The Big Red was awash in tie-dye May 8 as Dead & Company came to Barton Hall for a jubilant benefit show that had multiple generations of Cornellians and Deadheads dancing, singing along and celebrating the return of members of the Grateful Dead to the site of one of their most historic performances.
The sold-out concert – brought to campus by Alumni Affairs and Development and preceding the band’s final tour – was a fundraiser for Cornell’s 2030 Project, which seeks to develop and accelerate real-world solutions to climate change, and MusiCares, a nonprofit that supports the health and welfare of music industry professionals.
Playing two sets across four hours, with a brief intermission, the band peppered the setlist with callbacks to their mythic performance held in the same space exactly 46 years ago. Once again, they opened with “Minglewood Blues,” later segued seamlessly from “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain” (a coupling known as “Scarlet/Fire” to hardcore fans) and ramped up to the same rousing, penultimate number, “Morning Dew.”
The audience ranged from students who grew up hearing the Dead’s music through their parents, to alumni who ventured back to campus to relive the magic of the original show, to diehard Deadheads from out of state hoping to catch their favorite band one more time in an intimate setting.
Then there were those like Sofia Gnehm ’24, a mechanical engineering major in Cornell Engineering, who wasn’t too familiar with the Dead’s music, but who won a lottery ticket to the show and wanted to come and see what all the passion was about. And she did her homework in advance.
“I listened to the Barton Hall recording before coming,” she said. “I didn’t want to walk in and be like ‘What’s going on?’”
She was awed by the light show, which blazed Barton Hall with a spectrum of colors befitting one of the last remaining acts of the psychedelic era, and she enjoyed the enthusiasm of the audience.
“It’s fun watching everyone who’s a huge fan just enjoy it. And it’s fun being a new person introduced to the music,” she said. “In the least cheesy way, I feel like I’m embodying the experience of most students in Barton at the original show who weren’t huge fans, but who just kind of came on Slope Day and were like ‘This is amazing.’”
Throughout the day, campus was thrumming with anticipation. The Cornell Chimes played its annual Grateful Dead concert. Cornell Dairy dished up a special limited-time ice cream flavor – Barton Ripple ’23 – of chocolate ice cream with a marshmallow ripple and caramel-filled chocolate pieces. Excitement for the show reached such a fever pitch that within 90 minutes of opening its doors, Barton Hall’s Dead & Co. merchandise table had been cleared out of almost everything: commemorative shirts, hats, pins. Only a stack of posters remained.
“I’ve been doing this for going on 24 years,” said Rusty Whitman, a vendor based out of Saratoga Springs, New York who has worked previous shows by Dead & Co. as well as the Dave Matthews Band and other acts. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Never.”
Mary Morris ’79, of Schenectady, New York, attended the original ’77 concert and said she had to come back.
“I had to have one more experience of seeing the Dead,” she said, “and for their last tour, too.”
This time, she came with her husband, Phil Mueller ’79, who had missed the original show.
“I was in law school,” he said. “I was probably studying.”
Morris arrived at the show wearing a classic Grateful Dead shirt, although she noted that it wasn’t vintage. As a student, she hadn’t the money to buy any merchandise, so she did the next best thing.
“I stole one of the posters,” she said. “It’s framed in our house.”
For Joe Kelly ’23, an information science major in the College of Arts and Sciences, the concert was not only a musical experience, but also a demonstration of the local community.
“It’s a great example of Ithaca, in general, because I think you get that Ithaca-like weirdness, almost amplified,” Kelly said. “It’s been awesome seeing all the super positive people. The great vibes in Collegetown kind of make you feel like you’ve been transported into Ithaca 50 years ago. It’s very cool to see the city and the campus as a whole right now.”
Megan Cleary ’23, a communication major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, grew up listening to the Dead, thanks to the influence of her mother, who attended the first Barton Hall show.
“It was almost serendipitous when I found out they were performing,” she said.
She and friends Fionnuala “Finn” Mahoney ’24, a food science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Andrea Candidato ’23, from the ILR School, pointed to the light show and percussionist Mickey Hart’s drum solo – which was inspired by the Lab of Ornithology – as being particular highlights.
Mahoney didn’t need to send any videos to her mother, Shari Mahoney ’94, M.A. ’14, because she was with her at Barton Hall, along with Finn’s brother Cormac ’22, a graduate student in environmental engineering.
“It was everything I hoped for, and it was our last chance to see them,” said Shari Mahoney, a veteran of about a dozen Dead shows.
By the time the show concluded at 11:40 p.m., Jason Halegoua ’93, a chemistry major (A&S), walked out of Barton and summed up the show with a single word: phenomenal.
“It was a well-played show. A nice song selection. And this actually was a cool place to see it,” said Halegoua, who said he has seen the Dead roughly 350 times.
This show marked the first time he’d been back to campus in 30 years.
“It was a great night to be up here,” he said.