When The Dead announced they were putting together a limited tour run, I was both intrigued and frightened at the prospect. Intrigued, of course, because the once epic sound and atmosphere of what is left of the Grateful Dead was coming to Buffalo. Frightened because, well, it is 2009, these guys are in the mid-sixties (mid-sixties takes on a different tone when it is an age, not an era), and one Jerome John Garcia would not be stage left. I have seen the many different incarnations of group and individual bands over the years – Ratdog, Phil & Friends, Other Ones, The Dead, and even Mickey’s band – and quite honestly they spanned the spectrum for me of ok to very good, rarely if ever hitting great/unbelievable on the meter. There have been moments, but nothing really consistently driving.
In addition, the apparent sell out to high ticket prices and using a ticket system that was blatantly looking to maximize their dime, made me sick. Long story short, I was online for the pre-sale, their lousy technology made it a 75 minute ordeal, they finally showed decent/mediocre seats after three rounds of lousy seats, so I took them. They then opened up far better seats in the days and weeks to come – give the rabid fan getting seats the first minute (or 75) mediocre seats so the casual fan is more likely to plop down a C-note on a good seat. Sham. Shameful. Plus the overall political shenanigans (whether you are right, left, or center), having Tipper Gore on stage with them in DC, to appearing on the View all make me a bit sick – especially after the GD was so blatantly apolitical all of their careers. Once again, chalk it up to “it is, what it is…”
In addition, one major issue I have personally had with all these post-Garcia bands is that they play too much Garcia material and almost lean on it. In a way, I think that diminishes Weir’s, and somewhat Phil’s, writing and performing of many mainstays of the GD catalog. Unlike some Heads out there who discredit and don’t like Bobby, I have always liked him – rock & roll star and all.
Let’s touch on the departed Garcia for a moment, even though it is all very well documented. Jerry was obviously the leader of the band, and supposedly a reluctant leader. He was a talented guitar player whose sound really defined the band. However, he lent much more - he truly provided a legitimacy to the music because he was a true music encyclopedia who infused all the different styles of music to the band’s repertoire – folk, bluegrass, pychedelia, rock & roll, and let’s not forget the beautiful ballad that I have trouble slotting into a genre. He embodied the music and gave it the sincerity, respect, drive, and ultimately the je ne sais quoi that I, and many, have been embodied with.
On to the show and this particular band. I came to the conclusion that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The four – Bob, Phil, Billy, and Mickey – are much better together than the sum of their individual bands because they have more of the GD sound than any of their individual bands. In addition to the original four, they added keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, who is outstanding. He probably could have taken the bench at anytime as the Grateful Dead and fit in perfectly fine. He seemed to be a fine blend of 65% Brent and 35% Keith, adding both texture and melodic highlights.
Warren Haynes had the most difficult job of the night and of the tour, but I can’t think of a better person to fill the role. He did not attempt to simply mimic Garcia’s style or licks, nor did he try to change it up too much to make it all his own. Haynes is a consummate professional, who really did it justice by playing a style reminiscent of Garcia at times, but putting his own mark at the same time. He walked that line particularly well, in my opinion, and he is a great guitarist. His vocals also added a great deal to the show. Honestly, I don’t know how the guy does it and how he keeps all the music straight – he must play 250++ dates per year between Gov. Mule, Allmans, Dead/Phil, and other miscellaneous projects. Another music junkie!
The band has been pulling out old nugget after old nugget out in the first six shows before landing in Buffalo. The likes of St. Stephen, The Eleven, Cream Puff War, Alligator, Born Cross-eyed, New Potato Caboose, and more, have been unearthed. Unbelievable – one side of me thinks how great it is, another side of me thinks they are trying too hard! Stuff that never saw the light of day past 1969.
However, Buffalo would be a more traditional show without any big bombs, and truthfully, that was fine by me. Yes, it would have been great to hear one of the old-time great tunes, but at this point I was looking for some live Grateful Dead music, because it is all good.
Ø They opened up with a very nice and upbeat Promised Land. Nice, traditional start as far as I was concerned, and a Bobby tune (cover of course…) to boot.
Ø Next they did a very nice They Love Each Other, with a nice hint of reggae groove. Warren took the vocals, some nice extended jams, and took a nice little ditty of a typical Garcia love song to an 11 minute groove.
Ø When the first bars of Mama Tried emanated, I was ear to ear – a cowboy tune!! Bobby seemingly doesn’t like the cowboy tunes much anymore, and it drives me crazy because that is what I want to hear! Nice hippie take on Merle Haggard, as always.
Ø Another heavy duty Garcia tune followed – Loser. Well played and sung mostly by Weir, they did a nice job with the song – again clocking in at 11minutes.
Ø Next, a nice surprise with Smokestack Lightning. I was loving life with another “Bobby” tune, but oddly Warren took the lead vocals. Haynes has a very soulful voice that plays very well with the blues, and he sounded great. Just a great blues tune.
Ø Stella Blue was unexpected and one of those Garcia ballads I would rather leave alone, however as soon as I think that, I find myself enjoying the rendition. They do a very good job with these tunes, no matter if I think they ‘should’ be playing them or not. 12 minutes, and very emotionally charged, “Dust off those rusty strings, just one more time…Gonna make ‘em shine” line, but I am sure it lost some people.
Ø More Bob coming up with All Over Now – one of the great old time cover tunes around...heck, it was the Stones first number one single in the UK!
