Sunday, May 1, 2016

JRAD (The Raddest of the J's)

    If you’ve been paying attention to the world of Dead bands at all in the last few years, you have probably heard of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.  If you haven’t, boy are you in for a surprise!  When Furthur disbanded, its drummer, Joe Russo, decided to form his own Dead band.  He was already in a band with some of his friends called Bustle in Your Hedgerow that did instrumental takes on Led Zeppelin songs, so they took that lineup, added another guitarist, and called the new band Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.  JRAD, as it is often called, is now the most unique take on the Dead’s music since Jerry’s death.

    The band consists of Joe on drums, his longtime collaborator Marco Benevento on keys, Scott Metzger and Tommy Hamilton on guitar, and typically Dave Dreiwitz on bass; although, when he’s touring with Ween they get Jon Shaw to fill in.  While JRAD plays mainly Grateful Dead songs, it doesn’t feel right to call them a tribute or even a cover band, because they have really created their own musical beast.  Joe was always an unstoppable force in Furthur, and now he has his own band to really go nuts in.  He’s taken on a singing role in a lot of songs, and he somehow manages to conduct the band while still drumming at full speed.

    Joe’s conducting is more like guiding or reminding, because the rest of the band is so tight that they already know what Joe wants to do.  Hamilton and Metzger swap lead and rhythm parts seamlessly and are constantly daring each other to go further, while Dave absolutely holds the bottom end on lockdown.  Marco and Joe had their own duo back in the day (they announced their reunion in the middle of me writing this!), and the chemistry between them is more like alchemy.  I thought that Chimenti and Russo could lock minds perfectly, but the levels Benevento and Russo reach together go beyond simple telepathy; it makes you wonder if they really are two separate people or just halves of the same musical coin.

    Having great musicians isn’t what makes JRAD so unique in the world of the Dead; plenty of bands have great players!  Their unique quality stems from their approach to the Dead’s song catalogue.  The lyrics are always the same, and some songs are played like the Dead played them, but these guys take playing with the borders and definitions of songs to unprecedented levels.  I don’t just mean that they go from one song into another, they open up the songs’ jam sections and even add new ones in unexpected and exciting ways.  They also throw in teases of other songs so effortlessly; even when they’re playing for their lives on the edge of a collapsing star they find time to throw in a “Friend of the Devil” tease, or a quote from “Bitches Brew.”  Marco, especially, seems to have a catalogue of songs ready at his fingertips that he can throw in at a moment’s notice to augment a song.

   Because they frequently find themselves on the edge of a collapsing star, or in some similar metaphysical predicament, they have had to learn to keep absolute control over the music, while simultaneously letting it evolve naturally.  They follow the music wherever it takes them, and hit so many different levels as they go.  While they can play in any number of styles (country, blues rock, outer space minimalism), their most powerful ability is to ramp up a jam higher and higher until everyone’s heads explode, and then just stay at that level.  I’ve lost track of the number of times they’ve hit a peak that I thought was unsustainable for more than a few bars, only to watch them somehow to get even higher while getting further and further out.  Joe must be powered by some sort of cosmic radiation, because no mere mortal should be able to do the things he does to drums for as long as he does them.
    The song combinations they come up with are incredibly inventive, too!  Here is a recording (tracklist error in “Scarlet > Fire,” “Fire” starts much earlier than is listed) of the most recent show of theirs I saw at the Paradise in Boston (11/28/2015), and take a look at the setlist below:

First Set: Bertha > Throwing Stones > Black Peter > Estimated Prophet > The Weight > Scarlet Begonias > Fire on The Mountain

Second Set: Jam > Here Comes Sunshine > Feel Like a Stranger > Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Jack-a-Roe > Cumberland Blues

Encore: One More Saturday Night,  Shakedown Street

    The sets look really short, but all of these songs are stretched out from their typical lengths -- “Throwing Stones” and “Here Comes Sunshine” are both over twenty minutes long!  “Throwing Stones” is a perfect showcase of Marco’s ability to pull a tune from thin air that sounds at once unique and hauntingly familiar.  The way they played “Feel Like a Stranger > Help on the Way” made it sound like that was always the traditional transition, and also makes me feel like it would work the other way, “Help on the Way > Slipknot! > Feel Like a Stranger”!

    One of the best things about JRAD is that they play small, intimate venues, so you’re always right in the middle of the action.  This also keeps the prices down in the $20 range, which is awesome!  As much as I love seeing Phil and Dead & Company, only Bill Walton can afford to shell out the money for all of those shows; and he’s weirdly tall and plays a silly sport, so how seriously can we really take him?

