Thursday, May 7, 2009
Better than: a Grateful Dead cover band but at times worse than some of Phil Lesh's bands -- wait, the Dead kind of is a Grateful Dead cover band.
Singer/guitarist Bob Weir, always the wild-eyed youngster in the Grateful Dead, was in his late teens and early 20s when the Dead was first playing Ken Kesey's Acid Tests in the Bay Area and promoter Bill Graham was giving out free apples and beautiful hand-printed posters at 1960s Dead shows in San Francisco. Weir was only in his 40s when Jerry Garcia died and took the Grateful Dead with him, so you can't really blame the guy for telling a sold-out Pepsi Center crowd, "It's you who brought us back together" last night. Of course, $95 tickets (at the time of Garcia's death, it cost about $30 to see the band) and crummy $30 laser-printed posters might've had a little something to do with it as well.
But in all seriousness, the Dead's first tour in five years brought some damn fine music to Denver, even if both of the evening's two sets were devoid of a single classic Grateful Dead heavy hitter, like, say, "St. Stephen," "Terrapin Station" or "Dark Star." The first set included pretty flawless and downright enjoyable versions of dependable Dead originals from 1969-79, including "Casey Jones," "Loser" and "Easy Wind," but never dove into the deeply captivating group-improvisation the Garcia-led band was known for and bassist Phil Lesh's post-Garcia bands have focused on. Regardless, writer Robert Hunter's timeless lyrics (notably "Crazy Fingers" last night) are still a huge part of what highlights any Dead-related performance...and sometimes even saves a clunky show from being a complete throwaway.
A new, smaller part of the Dead's arsenal (seen last night) includes mad-scientist drummer Mickey Hart donning a sailor's cap in the middle of a jam to tell Weir he wants the band to play "Lost Sailor." It worked, even if the laborious song pretty much didn't.
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The second set at the Pepsi Center was memorable mostly for the quartet of stunning acoustic tunes that began it, ranging from "Whiskey in the Jar" (the traditional Irish song that the Dead sound-checked in 1995 but never performed) to John Phillips' "Me and My Uncle," which (to the delight of the crowd) includes the line "I'm as honest as a Denver man can be."
To the misfortune of Deadheads, the band didn't play an acoustic set after their famous (and remarkable) early '80s acoustic performances that were captured on the album, Reckoning, and the DVD, Dead-Ahead. During the acoustic portion of the set last night, the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead (flanked by Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes and Ratdog keyboardist Jeff Chimenti) showed a lot of what's still so attractive about the group's music, by regaling the crowd with four diversely gorgeous old songs that bonded band (purposely tucked together into a 10' x 10' corner of the huge stage) and audience together impressively, evoking howls of pleasure from the crowd even when the act couldn't quite navigate the not-really-so-tricky chorus-back-to-verse transitions in the Band's "The Weight."
This version of the Dead is more effective than the last one; in 2004, the ensemble included Weir, Haynes and Jimmy Herring on guitar. Although Haynes and Herring are both world-class lead players, the three guitarists (plus the notably melodic and unpredictable Lesh) made for one big incomprehensible noodle-fest. At the Pepsi Center, Haynes -- who specializes in Southern Rock and brings that style to just about anything he plays -- effectively juxtaposed Weir's proficiently peculiar rhythm guitar and wielded his massive classic-rock leads, Nashville session-quality voice (and Garcia-esque shape) in leading the 2009 model Dead through '70s Grateful Dead staples. There just wasn't really any jamming, and what a lot of people loved about the Grateful Dead is that one minute Weir would be singing something ridiculous like "sure don't know what I'm going for/but I'm gonna go for it for sure," and the next, the band would be improvising on something that sounded like Sonic Youth interpreting Miles Davis.
Just the same, when the group did get "out there" last night (during the designated "Space" section of the second set) the audience talked to each other or went to the bathroom. Perhaps it was an off-night in terms of exploratory music - save for "King Solomon's Marbles," which had its moments - or perhaps this tour is just about old friends having a good time.
Personal bias: I toured as a drummer with members of the Dead and Phil Lesh's band.
Random detail: When Bob Weir twirls his finger to signal a change during a jam, the drummers roll their eyes behind his back.
By the way: Last night was drummer Bill Kreutzmann's 63rd birthday. He's pretty old.
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Deep Elem Blues
Me And My Uncle
Whiskey in the Jar
Happy Birthday Bill
Ramble on Rose
King Solomon's Marbles
Not Fade Away