Ø I headed for the men’s room toward the end because they have been playing 7 song first sets, but hey hey…another cowboy song – Big River!! I danced in the aisle-way for this one, and what a great song. Two cowboy songs in the first set – I was happy!
Ø First set was 65 minutes, well played, traditional 8 song first set – nice!
Ø The second set started after a 40 a minute set break. The tingling of Playin’ In The Band was being thrown around, and a 1973-ish, 17 minute version was being born. They played this song, always one of my favorites, very well with a long and expansive jam.
Ø Next was the closest thing we got to a nugget – Me & Bobby McGee. Wow, was this a good one - why didn’t they keep the tune in the repertoire through the 80’s and 90’s. Well performed and great to hear.
Ø Next were two crowd pleasers and Garcia tunes back to back – Loose Lucy and Ramble On Rose. Lucy was fun and light, as it should be, with some good sing-along. I believe they rotated the vocals around on this one.
Ø Ramble On Rose is just a great song and fun to hear and dance to. Again, like in Stella, it was tough to hear the ‘Take you to the leader of the band’ line without pining for the Fat Man. Are they going to play a 5 song pre-drums or how do they go into Drums from here? It was a bit disjointed, but they simply ended the tune, and Drumz ensued. Drumz began with Chimenti staying on electic organ to create a funky groove with the drummers. Some of it was interesting while parts were techno-sound annoying. Drumz finally took hold when Chimenti took a rest, and boy was it fun to see. Good stuff – truly a highlight, although a bit short with only the drummers working their magic. Space was far out and probably dragged a bit for some, and lost others, but I appreciate it – especially when you only see it 3 times in 15 years!
Ø Coming out of Drums, they noodled in different directions, but then oddly and rather awkwardly fell into a Maggies Farm. It was ok, but did not seem to fit well in that slot. Still a great tune, and any time a Dylan tune is played, it has to be taken seriously.
Ø While I am not usually in favor of Garcia tunes without The Man actually playing on them, next was one of my top GD tunes – Eyes of the World. I just love the song – the melody, timing, crescendos, the hippy-dippy optimism. Everything. Lead vocals were traded between Bob, Phil, and Warren. They did a nice job, although it is a tough Garcia tune to really shoot a bulls-eye because, to me, the song wreaks of him. I liked it a lot, and it took me to another place, as all good music should.
Ø They noodled more and hinted back into Playin’ several times. They couldn’t just go back into a Playin’ before they do one more song – could they? Yes, they did. I love the Playin’ Reprise to close the show, and while I like the fact that Warren Haynes did not try to copy Garcia verbatim on most of his licks, this is one place where I wish he had. That ending to Playin’ (or in the Reprise as the case may be) is one of my all time favorite Garcia riffs – I can still envision myself standing in Soldier Field, or other venues, with that ripping riff growling out at me and loving the fact it was slaying me. Not tonight, but a nice ending to the set, albeit a song short for my personal liking!
Ø I wanted a Box of Rain so badly I can’t tell you (they played it last night in Wilkes Barre). I wanted a Phil tune, on top of the fact that Phil did not take the vocals much at all the entire night, which was odd. Instead we got an all too cliché Truckin’ as the encore. Yes, it was well played. Yes, it is a consummate Bobby tune. Yes, it is a great song. However, too predictable for me.
Overall, it was a very good show and well worth going to. Don’t think it warrants traveling for, nor do I think it is worth making the effort to see multiple shows, but if you have a chance for a local show, I recommend seeing it. However, one aspect does indeed lend itself to seeing multiple shows is the fact they are playing a ton of different material and you never know what you will get.
The sound was very good, however the vocal mix was a bit low in spots. I believe some of the vocal issues come down to the fact that Weir has lost some of the power that his vocals used to feature and demand. The stage set up was traditional and as I remember it. However, the light show seemed to be lacking. We had just ok seats (see ticket issues above) but I thought to myself that it was just as good we were far enough away not to see them up close – the Stones Imax film killed me with all the wrinkles and veins! It has always been bizarre to me that Weir went to the longer grey hair with bushy beard and mustache after Garcia passed – there was not a big screen in the place, and I was fine at a bit of a distance.
The circus was indeed in town! The weather was mediocre at best, although the rain thankfully held off, and there was a smallish Shakedown Street set up. Complete with kind veggie burritos, grilled cheese, beer ($3 now!), big looners, pipes, clothes, and the ubiquitous smell of patchouli in the air.
Make no mistake – this is not the Grateful Dead that we once saw. However, they were very good, and it was a really enjoyable to see them. The depth of material these guys are playing really is remarkable. Only three repeated tunes through the first 6 shows is incredible, and there have been some pretty obscure and daring attempts. Truly great live music allows me to shut down and turn introspective for periods of time, and this one qualified there. One of the omnipotent thoughts I had was that life is nowhere as simple as it once was (not a huge revelation), and nor do I make it that way for myself. Racing off to Chicago, Alpine, or NYC for shows in the late 80’s and early 90’s on a whim were all too good of days that I am certainly glad I had and shared with the closest of friends.
All the years combine, they melt into a dream…
(Set 1)Promised Land, They Love Each Other, Mama Tried, Loser, Smokestack Lightning, Stella Blue, It's All Over Now, Big River
(Set 2)Playing In The Band, Me and Bobby McGee, Loose Lucy, Ramble On Rose, Rhythm Devils, Space, Maggie's Farm, Eyes of the World, Playing In The Band, (Encore)Truckin'