    JRAD also provides high quality recordings and videos of their performances.  Their Youtube channel posts HD videos of songs or pairings of songs just about every week, and they have a good amount of soundboard and matrix recordings on the Archive.  There aren’t any soundboards of their Boston shows, which is a travesty, so feel free to join me in demanding them from the powers that be (some guy name Costello).  Not only do they provide excellent snapshots of their music, they also post critically annotated setlists on their Facebook.  Check out their version of the show I was at in Boston:

Set 1 (9:31pm - 10:55pm ish)
Bertha (TH) >
Throwing Stones @ (SM) >
Black Peter (TH) ->
Estimated Prophet # (SM) ->
The Weight $ (see notes) >
Scarlet Begonias % (TH) ->
Fire On The Mountain % (TH)

Set 2 (11:22pm - 12:53am ish)
Jam ->
Here Comes Sunshine ^ (TH) ->
Feel Like A Stranger & (SM) >
Help On The Way (TH) ->
Slipknot ->
Jack A Roe (TH) ->
Cumberland Blues & (All)
One More Sat Night (SM)
E: Shakedown St * (TH)

@ MB def jammed on a very familiar theme in this one, but I can’t ID it yet
# With Shakedown Street Teases (Band)
$ First Time Played, The Band original. TH sung verse 1, SM sung verse 2, MB sung verse 3, JR sung verse 4 & All sung verse 5 & the choruses.
% With a China->Rider Transition Tease during the transition b/t Scarlet->Fire
& With a Duo Jam
* With Feel Like A Stranger Jams from MB & then TH
(As a refresher: use of a “>” means no pause between tunes, but no transitional jam between them either. For tunes with a jam at the foundation of the transition, I use “->” to note it.)

    Now, I have some issues with this: the “^” symbol is not identified; I don’t hear a “China/Rider” tease out of “Scarlet”; “Saturday Night” was definitely part of the encore, not the second set; there’s definitely a “Slipknot!” tease by Marco in “Shakedown.” But ultimately,  I really do love that they do this for us, and these are just the critiques of a nit-picking fan (Picky Dead Heads, amirite?).  These posts do a lot to help put the show back together in my memory, and they make it easier to imagine the shows I wasn’t lucky enough to go to myself.  There’s a bit of a “spoiler alert” factor for shows you haven’t listened to yet, but that just means don’t look at the annotated setlist before listening to the show!

    So that’s that, though there is still a lot worth talking about.  So let me know what you think in the comments, and we can talk all about it! Do you think Joe's hair is too floppy? Does Scott have one of the best guitar-faces of all time? Who can jump higher: Tommy or Scott (Marco didn't know when I asked him)??  Also, let me know what you want to hear about next time, or just share something fun; that’s why we’re all here, to have fun, right?  Actually, next time I think I  might do a look-back at the Dave’s Picks series, leading up to Dave’s Picks 18, which is on its way right now!  So also let me know what you think about all that great stuff.  You can follow this blog on Twitter and Facebook , and you can also follow me in real life, but that would be creepy.

P.S.: While I was finishing this up on Sunday, Jeff Chimenti sat in with JRAD for two nights over the weekend, and you can listen to pretty good recordings (I listened to only a minute or two of each, they just posted a bit ago) of night one and night two.  This, however, has set off a cavalcade of conspiracy theorists and detectives all shouting: “FURTHUR REUNION!”  Not only have Jeff and Joe now played together, but this past week Bob Weir sat in with The John Kadlecik Band.  And then, Bob sat in with Phil this weekend!  So someone go grab Sunshine and Jeff P, we’ll sit these guys all down, and we can find some dates that will work for all of them!  I know they’re all very busy, but when you really think about it, don’t we deserve this just a little bit?  Don’t we all want to live in a world with both Furthur AND Dead & Company?! #FurthurReunion , let's go!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Met at a Dead Show 1

     This week's supplemental post, if you couldn't tell, is the first installment in a series called "Met at a Dead Show."  Like you, I run into a wide variety of people at the Dead shows I go to, and some are more memorable than others.  If any of you have met this person, or have your own stories to share, put them in the comments below or tweet them to me @21stCenturyDead .

The Numbers Guy
      No surprise, but my friend Ricky and I ran into this guy at a numerically significant show, the 11/11/11 Furthur concert in Syracuse.  During intermission we were going through the normal hour-long-freak-out that always happens when one set ends and the next has not yet begun.  We were milling about the aisles waiting for a friend to come back from that far off land of toilets and coffee stands, when a guy who somehow looked more freaked out than we were sidled up to us.  He was of the Earth Tone Baggy Clothes Tribe and had a large cap with more pins than hat showing.  He locked eyes with the two of us and launched into a long-winded rant that i have tried to faithfully recreate below:

     "Hey man, I was born in '85.  That was twenty five years ago.  When I was eleven I first heard the Dead, and that was one year after Jerry died.  Eleven is two ones next to each other, and now it's almost eleven years after that.  If you take eighty five and divide it by eleven, you get seven and seven's my lucky number.  But now eleven's my lucky number.  And today's eleven eleven eleven and they're going to do the eleven for seven minutes and Phil's almost eighty five.  Look at my hat."

     After staring at the guy for maybe seven or eleven minutes he realized that Rick and I were clearly not mathematically inclined, and he went off to find a another victim.

