January 2009 – We had barely recovered from Rebel Salute when the circus came to town.
Sometime in the Spring of 2008 I learned that Ratdog, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead’s band, would be doing a two show/five-day stint at Grand Lido Negril. I was over the moon. You see, I am, if nothing, three complete identities: I am a woman, I am a Jew and I am a Dead Head. I saw my fist show on September, 2 1978 and had a reserved seat on the bus until June 2, 1995, two months before lead guitarist Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack. While I’d always enjoyed a variety of music and had racked up a respectable and varied collection of concert ticket stubs that included Public Image Limited (PIL) and Parliament Funkadelic, the music of the Grateful Dead simply flowed through my veins. I’d grown up with this band, saw easily over three hundred shows in over fifteen of these United States – the music itself stirred something deep within my gut and either comforted or inspired me….or both.
Bob Weir had been touring with this “side project” for some time before Jerry’s death. The band went through many changes but with the addition of Mark Karan on lead guitar in 1998 it really began to gel. There were of my favorite “postapocalyptic” Grateful Dead experiences. Their music hit my soul that the Dead’s music did.
Les and I knew some high people in places, and they knew that we were the go-to folks for this particular adventure. While Little Feat cultivated the all-inclusive, destination concert scene at Grand Lido for five years, we had over twenty years of real Jamaica experience and knowledge to share. While backstage at a gig in San Jose that summer we met the band’s manager Matt, had a brief conversation about Jamaica and exchanged information with him. As we would not be staying at Grand Lido, we secured a spot on “the list”, and he secured us for advice and adventure off the resort.
Matt arrived in Negril in early December to do his advance work at Grand Lido. His time was limited to just a few hours on a Sunday so we’d thought perhaps we’d take him along on our weekly outing to Half Moon Beach. Matt wanted a little more adventure though – he was staying on the beach so he wanted to check out something different. He wanted to eat “real” jerk chicken and he wanted to experience some of the “real” Jamaica. We picked him up at Grand Lido in typical silly bus fashion and whisked him away.
Our first choice for jerk chicken was not happening so we stopped at Best in the West on the beach road. Since time was short we ate our chicken on our laps in the van as we cruised up into the hills for a scenic drive over Mount Airy and into Orange Hill. We spent some time in Orange Hill, sampling their product and downing a couple of beers, then it was off to spend the rest of the afternoon in the yard.
When we originally made our arrangements for access into the show we were told that the event would be shut down pretty darn tight – it would be Les and I on the list and that was it. Having met and spent the day with Ron and Peg, Matt gladly added them on for access to the shows.
The first time I’d ever walked into an All Inclusive in Negril was the night the band and crew checked into Grand Lido. We met up with them in the “Main Bar”, collected our wrist bands and had a few drinks. Our “list” had grown and Matt very generously obliged – there were Dead Heads among us for sure that didn’t want to miss this event.
When we arrived the next night for the Opening Night Jam featuring Mark Karan and Friends we experienced that A.I. Royal Treatment first-hand. Ron and Les delivered the two cheesecakes Ron and Peg had gifted the band to Grand Lido’s kitchen with firm instructions for their care. We settled into one of the restaurants off the Main Bar, the Cafe Lido, trying to really absorb this “all-inclusive experience”. It was a bit of a comedy routine – talking about splitting appetizers and whether or not to get a bottle of wine as if we actually had a budget for this fancy meal. We got over it pretty fast. Niah ordered a steak, something he’d been talking about doing all day. The food was good…but not great. The service was very friendly…but slow. The best part of the meal was when we were all done eating and drinking we simply got up and left. It was a dine and dash with no need to worry about getting caught.
Mark started off his gig solo, playing two of his original tunes. As the set progressed each band member took the stage for a song or two until all of them were up there. Bobby made a guest appearance for two songs. I danced hard, so hard that my body just about gave out. All the excitement and anticipation in combination with the drag-out from Rebel Salute overtook me so I found a nice plump lounger and lay back, eyes closed and feet tapping for the last two songs of the set. When I opened my eyes Les, Matt and Weir were standing a few feet away from me talking. I joined them as we discussed Jamaica, her beautiful waters and sea life and lifted a glass to some mutual friends who were no longer with us.
The following night was the first Rat Dog show. We had dinner at Cafe Lido again – and again the service was mighty slow. So slow that I was afraid we might miss the beginning of the show. While outside having my third cigarette while waiting on the food I ran into Matt. “No problem Mon,” he said with great cheer and his best Jamaican accent, “We’re on Jamaica time!” When you combine Jamaica time with Rock and Roll time you get plenty of time. So I went back in and ordered another cocktail.
I am having a hard time finding the words to describe dancing on the beach in Negril to Grateful Dead songs. From the first notes of Help on the Way it was as if my two happy places collided head-on. I enjoyed Ron getting his Grateful Dead groove on – I’d never been to a show with him. He hadn’t been to a Grateful Dead show in fact since the early ’80s so he was living proof that those musical buttons can be pushed at any time in any place. I enjoyed watching Peg enjoying her first “Dead Experience”. I enjoyed dancing all along the beach of Bloody Bay, in the shoreline waters and among my tribe. It was all so familiar and magical, I felt drunk.
Well, that’s probably because I was. I was digging this all-inclusive thing. After a while it got a bit tedious to keep going back to the bar for single cocktails, so I moved on to bottles of champagne which I shared with my friends and anyone else wanting a pull.
