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Dead reckoning at Merriweather Post

The Grateful Dead

Will Columbia be ready for another Deadhead invasion when four of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead come to town May 14 to play a sold-out show at Merriweather Post Pavilion?

Longtime Columbia residents are unlikely to forget when the Grateful Dead performed in town for three summers in a row back in the 1980s. Throngs of the band's followers trucked into town clad in headbands and colorful tie-dye shirts and skirts. They then proceeded to camp out in Symphony Woods and bathe in the fountains at the Mall in Columbia.

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To use a Deadhead expression, this "freaked out" a lot of locals. After one too many weird Deadhead sightings, disgruntled residents held meetings with local police, reporters wrote news stories, and opposing opinions flew back and forth in the pages of the Columbia Flier.

Talk of all this controversy still goes on in places like the Facebook page "You know you grew up in Columbia Md when…" where it's rumored the Dead were eventually banned from Merriweather.

All of which begs the question — Is the band back because the ban was lifted?

No, because "there was never a ban," says Jean Parker, Merriweather's longtime general manager. "That is not accurate."

Part of the reason the rumor has been kept alive all these years is because when people Google the topic, what comes up is a Los Angeles Times article from June 6, 1990, titled "Pavilion bans Grateful Dead." But that article was factually incorrect, says Times' historian, Ralph Drew, by email. "On Friday, June 8, 1990, the Los Angeles Times printed a correction," he notes.

A Pavilion official first dispelled this rumor in a letter after being queried by Columbia resident John Sybert in 1994. "Merriweather has never banned any acts from performing at its venue and, to my knowledge, neither has the community," wrote customer relations manager Julie M. Kershner.

The reason the band didn't return to Merriweather after 1985 (save for a 1989 solo Garcia appearance) was because they had outgrown the venue.

Parker says: "They became too big. They started doing stadium shows. At the time, our capacity was probably sixteen- or seventeen-thousand and they were attracting way north of twenty- or thirty-thousand."

Merriweather's capacity on non-festival shows is almost 20,000, Parker says, so it should have little problem accommodating a new flock of Deadheads for the upcoming show, which is titled "Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia" and will pay tribute to the band's main creative force, who died in August 1995.

Although former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart have performed at Merriweather in the years since the Grateful Dead's heyday, this concert is a bigger deal because it's part of the group's 50th anniversary celebration. The show will also feature a massive lineup of additional artists, including Bruce Hornsby, David Grisman, Eric Church, Jimmy Cliff, Jorma Kaukonen, Los Lobos, moe., O.A.R., Railroad Earth, the Disco Biscuits, Trampled by Turtles, Widespread Panic, and the Yonder Mountain String Band, among others.

"It was the fastest that a show has ever sold out here," says Parker. "For all intents and purposes, there were no tickets available in less than a minute from when they went on sale."

The Grateful Dead only had one major hit song during their thirty-year career, 1987's "Touch of Grey," but were always a major concert draw.

Even though the group disbanded after Garcia's death, their spirit and style lives on in countless acts who populate the summer festival scene, some of whom will perform at the May 14 concert.

Parker says that despite the town's reaction to the "invasion of the Deadheads," the group's followers made for pretty benign concert goers.

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"They were very easy going, very free-spirited in nature," Parker recalls. "However, people in the community didn't take too kindly when they found them bathing in their backyard pools. There wasn't a campground close by or many hotels then, so they set up camp in Symphony Woods. When the sun rose and everyone was heading downtown to go to work, they saw all these tents set up in the woods.

"There were many questions as to what was going on there," she laughs.

This time around, don't expect much camping or fountain bathing, says Parker.

"They have a lot more discretionary income. I would image the hotels are going to be pretty darn full."

The former members of the Grateful Dead will return to Columbia to perform as part of the concert "Dear Jerry: Celebrating the Music of Jerry Garcia," Thursday, May 14, 7 p.m., at Merriweather Post Pavilion. The show is sold out. http://www.merriweathermusic.com

Tony Sclafani (www.tonysclafani.com) is the author of "Grateful Dead FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the World's Greatest Jam Band" (Backbeat Books, 2013), which contains a chapter that documents the Deadhead "invasion" of Columbia in the 1980s.

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