The Grateful Dead are alive and well. After canceling their fall tour due to the health problems of band leader Jerry Garcia, the group has returned to the stage with a rejuvenated Garcia and renewed energy. During two sold-out shows at Chapel Hill's Dean Dome, the band sounded spectacular and confirmed that this just may be, as Garcia has recently described, "the next golden age of the Dead."

I met Garcia and fellow vocalist/guitarist Bob Weir after the first night's show and got some insight on the recent tour and the band's upcoming plans. We spoke briefly in the lounge of the hotel where the band was staying as the two wound down from the evening's performance. Jerry, now 50 years old, looked good as he laughed and told a variety of stories to a surrounding group of people traveling with the band. He has recovered from a case of physical exhaustion and reportedly adopted a new diet, cut down on cigarettes, and lost 60 lbs. Garcia seemed unusually talkative and well-spoken, given that he rarely talks to the audience at a show. Commenting on the success of Jerry Garcia neckties (he moonlights as an artist and his work has been reproduced on men's ties), Garcia joked, "I'm not in the tie business!"

After the crowd died down, I was able to ask the famous pair a few questions. "We hope to hit the studio next January," Garcia said regarding the plan to record an album of new songs, the group's first since 1989, after the current tour. Weir added, "we plan to continue switching up the shows and mixing in new tunes." He also commented that "nothing has changed" in the band's approach to touring and song selection with their increased popularity over the last few years. (Since the Dead's resurgence in the late 1980's, the band has successfully adapted to stadium shows and last year's tour grossed $34 million). Weir also said that playing Chapel Hill for the first time "was exciting, but there doesn't seem to be anything really different about any of the places we play."

The conversation ended as the pair left the lounge, and as I said "I'll see you tomorrow night," Garcia responded "I hope it's a good one." The next night the band put on another inspiring show featuring a new found clarity in Garcia's voice mixed with the psychedelic sounds of the Dead.

On both nights they played their standard 3-hour plus show filled with staple Dead tunes yet they managed to mix in several new songs and even dug out a few seldom played gems. Wednesday night's first set opened with rocker "Jack Straw," and was highlighted by the retooled blues cover "Stagger Lee" and Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" sung by rhythm guitarist Weir. The set closed with ultra-jam special "Tennessee Jed" followed by "Let It Grow." Beyond the tight sound provided by Garcia and Weir, the songs were powered by Phil Lesh's undulating bass lines, keyboardist Vince Welnick's colorful accents, and the unending drive of drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.

The momentum was sustained in the second set with the opening trio "Here Comes Sunshine" (last played on the 1974 tour), "Playin' In The Band," and "Box of Rain." A high-energy "Drums/Space" jam was next, followed by a crowd sing along on "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad." After "Throwin' Stones" and "Not Fade Away," the concert ended with the Beatles classic "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds."

On Thursday night the band continued to play with passion, and the show featured a fresh line up of vintage songs. The evening also included a handful of new tunes highlighted by Garcia in a stirring vocal performance on "So Many Roads." Other stand out songs were "Friend of the Devil," "Women are Smarter," and "Terrapin Station." The band again closed to a roar with a cover version of The Band's "The Weight."

Thousands of Deadheads literally took over Chapel Hill for the two-day event, and as any fan of the band knows, a Grateful Dead show goes well beyond the actual concert. Franklin Street was transformed into a flashback of the 1960's as fans from across the country trucked into town. Multi-colored buses, tie-dyed flea markets, and wandering street minstrels were all part of the scene.

Many of the band's nomadic disciples did not actually attend the concerts. You could make the case that a Dead show is a cultural event which embraces more than music, extending outside the arena to where the band's gypsylike following sets up camp, swapping road stories and begging, with one finger pointed in the air, for a miracle: an available last-minute ticket. Despite tougher rules on camping for the tour, fans partied around the Dean Dome in a carnival atmosphere before the shows. The scent of incense and other distinct aromas filled the air and car radios blasted Grateful Dead tunes.

As for the rumor that this is the Dead's final tour, publicist Dennis McNally commented "Don't believe it- there is no way. The band is farther away from quitting now then they have been in years. Everybody is healthy and happy." Look for the long strange trip to roll on into the summer with stadium dates and an unusual opening act, Sting. Commenting to Billboard magazine, Sting said "I wanted to see this Deadhead phenomenon first hand."