If you are driving on the LIE and you see a dancing bear cartoon decal on the back window of a minivan, you've just spotted a Deadhead. Fans who follow the Grateful Dead don't just listen to the band, they make the music part of their lives.
"Their music is never-ending. There's always something new to discover," says Vince Troiano, 44, who grew up in Malverne and has a Dead tattoo on his shoulder. "I never get tired of it."
This weekend, the Grateful Dead rises again for a three-day concert binge, dubbed Fare Thee Well in Chicago with remaining members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Long Island-raised Mickey Hart, plus special guests Trey Anastasio of Phish and keyboardists Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby. Deadheads from around the world will shake their bones at Soldier Field for the band's final stand in honor of its 50th anniversary while others will watch on movie screen simulcasts, YouTube and Pay-per-view.
The vibe at a Dead show is different. No two concerts are the same and Deadheads are known for following the band around the country.
"I'd use my vacation at work to go follow the Dead for a week or more," says Tom San Filippo, 49, of Amityville, who has seen more than 180 shows. "There's always a constant excitement about, 'What are they going to play tonight?' People live on that spontaneity."
San Filippo, who attended the warm-up shows in Santa Clara, California, last weekend at Levi's Stadium, will be performing with his Grateful Dead tribute band Half Step at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead just before it shows the Dead taking the stage for the last time on the big screen.
"It's exciting to be part of that ever-growing experience of the Dead," says San Filippo. "Their timeless music is always fresh, which is what keeps it a living, breathing entity that carries on."
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PARKING LOT POWER
Part of the Dead experience is the parking lot scene that goes on for many hours before each concert. There's the inevitable homemade food court, fans playing acoustic instruments and Deadheads selling handmade merchandise.
"You can buy anything from a beaded bracelet to a black-bean burrito," says Don Zottarelli, 54, of Westbury, who used to sell bagels and soup with his friends while following the band on tour. "It was all about getting enough money for gasoline and a ticket to get to the next show."
Deadheads say their ranks are not just long-haired hippies in tie-dye shirts perfumed in patchouli oil. Much like the band's music, they come in a wide variety.
"You'll see doctors, lawyers and whole families mixed in with the hard-core dreadlocked hippies," says Chris Colón, 46, of Huntington, who is planning on catching a screening of this weekend's concerts. "But everyone is really friendly, kind and peaceful."
But for some the Grateful Dead is not the Grateful Dead without the late singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia. To them, the band ended 20 years ago when Garcia played his last show in Chicago (hence its return to the Windy City).
"There's just a giant hole where Garcia was. To me, they could never fill that hole," says Paul Schmitz, 57, of Centerport, who plans on listening to the SiriusXM satellite radio broadcast of the shows on Channel 23. "Jerry is gone 20 years now but they never stopped, which is why their legacy has continued to grow."
Many Deadheads refuse to let the Chicago shows mark the end of the road.
"The scene is not dying because the music gets played by tribute bands every weekend," says Hal Lawler, 53, of Wantagh, who is also heading to Chicago to see the band live. "The Dead's music will go on forever, even after I'm dead."
GRATEFUL DEAD -- "FARE THEE WELL"
WHEN|WHERE 8 p.m. July 3-5 at AMC Loews Stony Brook 17, 2196 Nesconset Highway, Stony Brook
INFO 631-941-0156, amctheatres.com
ADMISSION $18 each day
WHEN|WHERE 7 p.m. July 5 at The Space at Westbury, 250 Post Avenue, Westbury
INFO 516-283-5566, thespaceatwestbury.com
Live performance & final show on screen
WHEN|WHERE 5:30 p.m. Half Step (Grateful Dead tribute band) concert followed by 8 p.m. screening July 5 at Suffolk Theater, 118 E. Main St., Riverhead
INFO 631-727-4343, suffolktheater.com
VIEW AT HOME
The concerts can be ordered on YouTube or Pay-per-view for $29.95 per night.