So that's my short story, share yours below!  This Sunday I'll be sharing my thoughts on Joe Russo's Almost Dead, so prepare your thoughts for that!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Jam > Space > Jam

Hey everybody, thanks for tuning back in!  This week I’m going back to something I brought up in a recent post: when is it appropriate to list a “Jam” in a setlist?  The Dead are of course known for having long, jammed-out music, but how many of those jams should be separated from the songs they come out of or go into?  Perhaps there is no single answer in any of the cases below, but it’s definitely something that a lot of us have very strong opinions about.  Also, I’m coming at this mostly from the angle of keeping track listings on a CD or other modern device; when it comes to just a written setlist it’s typically better to have more notations, so in some of these cases I think it would actually be good to have certain jams separated from the other songs.  For examples of this, see some of the annotated setlists from Joe Russo’s Almost Dead...oh jeez, I’m going to have to do a post on them too, aren’t I?

    The most recent instance of this debate I found myself in was at my latest Phil show.  I mentioned this briefly in the post about said show, but it’s up for debate what they actually opened with.  To my ears, they opened with “Dark Star,” but it could also be said that they opened “Jam > Dark Star.”  The same thing happened with the “Dark Star” I saw before this show at Halloween (also with Phil), where they went from a dead stop (ha) into a jam, and that jam materialized into “Dark Star.”  My argument for why both of these instances should just be called “Dark Star” and not “Jam > Dark Star” is that “Dark Star,” as a song, inherently includes several jams.

    The same is true for songs like “The Other One,” “Bird Song,” and “Playing in the Band.”  All of these songs do have themes and solidified parts, but the majority of each song is instrumental.  I use “theme” as a more or less technical term borrowed from jazz, where the theme is kind of like the equivalent of a chorus -- a familiar part of the song that returns at various points and identifies the song.  But jams also have their own themes, whether it be a one-time-jam or a recurring jam.  I think most of us are familiar with this idea, even if we don’t realize it; it’s the same reason you know that they’re starting “The Other One” or going into “Eyes” before they’ve actually done the song-proper.  If every differently themed jam in a song was listed, then you would have something like: “Dark Star > Jam 1 > Jam 2 > Jam 3 > Jam 4, etc. > Dark Star,” which for the purposes of labeling is a huge headache.  The whole point of songs like these is to be vehicles for sonic exploration, which is obviously going to take the music in different directions, but they will typically return to the song they came from.  So instead of calling it “The Other One > Jam > The Other One,” it should just be called “The Other One.”

    There are some interesting exceptions to this rule when it comes to the more common jams that the Dead would insert into their music.  Jams like “Spanish Jam,” “Mind Left Body Jam” and “Feeling Groovy Jam” all cropped up repeatedly during certain eras of the Dead, and I typically think that they are worth mentioning in a setlist, because these are practically songs in their own rights*.  However, we should keep in mind when looking at these examples how we would want it listed on a CD or MP3 player.  Take for example Dicks Picks Volume 19, from October 19, 1973, which includes the progression “Dark Star > Mind Left Body Jam > Morning Dew.”  While that is a distinct jam that’s sometimes worth listing, in this particular case I think it would be more appropriate to simply call it “Dark Star > Morning Dew.”  In this case the “MLB Jam” is a part of the “Dark Star”; that is the context that it came from.  Likewise with the “Spanish Jam” listed after the “Dark Star” from the Jai Alai Forum show on 06/23/74 that is included on the So Many Roads box set.  On the box set they even call it “Dark Star Jam,” but that’s because they don’t include the entire “Dark Star.”

    So those are some of the more clear-cut issues, but what about the trickier ones to decide on? Look at something like “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider.”  Some people routinely list the transition as “China Cat > Jam > I Know You Rider” on the archive, but this is clearly unnecessary.  “China Cat” implies a jam out of it, and it was typically the same jam, depending on the era: pre-hiatus it included a Bobby solo and eventually a recurring thematic jam, post-hiatus it was a more simplified jam.  “Scarlet Begonias” and “Eyes of the World” also inherently include jams out of them and typically should not have “Jam” listed in the setlist.

    For all three of those, however, I think there are exceptions that could be made.  Sometimes the jam will go on for much longer than it typically does, and sometimes it will go into musical spaces that are totally foreign to the song.  The “Eyes” from 12/04/73, for example, is listed as 23 minutes long, but the majority of the outro jam is atypical for “Eyes,” so a strong case could be made for labeling it as “Eyes > Jam.”  The same will happen for “Scarlet” sometimes, especially if it isn’t going into “Fire on the Mountain.”  There’s also the 20+ minute “Here Comes Sunshine” from 04/02/73, which features a totally unique and unrelated jam out of it.  The only issue, like some people have posted on the archive, is that if you list each separate jam you end up with track listings that say “Here Comes Sunshine > Jam > Space,” which seems like too much.  You also see people listing sequences such as “The Other One Jam > The Other One > Jam > The Other One > Space > Wharf Rat,” which is absolutely wrong; just call it “The Other One”!

