Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Phil Lesh and Friends 2016-10-28 Capitol Theatre

(Writer’s note: I wrote this a while ago, and don’t want to change the whole thing to fit a month or so later, so just pretend it’s still October!  As always, pictures are from my mom, and the whole album is avilable here https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarahebourne/albums/72157672315633374)

    It’s that time of year again: pumpkins are looking spooky, squirrels are putting on weight, and Phil is doing a run of shows for Halloween at the Capitol Theatre!  As soon as the shows were announced my parents and I got tickets for Friday and Saturday nights; the Monday night Halloween show will probably be great, but it didn’t work for our work schedules.  Our shows featured similar, but slightly different lineups, and Monday was the same band as Friday.  Everyone involved was a veteran Friend of Phil’s, with only Barry Sless (pedal steel and electric guitar) and Nicki Bluhm (vocals) being new to us.  Everyone else on stage we had seen with Phil and/or in their own bands: Larry Campbell (any stringed instrument he can lay his hands on), Teresa Williams (vocals), Jason Crosby (keyboards), John Molo (drums), and Luther Dickinson (electric guitar).  The next night was mostly the same, but instead of Larry and Teresa, Scott Metzger (electric guitar) from JRAD filled in.

    We got a hotel in nearby Armonk, and followed our tradition of eating at Kiosko, a local Mexican restaurant in Port Chester that we can’t recommend highly enough: great food at great prices with friendly services!  Our usual parking spot apparently was taken over by a new pizzeria, so we parked in the church parking lot across from the theatre; same price, but a little less convenient for getting in and out of.  We swung by Shakedown Sidewalk to check out the wares, then headed into the theatre itself.  Before heading to our seats we stopped at the merch table to get the poster for the night, which I just had to buy (my parents got the same design as a shirt).  Our seats were just a couple rows back in the balcony and dead center (ha), so we had some of the best vantage points in the theatre.  As they did last year for Halloween, they were playing the old cartoon classic Skeleton Dance on the walls, this time with the addition of Nosferatu and some spooky visuals.


To our surprise, the theatre was just about full by 8pm when the show was advertised to start; people must have heard that Phil’s a punctual kind of guy...well they started about half an hour later, so relatively punctual.  The lights went down, the band came on stage, and the crowd roared: here we go!

