Concert promoters seem to be cut from the same cloth. Guys like Bill Graham (Fillmore East and West, Live Aid), John Scher (Woodstock ’99), Alex Cooley (southern rock specialist, got a shout-out on a live Lynyrd Skynyrd album), and of course Louis Messina (Houston’s own Pace Concerts). All of them are / were a bit larger than life, wheeler-dealers, gamblers.
Another member of this club is Peter Shapiro, who has just chronicled his exploits in the book The Music Never Stops: What Putting on 10,000 Shows Has Taught Me About Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Magic, co-authored with Dean Budnick (Hachette Books, 352 pp. $29).
Shapiro fell into the business via his fondness for the Grateful Dead, though he came late to the party. He was bitten by the bug in 1993, just two years before the end of the road for the venerable band. It was not the greatest of eras for the Dead. Keyboard player Brent Mydland had OD’ed. Guitarist Jerry Garcia was in precarious health, brilliant on some nights, somnambulant on others. Fans were attending concerts more out of loyalty than in anticipation of a musical revelation. Still, the enduring appeal of the Dead can snare anyone at any time. Such was the case with young Peter Shapiro.
The promoter-to-be stumbled onto the Dead while he was attending college at Northwestern University. While still in school, he produced a documentary, And Miles to Go: On Tour with The Grateful Dead, which chronicled the experiences of younger Deadheads like himself who went on the road and followed the band. Within a couple of decades, Shapiro had climbed to the top of the mountain, assembling a bi-coastal, five-concert celebration of the Dead’s 50th anniversary that was, in spite of itself, a brilliant commemoration of the band’s impact on contemporary culture.
Don’t expect in-depth analysis from Shapiro, who, based on this book, comes off as a “hail-fellow-well-met” kind of guy. It’s more like going to dinner with a friend who can tell incredible stories and is possessed with unflagging enthusiasm. Frequent interjections of “Dude! Dude!” would probably punctuate the meal. As would the occasional tequila shot (his beverage of choice).
Mixed in with Shapiro’s anecdotes are kernels of wisdom he has picked up over his years in the biz, e.g. “You can’t see it if you’re not there,” and “You should be prepared to handle the known unknowns.” Not to mention, “The obvious is obvious until you miss it,” and “It’s all fun and games until someone loses five grand.” Similar to what you might hear from Foghorn Leghorn if he had grown up in Manhattan and smoked lots of weed.
Shapiro would be a beloved figure in the jam band community even if he had never professionally encountered members of the Grateful Dead. In 1997, just out of college, Shapiro bought the Tribeca nightclub Wetlands Preserve from its founder, Larry Bloch, using money derived from the sale of IBM stock given to him by his grandfather on the occasion of his bar mitzvah. From that time until 2001, Shapiro booked countless bands beloved by latter-day fans of jammy, neo-psychedelic music: Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, Gov’t Mule, the Dave Matthews Band, Disco Biscuits, and Phish.
When he took over the reins, Shapiro — as he had promised Bloch as a condition of the sale — maintained the club’s activist ethos, which was equal parts “save the planet,” “question authority” and “let the good times roll.” However, lest a reader think that Shapiro was a rich kid into whose lap opportunity continued to fall, the impression gleaned from the narrative is that of a young man who was hard-working and ridiculously motivated. Also resilient. He frequently mentions the pervasive stress that characterizes the concert business, even claiming in a couple of passages to be suffering from “a touch” of PTSD.
The book, which is comprised of 50 chapters, each focusing on one particular show, has been called a master class in the rock and roll concert business. In Shapiro’s view, there is a lesson to be learned from each of these 50 gigs. Among them, as imparted to him by former Wetlands owner Bloch, “Focusing so much on your net worth is not really a great way to create good vibes.”
A reader will not doubt that Shapiro absorbed this bit of wisdom, nor that he is, ultimately, still a fan. After a discussion of the financial side of the concert business, he takes a slight detour. “Since I have been talking about numbers,” Shapiro says, “here’s another one that is important to me: 72. The magic that I experience during an inspiring night of music lasts for 72 hours. It stays with me forever, but I can feel it directly for about three days. Then I’m chasing it again.”
Through Wetlands, Shapiro got to know Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, former members of the Grateful Dead who stayed on the road as solo acts after the band dissolved. He developed both a professional and personal relationship with both musicians, which ultimately led to his selection as the person to helm the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary gigs, a micro tour billed as “Fare Thee Well,” a nod to the Dead song “Brokedown Palace.”
By that point, Shapiro could (well, pretty much) do no wrong in the eyes of the Dead’s “core four,” Weir and Lesh, plus drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. He zigged and zagged, avoiding any potential intra-band disputes, keeping everyone (relatively) happy. But after all of the things that Shapiro accomplished but did not receive credit for, it was “The Rainbow,” something he had absolutely had no part in, that perhaps cemented his legend.
“The obvious is obvious until you miss it.”
After booking three farewell shows at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Shapiro began hearing from fans in California who felt left out and were miffed that there were no anniversary concerts booked near San Francisco, the Dead’s home turf. Shapiro capitulated, arranging two shows in Santa Rosa to serve as warm-ups for the Chicago gigs. Much like trying out a musical in Philadelphia prior to its Broadway debut.
The first Santa Rosa show began with an audience favorite, “Truckin’,” and over the next hour, the band played an opening set that was largely filled with well-known, much-loved songs. As the Dead closed things out with “Viola Lee Blues,” a vibrant rainbow appeared in the sky above the stadium, wrapping everyone in a huge cosmic hug. Shapiro writes, “I felt a wave of positive energy flow over me. It seemed like all 75,000 of us were sharing a moment of wonder and jubilation that amplified the energy coming from the stage.”
By all accounts (and there is photographic evidence), this actually happened. It was not a mass hallucination, as some initially posited. According to Shapiro, most everyone — musicians and audience members alike — seemed to think that the promoter had somehow arranged this extraordinary phenomenon.
Dead drummer Hart texted Shapiro, “How did you do that rainbow trick? I won’t reveal your power. Not even Bill Graham could do that.” A reporter from Billboard asked, “How’d you do that?” Shapiro explained that it wasn’t possible to just make a rainbow, but the scribe was having none of it, demanding to know what the secret might be. In an effort to end the exchange, Shapiro said, “OK, I paid 50 grand for it.”
By the next morning, the report was all over the news wires, with “experts” weighing in on the technology that must have been necessary to manage such a feat. Once the Billboard reporter was informed (by Shapiro) that she had been bamboozled, the initial dispatch was revised with an explanatory note: “This article has been updated to reflect the continuing debate over the appearance of the rainbow, which upon further investigation appears to have been real. Turns out this band really does jam with God.”