    This also relates to “That’s It For The Other One,” which is the original name for “Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One > Cryptical Envelopment.”  I think this should always be listed as “That’s It For The Other One,” because that listing implies all of the individual parts.  This is really a strange case, however, because it varied so much in the years they performed it (quick note, I won’t bring up the ‘85 versions because they were so sparse).  It eventually developed a “Drums” interlude after the first “Cryptical,” and that segment went from being a couple seconds long to almost ten minutes long, and occasionally featured a small jam in the middle of the “Drums.”  They also dropped the second “Cryptical” or limited its length fairly regularly in its later days.  I can see the case being made for calling it “Cryptical > Drums > The Other One > [something other than Cryptical],” but I think that whenever you have “Cryptical > The Other One” with only a drum or jam break in the middle, it should still just be labelled “That’s It For The Other One.”

    Going back to “Dark Star,” here’s another interesting example of debatable track listings.  One of my favorite shows is 03/24/1973 from the Spectrum in Philly, and among other things it features, allegedly, “He’s Gone > Truckin’ > Jam > Spanish Jam > Dark Star > Sing Me Back Home.”  Now while it is true that “Spanish Jam” is a distinct jam, in the opening jam I’m certain you can hear them hint at “Dark Star,” so I think that the appropriate listing would be “He’s Gone > Truckin’ > Dark Star > Sing Me Back Home.”  It is interesting to note that what is usually labelled as “Dark Star” on recordings of this show is under 5 minutes long, so some people think the rest of it is totally separate.

    One final topic I’ll touch on is the development of “Drums >Space” as a featured part of the Dead’s shows.  If what I’ve been saying above is true, shouldn’t it also apply here?  What I mean is that “Drums” eventually evolved to a point where it always implied that “Space” would come next, so should it really just be listed as “Drums”?  That’s how Dead Base has traditionally done it, and I think it does make a certain amount of sense.  However, I think that “Space” is handy to list when you compare earlier shows to later ones, because sometimes it would just be “Drums > The Wheel” (1976) and other times it would be “Drums > Space > The Wheel” (1980) and I think that’s an important enough distinction.

    While we’re in “Space” here, what is the difference between “Jam” and “Space”?  On the archive some people don’t recognize a difference, typically calling it “Drums > Jam.”  But you’ll see tracks listed as “Space” dating back as far as 1971 (earliest instance I have at least), and it’s interesting that people feel moved to list it as a distinct thing from a jam.  I think there’s honestly no real difference between the two, and what people list as “Space” is a any jam that features heavily on feedback and cataclysmic meltdowns, or whenever heavy special effects were employed.  For my own purposes, I only list jams that come immediately after “Drums” from ‘79 onward as “Space,” because that’s when it became a regular part of the show, and that was right on the cusp of them getting more filters and effects for their guitars, and Brent’s addition of synthesized sounds really pushed the envelope.  I’ll never really get into an argument about “Jam” vs. “Space,” though, because I think they are both applicable in most situations.

    So what’s the point I’m getting at?  Well I don’t honestly have one point I’m trying to make, I’m really just hoping to start a discussion about this...and also rant about some of my pet peeves in the Dead world.  When should it say “Eyes > Jam?”  Is “Jam  > Dark Star” really necessary, or can I get away with saying they opened with “Dark Star?”  Also, if I’m so intent on keeping sequences intact, shouldn’t “China > Rider,” “Alligator > Caution,” and “Scarlet > Fire” each be their own tracks?  This also brings up my own prejudices on where tracks should be cut (when does “St. Stephen” end and “The William Tell Bridge” begin?), but that’s a topic for another time.  Let me know what you guys think, and as always let me know what you want to read/talk about next time!  You can follow the blog here, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

*For a much more in-depth analysis of the Dead’s jams, and pretty much anything related to the Grateful Dead, I recommend checking out the Grateful Dead Guide, especially the three posts below.  They go into way more detail and do a ton more research than I have time to, and are definitely worth checking out!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Potential Setlists 1

     Hey everybody, welcome to the first of many smaller Thursday posts here on 21st Century Dead!  This week I'll be sharing some potential setlists I've come up with for Dead & Company's upcoming tour, specifically the three shows I'm going to.  The initals after the song names are for the people singing the different songs, and I tried to create these based on the feel Dead & Company had on their last tour.  I've also included some songs that they didn't do yet that I think they should dust off.  There are also a couple repeated songs, but there are going to be some shows between the first and the other two, so I think expecting repeats makes sense.  Feel free to comment on them and share your own potential setlists!

Hartford Show (06/28/16)

Set One
Big Railroad Blues (BW)
Stagger Lee (JM)
Ramble on Rose > (BW)
Loose Lucy (BW)
Mississippi Half Step > (JM &BW)
Looks Like Rain (BW)
Let it Grow > (BW)
Crazy Fingers > (JM)
Let it Grow (BW)

Set Two
Samson & Delilah (BW)
Help on the Way > (BW & JM)
Slipknot! >
Caution (Do Not Step on Tracks) > (JM)
Feedback/Space/Drums >
Saint Stephen > (ALL)
Not Fade Away > (ALL)
Comes a Time > (BW)
Slipknot! >
Franklin's Tower (JM)
Encore: Uncle John's Band (ALL)

Fenway Night One (07/15/16)

Set One
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo > (JM &BW)
Feel Like a Stranger > (BW)
High Time (JM)
Dire Wolf (BW)
Me & My Uncle > (BW)
Mexicali Blues (BW)
Althea (JM)
So Many Roads > (BW)
Promised Land (BW)

