Partying Dead Wake Up The Democrats

(By Jeff Christensen -- Associated Press)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 6, 2007

Do Democrats have more fun? At the end of her own triumphal celebration concert Thursday night, newly sworn-in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked that very question.

This being a fete for the Democrats, most of the approximately 1,200 attendees at the National Building Museum fundraiser answered affirmatively. Guess they weren't dead, after all!

Just a couple of hours earlier, several surviving members of the Grateful Dead were onstage, performing some of the psychedelic jam band's best-known songs in front of a buttoned-up audience: legislators, donors, activists, advisers, "just friends" who sat lifelessly during the first of two sets. One exception was the Deadhead who finally jumped out of his gilded seat near the back of the room and did the overbite-boogie during the shuffling hit "Touch of Grey." He was met with more than a few incredulous stares. (Turns out that fun is not a partisan concept. It might, however, be a relatively foreign idea in the starchy, scripted realm of modern national politics.)

But it wouldn't take an act of Congress to get the guarded group to loosen up, just an irresistible polyrhythmic groove. When the Dead survivors and a few of their musician friends -- collectively dubbed Your House Band for the occasion -- performed the decades-old New Orleans anthem "Iko Iko," the crowd snapped to and the party finally felt like, well . . . a party. A strange-looking party, to be sure: the bearded counterculture icon and Dead co-founder Bob Weir sporting a coat and tie and looking like a classics professor, a most perplexing image.

Still, even Pelosi was able to let her hair down by standing up and dancing in place during "Iko Iko." No need to worry about any sort of YouTube embarrassment; Madam Speaker, at 66, can dance just fine. Certainly well enough that the producers' script noted that Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were to "remain on stage and perhaps dance" during a closing ensemble performance of the tune "You've Got a Friend." Which they did.

Though the $1,000-per-ticket fundraiser was billed as a concert -- Pelosipalooza if you will -- you do not necessarily attend such gatherings for their artistic merits. The 12-story atrium in which the concert was staged was an echo chamber, and the performances were largely predictable, with the musicians sticking to the hits and to the script. (You didn't really expect a free-form Dead show, did you? With epic drum solos and long stretches of improvisational guitar noodling and obscure songs they haven't performed since that show at Winterland way back when? And "spacecakes" at the dessert buffet?)

There was the elegant Tony Bennett crooning "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" in a nod to California's 8th District, which Pelosi represents. And the great singer-songwriter Carole King, sounding a little parched but peeling off three classics at a Steinway grand piano: "Sweet Seasons," "I Feel the Earth Move" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." (Even the hunky actor Richard Gere was spotted singing the latter's refrain.)

Some, but not all, of the songs packed political messages -- not least the two performed by Bruce Hornsby, a former Dead collaborator who sat in with Your House Band. "The End of the Innocence," co-authored by Hornsby and Don Henley in 1987, was a protest song about President Reagan, what with its reference to the "tired old man that we elected king" and allusions to military might and shrinking farm subsidies. And "The Way It Is," performed solo at a Steinway grand piano, addressed racial inequity.

In fact, there was much buzz about inclusion right up until the night ended at 10:30, with speakers -- and the House speaker -- talking about providing representation to the underrepresented, about diversity. And yet the stage was filled with white men, save for King, rapper Wyclef Jean and a few sidemen.

Jean was the lineup's lone nod to youth (most of the performers were nearly twice his age, if not older), and he was also its wild card, prone to onstage unpredictability. In that regard, he didn't disappoint, first demanding that the crowd sit down, post-"Iko Iko," and listen to an a cappella rap he'd written for the occasion. The verse probably marked the first time in hip-hop history that Pelosi, Barack Obama and North Korea were mentioned over the course of 16 bars. Jean also rhymed in Spanish, Japanese and French and Hebrew before performing three covers: the hymnal "Rivers of Babylon," Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" and the old soca smash "Hot Hot Hot."

Jean mentioned Pelosi's name repeatedly during the songs -- several dozen times in all -- and riffed on the price of oil before jumping offstage to dance with Pelosi during "Hot Hot Hot," their impromptu pas de deux captured by a house video camera and flashed onto an oversize screen behind the stage. And at least for that moment, anyway, yes, the resurgent Democrats were having more fun.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company