The Hippo


Jan 19, 2020








Jerry Garcia walks Susan Millman down the aisle. Courtesy photo.

Dark Star Orchestra w/ Susana Millman & Dennis McNally

When: Tuesday, Nov. 22, 7 p.m.
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 S. Main St., Concord
Tickets: $29.50 general admission at ($35/day of show)

Dead memories
Photographer adds depth to DSO show

By Michael Witthaus

 Every Dark Star Orchestra concert is a trip in the wayback machine, as the band recreates a Grateful Dead show, playing a complete setlist song by song. DSO’s appearance at Concord’s Capitol Center Nov. 22 offers even more for fans of the Dead — photographer Susana Millman and Dead publicist Dennis McNally will be there to talk about Millman’s photographic memoir, Alive With The Dead: A Fly on the Wall with a Camera.

Millman and McNally were introduced by live show archivist Dick Lavata of Dick’s Picks fame; the two were nudged into romance by Jerry Garcia, who later walked Millman down the aisle at their wedding. Their short tour, which includes five dates with DSO, has been a long  time coming.
“People have been joking with us for years, saying, ‘Hey, you two should take it on the road,’ so we’re finally doing that,” Millman said by phone from the couple’s Northern California home. “This is the first time I’ve done something like this; I’m a pretty reclusive person, usually hiding behind a camera.”
The 260-page photo/essay collection chronicles The Dead from the mid-80s through Garcia’s death in 1995 and beyond, to the present day of Dead & Co. It offers many intimate, behind-the-scenes views: dressing rooms,  parties and weddings and stellar  performance shots that illustrate Millman’s symbiotic relationship with the band. 
A section titled wtf Bobby? shows Garcia’s at various times reacting to Bob Weir’s sudden guitar changes. 
“Jerry had a host of body language and facial reactions to express his bemusement, amusement and amazement with Bobby,” Millman writes in one of the several essays in the book, which includes a foreword by drummer Mickey Hart and several Scrib’s Notes contributions from McNally. 
The “fly on the wall” aspect is on display throughout, and Millman’s candid shots are a revelation and a reflection of her style. 
“I generally believe that unless you’re asking people to pose for you, it’s best for a photographer to be unobtrusive so you can capture what’s actually going on,” she told a writer for e-zine Grateful Web. “Gestures between the subjects, candid stuff like that without your presence interrupting that flow of events.”
Millman was a late-arriving Deadhead. Well, she saw them early, but her first show was less than inspiring. 
“I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but in the interest of full disclosure I was at one of those great February 1970 Fillmore East shows, and I just didn’t get it.” she said. 
But a trip to South America with a group of Deadheads changed her outlook. 
“I liked [the] total improvisation; I became oriented toward that style of music and really wanted to see the Dead when I came back,” she said. 
On Dec. 29, 1977, she saw them at Winterland in San Francisco. 
“I would say that’s my first real show that counted,” she said.
She started working with the Dead during a time their popularity mushroomed, as the success of 1987’s In the Dark moved the group from hockey rinks to ballparks. For one interesting assignment, Millman photographed secret tests of a new outdoor sound and lighting system set up, with great difficulty, at a Sonoma County vineyard. At one point, an ancient live oak shuddered and split down the middle. 
“Maybe the sound was too much. ... I don’t know what caused it,” she said. 
Asked to name a favorite moment of her long, strange trip with the San Francisco band, Millman paused. 
“There were so many, but one of them had to do with incorporating my past with the present,” she said. “Jerry and John Kahn at Lincoln Center in 1984 ... I grew up in Manhattan and Lincoln Center had such other meaning to me; here I was with my new life.” 
Ultimately, taking pictures of a band that never really relished being photographed was its own reward. 
“Sometimes I’d be at a show with a camera, walking to the soundboard from the pit or something,” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, is this really happening? Am I able to do this? It’s so cool.’ That happened a bunch.”

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