Set Two
China Cat Sunflower > (JM & BW)
I Know You Rider > (ALL)
Estimated Prophet > (BW)
He's Gone > (BW & JM)
Truckin' > (BW)
Drums  >
Space >
Dark Star > (ALL)
Comes a Time > (BW)
Dark Star > (ALL)
Sugar Magnolia (BW)

Encore: Morning Dew (BW)

Fenway Night Two (07/16/16)

Set One
Touch of Gray > (BW)
Greatest Story Ever Told > (BW)
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl (JM)
When I Paint My Masterpiece (BW)
Tennessee Jed (JM & BW)
Bertha > (JM)
Lazy Lightning > (BW)
Supplication (BW)

Set Two
One More Saturday Night (BW)
St. Stephen (up to jam after "one man gathers what another man spills") > (ALL)
Scaret Begonias > (JM)
Eyes of the World > (JM)
Drums >
Space >
Days Between (BW) >
St. Stephen Reprise (ALL) >
Not Fade Away > (ALL)
Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad (ALL)

Encore: Attics of My Life

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Couch Concerts and Sofa Setlists

    One of the things that my generation of Dead Heads is blessed with is the prevalence of live streaming.  On any given week there’s probably at least one show being streamed online, and certain venues like the Capitol Theater and Brooklyn Bowl seem to stream every show they put on.  While I think we’re all lucky this technology is so prevalent and accessible, there are some down sides, or at least issues, worth discussing.  It’s still not a perfect medium, but the issues it does have are mostly surmountable.

    Let’s get the biggest issue out of the way first: buffering!  It’s hard to tell which is worse, if the feed suddenly stops dead (ha), or if it constantly starts and stops, only a few seconds at a time.  There is nothing worse than having the concert that you planned to watch, and maybe even paid money for, grind to a halt before your eyes when you know that the band is still playing hundreds of miles away!  It’s a jarring experience, especially if you’re in some kind of State of Mind.  It raises feelings of uncertainty because you don’t know where the problem is actually coming from; is it my computer?  Is it the internet connection?  Is it the streaming service?  Is it all just in my head??

    Needless to say, this drastically diminishes the enjoyability of the streaming experience.  I think when this happens it is mostly due to the streaming service not allocating enough bandwidth for the amount of people watching the stream.  Which is something they should stop doing!  It’s like the organization of Fare Thee Well, where they drastically underestimated the amount of interest in the shows; as Phil said “Who knew??”  We knew, Phil!  At this point there is no reasonable excuse for being unprepared for the amount of traffic a Dead show will get, because we are everywhere!

    Another issue is being at the whim of the director.  When you’re at a concert you can see everything at once and choose where to look at any given time.  Watching a stream, however, means you can only look at what the director wants you to look at.  Typically the director knows what he or she is doing, but it can be a real nuisance when they are unfamiliar with the band or their repertoire.  For example, picture a concert where the Dead just finished “Truckin’,” and are now heading into what is very obviously “The Other One.”  We all know that you want to keep one eye on Phil just in case he does his intro run into the song, but a cameraman or director who knows nothing about the Dead will inevitably keep the camera on the lead guitar or drums.  Equally annoying is when they can’t figure out who is singing or soloing at a given time, and you’re just sitting there screaming at your TV “It’s Kadlecik playing, not Bobby!”

    A prime example of this was the webcast of the Phil & Friends show from 10-31-2015.  My parents and I saw this and the night before live down in Port Chester, and Phil had guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan playing with him (full review to come).  In the second set they did the incredible segue of “Dark Star > Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) > Dark Star,” which not only featured some of the most incredible playing I’ve ever seen but also include the 56 year old Jordan doing a goddam somersault on stage while soloing on “Voodoo Chile;” we couldn’t believe it!  We bought the livestream and official recording ahead of time so we could watch the video of the show when we got home, and we were appalled to see (or not see) that the cameras had no idea what he was doing and didn’t catch any of the somersault or the jumping about that led up to it.  If we hadn’t gone and only watched the live stream, we never would have even known about this!

    During a live stream, I also find myself weighing the pros and cons of being at the concert vs. being on my couch.  When I’m on my couch, I can just get up and pour myself another drink without having to wait in line and pay a fortune for a beer.  When I’m at the show I’m constantly dancing and there is a feeling that I am contributing to the concert, but from my couch I’m only a spectator, and to get up and dance seems a little forced.  There’s also a chance of falling asleep if I’m sitting on a couch and it’s a late show from California (three hour time difference) or a New Year’s Show that’s bound to go past midnight; how embarrassing!  Another difference is the sound mix; when you’re live streaming you’re getting just the pure soundboard and you miss out on the actual acoustics of the venue.  On the other hand, you don’t have to deal with people having conversations during the show.

