deadhead who had come in from Palm Desert for his 146th Dead concert, as he stood in the Deadhead village that had formed in the parking lot before the show. "But this is a mellow scene."

The scene referred to by Thebeau, who went on the road following the Dead from concert to concert from 1988 to 1990, featured Deadheads old and new gathering around psychedelic painted buses, while vendors hawked such wares as jewelry and incense. It was business pretty much as usual for one of the more fascinating subcultures in modern American society.

The police and security officials handling the show weren't so easily reassured beforehand. A beefed-up force was deployed to keep things under control, something that proved necessary only once.

About 10 minutes after the Dead began playing, a few thousand people in the stands made their way onto the field, where they hoped to find room to engage in the twirling, air-grabbing dance steps that are standard at Dead shows. But after it quickly became clear that it wasn't going to be allowed, they returned in orderly fashion to their seats.

"It was just matter of them seeing how far they could go," said Sgt. Gloria Vargas, one of the Los Angeles Police Department officers who had contained the flood of fans. "But we know how to handle that and everyone behaved well."

After the afternoon event, Capt. Garrett Zimmon, commanding officer of the Southwest area, said that there were 31 arrests, mostly outside the Coliseum for narcotics sales and possession. Zimmon said that was a low number for a concert that size.

That assessment may save the Dead's future in Southern California. With the group's following having outgrown such sites as Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and with other communities concerned about an influx of Deadheads, the band's L.A. options are few. But Coliseum management has said that it wants to be the area home of the Dead, and plans are currently being made for a multinight engagement at the neighboring, indoor Sports Arena, perhaps in the fall.

With so many sideshows going on, the music at a Dead concert can almost seem incidental. Even at the best ones, the band merely provides the sound track to the scene. This show was not the best, but ultimately the Dead did live up to their legacy.

Typically, it took a few songs for the band's sound to gel. But once it did, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and crew ran through a well-balanced set of the tight shuffles and group improvisations that are their trademarks, mixing such Dead classics as "Uncle John's Band" and "Deal" with outside favorites including Bob Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately" and Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away."

It was also the Dead's first Southern California appearance since the death of keyboardist Brent Mydland last October. With new member Vince Welnick and part-timer Bruce Hornsby taking over the slot, the band hasn't missed a beat, though neither really pushed the Dead in new directions Saturday.

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