After the show Ron handed out slices of cheesecake to the band and crew thanking them for a wonderful show. As we celebrated we made plans with Matt for the next day, their day off, for a bit of off resort adventure.
The party at Grand Lido was just beginning. Out at the “Far Bar” a grill was going, the drinks were flowing and tunes were playing. By the time we made it out there the chicken was “finish”. I asked for a hamburger which was slapped down on my plate. When I asked for a bun…”finish”. Finish? Really? You can’t get anymore? “No problem, ” the grill man said, “Mi soon come back”. And with that he left, meat still on the grill. So we waited. And we waited. It became pretty clear pretty quick that dude was not coming back, the meat on the grill was starting to burn and more folks were lining up for food. Les and Brenda jumped right in, flipping burgers and feeding the hungry hoards. Brenda even found a tray of fish much to the delight of the non-meat eaters and got that going as well. These guys kept feeding everyone, even after the plates ran out. When the last morsel of food was handed out Les closed the grill ceremoniously, announcing “Finish!” to the crowd.
The next day we were back at Grand Lido to pick up Matt and the others that had gathered for a day “off campus”. Joining Matt and his girlfriend were Mark Karan and his wife Maile and Jay Lane and his wife Aida. Matt was down with doing what we’d done with him in December, plus he was anxious to revisit all the places we took him with a little more time to savor each one. We started at Best in the West where the crowd opted for the lobster instead of chicken. We got to sit and eat this time, but talking was kept to a minimum as everyone noisily sucked down the grilled lobster. From there we took the ride through the countryside, everyone gazing out the windows and snapping photos and talking with Niah about the neighborhoods, businesses and homes. We arrived in Orange Hill and got out of the van at Kenny’s. It was a very easy and simple sit where you will, drink your beer and talk to folks. Jay and Kenny got into a great conversation about the music each one made, trading CDs. Rumple, our Rasta friend who lives in Orange Hill came out to meet everyone and he and Niah, who grew up in Orange Hill, told stories and answered questions about the area. Everyone was taken with Rumple, a humble, gentle and funny Rasta Man…so taken that Matt gave him a wrist band for the following night’s show.
Our next and last stop would be our yard, so we took the “back way” stopping up at the top of Hogg’s to take in the view. Mr. Hogg is probably 96 years old now and has set up his final resting place on that hill, overlooking the sea and the West End of Negril. The grave site for a man still alive was a kick to our guests. On the way back to the yard we made a quick stop at Culture Yard – a store? place? which has a huge “Steal Your Face” Grateful Dead logo painted on the wall along with “Grateful Forever” surrounding it. The Ratdog gang enjoyed seeing that but equally enjoyed strolling among the baby goats across the street on the seaside property.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the yard chilling, swimming in the sea and the pool, exploring the caves and eating cheesecake. The group had to be back at Grand Lido to get ready for a dinner “The Boss” was giving at his villa. Even though they were hesitant to leave we managed to get them back just in time. We left them quite elated with their “real” Jamaica experience.
The next night was the last show and Rumple arrived at our yard, dressed to the nines and ready to party. He doesn’t get to go out all that much. Rumple is a hard-working family man, but tonight he was pretty excited to check this scene out.
When we arrived at Grand Lido we noticed that all the restaurants were closed. A cold front had come in overnight so the wind was whipping and the sea was rolling. As we ventured in we came upon a huge party on the beach – tonight was the “finale night” Grand Buffet. Most of the beach was taken up with food stations – Prime Rib, Jerk Chicken, Salads, Lobster, Fish…and Sushi! The posse dove in with great enthusiasm. Niah was just beside himself…”Pretty girls, free rum…and now this!” Rumple couldn’t believe his eyes. This humble Rasta felt uncomfortable getting up and going for seconds, we had to encourage him a little. Even to my North American, nothing succeeds like excess eyes this was truly decadent.
Show time! By then the wind had died down a bit and as soon as I started dancing I warmed up. The waves were still churning so Groove, lighting guy extraordinaire, set out to cast a most amazing light show on the sea as the waves rolled in, filling each crest with all the colors of the rainbow.
During the classic Grateful Dead song “Playing in the Band” Peg and I turned around the check on Rumple. There he was, his long dreadlocks swinging, his eyes closed, his body rocking with a huge smile on his face; it was as though he was born a Dead Head. He “got it” from jump.
At set break we gathered backstage where Matt grabbed Rumple right away. He was eager for Bob to meet his new Rasta friend.
After a rocking second set the band left the stage, just for a breather before the encore. Bob came on first waving a Jamaican Flag. When they finished he triumphantly announced “See you next year”. You bet.
Backstage after the show we all chilled out with the band members and crew, hugging everyone up, congratulating everyone on a great run. Weir was leaning back casually on a set of stairs as we talked about what a great experience this had been for him and his family. The entire band and its crew felt that way – as elated as we were by the experience.
The next day, their last day in Jamaica, we collected Mark and Maile and a few of the crew for a gentle family outing at Half Moon Beach. The crew was pretty psyched that load out took half the time they expected. We lounged on the beach, talking with Andrew and Tania, playing dominoes, swimming and eating. Afterwards we grabbed Mark and Maile for a quick trip up to PeeWees and No Limit Bar for a bit of Tony jerk chicken and sunset.
That week is up there with some of the most memorable times I’ve had in Jamaica. We made great new friends, danced to our music and got to see some Jamaica through new eyes. My two worlds collide and there were fireworks, Calliopes and clowns.