    Finally, as mentioned before, you have no control over the camera, and for some reason directors and cameramen are fascinated by shots of the crowd.  I think that can sometimes be a good thing, but all too often they’ll find a member of the crowd (typically an attractive girl) and linger on her for a long time.  The worst thing about this is that the person typically knows they’re being filmed because there’s a camera in their face and getting in the way of the dancing, and they are visibly uncomfortable -- move the camera!  The streaming of the show should not get in the way of the show itself, either by distracting the performers or by distracting the crowd trying to enjoy the show live.

    So those are the issues, and it may sound like I feel mostly bad about live streaming, but as I said at the beginning, it’s honestly a blessing.  While it of course doesn’t measure up to seeing the show live, and doesn’t always work out the way you plan, live streaming is the only way most people can see all the shows they want without traveling across the country and shelling out thousands of dollars.  The Lockn’ Festival typically offers streams of their entire festival, and while they do have some serious buffering issues at times, it’s incredible to be able to pay just a fraction of the ticket price and still be able to catch every act in the lineup!  It’s a great way to spend the weekend while listening to new and different music that you know is being performed live.  Live streams also give you the chance to have listening parties, where you invite your friends over and all watch the show together from the comfort of your home.  Again, being at the show is better, but if there’s no possibility of getting to the show or getting all your friends there, this is a great compromise.

    Well that’s about all I have to say.  Do any of you have streaming stories that you want to share?  Terrible experiences?  Great experiences?  Shows you saw live that you’re glad to have recordings of for the future?  Let me know in the comments below, and let me know if you have any requests or suggestions for my next post!  Also, you can follow the blog on Facebook and Twitter, both @21stCenturyDead, where sometimes I’ll have small supplements to the blog, questions, and teases for what’s coming up!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

How Do We Feel About Dead & Company?

    Since I took my hiatus from blogging, there have been many changes in the world of the Grateful Dead: Furthur disbanded, Phil officially stopped touring, The Fare Thee Well 50th Anniversary Celebrations took place, and, most recently, Dead & Company was born.  I’ll have to talk about Fare Thee Well another time, but for now I want to talk about Dead & Company and the ways its formation, as with most things, divided Dead Head opinion.  Criticism mainly stemmed from two issues: the claim that Fare Thee Well would be the last time all of the members of the band would play together, and the choice of John Mayer as lead guitarist.  During Fare Thee Well, there was a lot of talk about money-grabbing, especially focused around Pete Shapiro, owner of the Capitol Theater and other venues.  Pete was the one who made the claim that the Core Four would never again play together (and the band echoed his sentiments), and when Dead & Company emerged, it brought back the ire that people felt when they were shelling out thousands of dollars for Fare Thee Well; what the hell did they pay for if the band was going on tour again?! As for Mayer, he was best known, to me at least, as a pop musician with an affinity for the blues who spent a lot of time in the tabloids for his involvement with various affairs and scandals.  Being the guy that I am, I never read any of these articles or paid much attention, but his association with that world kept me from paying him any attention before this.  And as for the first criticism mentioned above, Phil isn’t playing with these guys, so, I for one, don’t think they lied to us.  And, how can anyone complain about a new Dead band?!  I think the real source of the outrage is that Fare Thee Well felt like the end of a chapter in history, and for a lot of people it’s where they thought they would get off the bus.  But at no point did anyone in charge of the events say “there will be no more Grateful Dead music ever again, get it while it’s hot,” people just drew that conclusion themselves, and as a result felt a little bitter about the whole thing.

    The band was conceived when Bobby and the drummers realized how much fun they were having playing together during Fare Thee Well and decided they needed to ride this wave while it lasted.  As I mentioned above, Phil is totally done touring (though he still plays a few residencies a year), and the Core Four aren’t planning on getting together again, so they had to find a bass player.  There were rumors they tried out Mike Gordon from Phish, which in the wake of bringing Trey Anastasio along for Fare Thee Well seemed like a huge problem for the anti-Phish Dead Heads out there.  Personally, I’m not wild about Phish, but I certainly don’t hate them like some folks do.  I’m glad that they ditched this idea and went instead with Oteil Burbridge, who most recently was the bass player for the Allman Brothers Band and plays with just about every musician there is.  He has a very jazzy style of playing bass and does a lot more tapping and slapping than Phil ever did, in a Jaco Pastorius kind of way (  He’s no lightweight though, his bass can sound like the horns of the Gods when he really lets loose.  I think he is a perfect fit for this band -- he plays the songs in his own way, but is familiar enough with the music that he always knows what needs to be played.

    On keyboards they went with the obvious and correct choice, our old friend Jeff Chimenti!  Besides playing with Furthur, Phil and Friends, and previous iterations of the Dead, he also held down the organ and synth role for the Fare Thee Well shows while Bruce Hornsby played the grand piano.  Now Jeff’s back as the sole keyboardist and is as unbelievable as ever.  I do wish they would give him more solos like he had in Furthur, but I really can’t complain.  The ones he does get are mind-blowing and always so inventive.  His background playing provides so many textures and he always seems to know exactly which one is perfect at any given moment.  He’s also singing more now, and that’s pretty cool!

    Billy and Mickey are of course the drummers, and I think they’ve only been getting better since this band formed.  When I saw them for Fare Thee Well I was a little iffy about how they were playing, and looking back I think some of that feeling lies with Trey’s performance.  I think he was great and had many brilliant moments at those shows, but the problem is that he seemed reluctant to really take the lead and express himself within the music.  It seemed to me that he was trying not to step on anyone’s toes and was constantly looking to the other players so he would change keys or songs when they wanted to, but they really wanted him to just make the decision himself and they would follow.  Because of this the drummers had to keep track of where they were, where the rest of the band was, and where Trey was, which is a lot to keep track of if they’re not all on the same page from the beginning.  With Dead & Company I think there was still a little bit of that going on in their first/only tour so far, but they were still a hundred times tighter than Fare Thee Well.  It’s really something to see those two drumming together, they have such an awesome power at their fingertips, and the “Drums > Space” segments are like watching kids play on a jungle gym: there are so many toys and only so much time to play with them!  Mickey especially has worked his Beam up into a super instrument that seems to be able to make any possible sound.

    My only criticism of having a dedicated “Drums > Space” segment each night is that it’s fairly predictable at this point.  The Dead started including a “Drums” break at every show in 1978, and while “Drums” and “Space” are by their natures some of the most free-form and improvisational parts of a show, you always know that they’re coming in the second set, and that leaves the setlist format relatively fixed.  During the second set I find myself thinking, “Ok, they’ve done three songs since the set started, they probably have one more before going into ‘Drums,’ and then they’ll have to come out of ‘Space’ into something psychedelic, then do a ballad, and then a rocker or two to close the set.”  I think it would do a lot for the novelty of the shows if they did it a little more like they would in ‘70 or ‘76, when they would sprinkle in several smaller “Drums” segments throughout, and occasionally have a 15-20 minute interlude.  Maybe their reasoning is that they have two drummers and what looks like several tons of drum equipment, so for it to all pay off they have to do a big “Drums” segment each night, which makes sense to me.  I just think that after almost 40 years of the same formula, maybe they should change things up a little to keep us on our toes!

    Bob Weir was a bit reclusive after the end of Furthur, mostly because of some health issues he was having at the time.  He even cancelled his Ratdog tour to our chagrin (we had tickets!) a couple years back, so we were a little worried about him going into 2015.  As he showed us, however, he was in fine form for Fare Thee Well and was looking and playing even better by the time Dead & Company rolled around.  He’s singing better than he has in the last few years and his playing is sounding much better too.  He still makes some questionable noises with his guitar sometimes, but overall I like the tones he’s playing with better than the ones he had in Furthur.  He also looks like he’s having a great time -- in fact the whole band is constantly beaming when they’re onstage!  He’s taken to having a stool on the stage that he can lean on when he gets tired.  What surprises me is that he doesn’t use it very often, but just having it on stage seems to give him more freedom to be energetic when he needs to, and during the quieter or more contemplative parts of shows he can conserve his energy and return to the stool.

    Mayer and Bobby really seem to have a special connection musically, and Mayer always seems to have one eye on Bobby to see where he’s going.  Bobby used to talk about how he could see where Jerry was going with a lead, and would always try to get there ahead of him so he could have a surprise waiting that Jerry would sometimes love and sometimes hate (paraphrasing), and he seems to be able to do that for Mayer as well.  The difference is that he hasn’t played with Mayer for 30 years, so there are surprises waiting for Bobby too.

    Finally we come to the newest addition to the world of the Dead, John Mayer.  The way the story goes as he tells it is that he was sitting in his pool, being a rockstar, when the Pandora station he was listening to started playing “Althea,” and his world changed forever.  He rushed out of the pool and ran to his phone to see what was playing, and got on the bus from there.  What I like about this is that his own awakening to the Dead happened right around the same time I got into them (2011 for him, 2010 for me), so he’s in the same generation of Dead Heads as I am from a certain perspective.  He went through a crash course of listening to the Dead and becoming familiar with their history, and eventually played with Bob Weir last year when Mayer took his turn hosting “The Late Late Show.”  I don’t know why they went for Trey for Fare Thee Well when communication had already been established with Mayer, but I know nothing about any of the decisions they made, so that’s nothing new.  Maybe they figured Trey was already more well known in Dead circles, and they had probably already been rehearsing with him at this point.  Either way, Mayer went to Fare Thee Well not as a participant but as part of the audience, and from what he’s said seemed to be very supportive of Trey.  It wasn’t long after Fare Thee Well, however, that Dead & Company came to light as the next iteration of a constant Dead band, with Mayer in the Jerry slot.

    I think that Mayer is absolutely the right choice, and I hope this lineup stays the way it is; the only alteration I would accept willingly would be replacing Oteil with Phil, but even that I have reservations about.  This really feels like Bob’s band to me, of course with contributions from the other members of the band, and I think that nowadays Phil is very particular about what he wants to play, which doesn’t always mesh with what the rest of the Core Four want.  So it’s maybe for the best that Phil stay with his Friends, and these guys keep touring -- I wouldn’t mind a couple collaborations when they’re in the same area though!  One of the best things about Mayer is that he clearly has opinions about how he wants to play these songs that he’s fallen in love with, and he takes such a dominant role as the lead guitarist, something I think Trey struggled with for Fare Thee Well as I mentioned earlier.  Besides bringing his own sound and tone to the table, he also has some very Garcia-like tendencies, and even got a new guitar specifically to sound a little more Jerry-ish.  Now this is controversial in-and-of itself in that many people (including Billy) have said in the past that they don’t want a Jerry clone, they want someone unique who can still play the necessary hooks and riffs.  I think that Mayer has found a perfect balance of these elements: he’s still very much himself and plays like no other guitarist I’ve seen in that role, but is also very aware of when he needs to play the Jerry card.  His vocals are unmistakably pop-oriented, which isn’t always a great fit, but on songs like “Cold Rain & Snow,” “Althea,” and “Row Jimmy” it was a great twist on tunes we’re all so familiar with.

    My dad and I saw Dead & Company with our friend Scott in Worcester (pronounced “wuh-ster” for you non-Bostonians out there) on 11/10/2015, and had a great time.  I won’t go into a whole song-by-song review of the show, but here’s the setlist, and I’ll go into some highlights:

First Set: Cassidy, Row Jimmy, Ramble on Rose, Big River, Peggy-O, Sugaree, The Music Never Stopped

Second Set: Deal > Uncle John’s Band > Estimated Prophet > Terrapin Station > Drums > Space > Dear Prudence > Get Out My Life, Woman > Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad

Encore: Ripple

Here’s an audience recording, more available on the archive:

    We were shocked to get “Cassidy” as the opener, but I was thrilled because that was one of the main songs I hadn’t gotten before that I was hoping to get from Bobby at this show.  The first three songs were arguably the best part of the show, they absolutely killed each of them.  Mayer’s solos in “Row Jimmy” were unbelievable, and the leads he and Chimenti were trading on “Ramble on Rose” just kept building higher and higher.  The two songs at the end of the first set were also fantastic and featured some heavy bass bombs from Oteil.  There were some rough spots in “Peggy-O” and “Deal,” but even these were excellent versions of the songs; Bobby kept switching up the amount of measures in each verse of Peggy-O, that Prankster!  The post-drums segment was a little lacking, but Dear Prudence was beautiful, especially the way it solidified out of “Space.”  Allen Toussaint passed away earlier that same day, and “Get Out My life, Woman” was a song he popularized, so we really appreciated their effort to honor his memory, even if the song was obviously unrehearsed.  I also think that “Terrapin” isn’t anywhere as good as it was when Furthur did it, but I think that’s mainly a result of Kadlecik being totally immersed in the Dead’s repertoire and Mayer still just getting into it, and this is a very complex song.  They didn’t have a single wrong note, I just felt that Mayer wasn’t comfortable enough with the song to really step away from the basic format.  “Uncle John’s > Estimated > Terrapin” was such a  great sequence though, and the whole band was really showcasing their newfound powers.  At this point “Ripple” is a bit of a clich├ęd encore, but it’s still such a soul-warming song, and Mayer switched it up by playing some of the mandolin parts from the album on his acoustic guitar!

    That was our only live encounter with the band, but they also put on a free concert at Madison Square Garden and streamed it live.  It’s still available for free, with the sets separated, at the links below.

    This show is really fantastic, and while they seemed a little shaky during parts of “Shakedown” and “I Need a Miracle” (the first two songs) the whole rest of the show is stellar.  There is a little hiccup going into “Franklin’s”, but the whole “Help > Slip! > Frank” triumvirate is absolutely incredible, with Mayer really getting into “Slipknot!”  “He’s Gone” and “Tennessee Jed” also come to mind as real stand-out performances.

    So what’s my final verdict on the band?  I love them!  I think they really carry on the tradition of the Grateful Dead in an authentic way, meaning they play the songs we love but still push the boundaries of where music can go.  For now they don’t quite measure up to the combined power and control that Furthur had, but for a band that’s done one small tour they are way ahead of the curve.  Mayer is fitting in with the Dead world beautifully, and it’s a joy to watch this band come together and find their groove.  The onstage chemistry is palpable, whether Mayer is watching Chimenti solo with his jaw hanging open, or Oteil is joining the drummers for the “Drums”!  I hope that Mayer continues to take a dominant role as the lead guitarist and grow in his confidence.  The more they play these songs and increase the size of their repertoire, the stronger the band will become.  I think this upcoming tour of theirs is really going to give them a chance to spread their wings and see exactly what they’re capable of.  We’re scheduled to see three of their upcoming shows, one in Hartford, CT (06/28/2016) and two at Fenway Park(07/15 & 07/16/2016), and hopefully they’ll announce more tours and live streams to come!  I wish they would release official soundboard recordings of their shows, but the word on the street is that Mayer’s recording contract won’t allow for that.  They’re allowing audience members to tape the shows, so at least there’s that; but still, let us hear the soundboards!

    What do you guys think of this band?  Let me know in the comments below, or if you have any questions/objections about what I wrote.  Also let me know if any of you have suggestions or requests for future posts and I’ll take them into consideration!  You can follow the blog on Facebook and Twitter at the links below if you'd like.