First Set

  • Til the Morning Comes (LC & TW)
    • One of the best ways to start a show is by crossing off a song I’ve had on my list as long as I’ve had a list!
    • A song with an unfortunately short-lived lifespan on the Dead’s repertoire, this was one I knew Phil did with Larry and Teresa, and was so glad to finally see live.
    • The very first lyrics were a bit misplaced, giving the song a slightly awkward start, but they recovered quickly and didn’t miss another step for the whole song!
    • Larry and Teresa, a husband and wife duo, are some of the best musicians around, and their voices fit with each other so perfectly, especially on anything with just a little bit of a country flavor to it.  Larry is a master of any instrument that has strings attached to it, and his outro solo showed us that he wasn’t going to hold anything back for this show.
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  • Peggy-O (PL, TW, & LC)
    • It just wouldn’t be a show with Larry, Teresa, and Phil if they didn’t do “Peggy-O!”
    • They gave this one a really extended intro jam, with fireworks from Larry on cittern (or something) and Barry on pedal steel.
    • I think Phil, Larry, and Teresa meant to swap the vocals in the same way they’ve done in the past, with Phil acting as Narrator, Larry as William, and Teresa as Peggy, but Phil was having such a good time that he sang the first few verses himself!  The main reason I think this is Teresa chimed in on a Peggy line, and Phil noticed and started laughing at the end of the line.  Could have been for any reason, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
    • Everyone got leads in the jams between verses, with effortless transitions from one player to another.
  • Uncle John’s Band (ALL) >
    • Larry switched over to his mandolin and Barry got up from his pedal steel to strap on his electric guitar for the first of what turned out to be many times.  I had assumed he would be on pedal steel the whole night, so was a little disappointed to have him on yet another electric guitar.  He played great, and filled in a lot of the Jerry licks that pull these songs together, but his pedal steel voice is so unique and clear that I would have loved to hear more of it.
    • Gripes aside, this was a beautiful “Uncle John’s Band,”  partly because it was Nicki Bluhm’s debut of the night.  She blended her voice beautifully with Teresa’s, and together they formed a powerful vocal backbone for the song.
    • As I said above, Barry took a lot of the Jerry licks that we all take for granted, and really impresses me.  He was trading great licks with Luther in the first jam section, while Larry basically just soloed over them the whole time.
    • They slid perfectly into the 7/4 jam section, and just when I thought Barry was really about to take the lead, Jason started going crazy on his piano.  He reminds me of Keith in that his physical presence on stage is not very dominating, but his playing turns everyone’s head.  He caught me by surprise last Fall with Phil, and he’s been one of my favorite keyboardists since.
    • They nailed the closing verses and went back into the 7/4 jam with Larry getting back onto his electric guitar while Luther took some powerful leads.  Eventually Molo drove them into a new tempo, arriving on another Workingman’s Dead classic...
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  • Cumberland Blues (ALL)
    • What a perfect song for this band!  Barry stayed on his guitar for a bit before sitting back down at his pedal steel, and things got very rockabilly from there.
    • Larry took the first solo of the song, and it was hard to tell who was more impressed, us or Luther Dickinson!  He spent a lot of this night playing right up next to Larry, staring at his fingers in amazement while somehow managing to (mostly) keep up.
    • The rocked their way through the song, really stretching out the jams between verses so everyone had time to solo and explore the song, like some kind of psychedelic country playground.
  • Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (LD)
    • Barry went back to his guitar and Larry switched over to a fiddle for this one, and we started to wonder if he would play a different instrument for each song.
    • At first I thought it was going to be “New Minglewood Blues,” but then it was obvious what they were playing.  We saw Luther do this one with his band North Mississippi All-Stars at the Green River Festival this past year, and he really killed it then.  This was a great version of  it as well, but this band clearly wasn’t as familiar with the song and Luther’s way of playing it.  It’s mostly just straight blues, but a little loose with the tempo, and instead of playing a regular guitar he played a stick with some strings attached to a can, that he occasionally sang through.  Safe to say, he was the Bobby of the night in a few ways.
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  • River Deep, Mountain High (TW)
    • Each time I’ve seen a run of shows with Phil, Larry, and Teresa they’ve done this song, though this stood out as unique because it wasn’t sandwiched in the middle of a monster “Dark Star” or “Mountains of the Moon.”
    • This one was definitely punchier than the other two, partly because it wasn’t surrounded by boundless space at either end.  Barry and Luther seemed a little less familiar with this one, but they still did a great job.  Once it hit the jam in the middle of the song, everyone really excelled.
    • Of course the real star of this song is Teresa, singing with more power than you could imagine.  Not only did she sing well, but the song’s timing is trickier than it seems, making it that much harder to sing in time.  But Teresa killed it, as she always does.
  • Sugaree (LD & NB)
    • Nicki came back out for this one, and they mellowed slowly into the song with an Allman Brother’s-esque intro.  While I was rolling my eyes at getting yet another “Sugaree,” I could already tell this one would be special.
    • Nicki and Luther traded verses, giving it a nice spin compared to every other version.  Luther flubbed a few of his verses (told you he was the Bobby) but Nicki nailed each one.
    • Instead of putting a separate solo between every verse, they would each sing two verses, and then the solos would get doubled up so no one missed out.  This is another of those songs that is really very simple, it’s simple structure just makes it easier to play incredible solos over in ever-changing ways.

    They brought the song to close and the lights came back on.  We were thrilled so far; while they hadn’t done anything close to any of the setlists we had created, they had so far surpassed or at least met our expectations for the quality of playing.  I joined the line for the smoking section, getting the real cattle treatment.  While I think it’s great that a lot of people respect the Capitol Theatre’s rules about smoking inside (even joints, surprisingly), their smoking section is too small for the size of the venue, and getting out there in time for the second set is very cramped situation.  Sure, you can go out front, but then you’re smoking your joint right in front of a New York cop, as opposed to a venue staff member who just wants to make sure you’re not causing any trouble.  Either way, I got out there and back inside in time to hit the bathroom, get some water, and get to my seat before the second set started.

Second Set

  • Casey Jones (NB)
    • Didn’t see this one coming, but it was a great way to start the set!  Like with “Til the Morning Comes,” the beginning felt like it was a little off, but then they slid right into the song with no further troubles.
    • Larry, Luther, and Barry (who was on his guitar instead of the pedal steel, which would have been great on this song) all got shots at the solo section, stretching the song out a little more.
    • All in all a great performance, but it felt kind of slow and controlled the whole time, as opposed to the versions that pick up speed while the chorus repeats over and over and get a little loose.
  • Midnight Highway (LC & TW)
    • Phil did this with Larry and Teresa when we first saw them play together, and I didn’t realize until they started singing how much I wanted to see them do it again.
    • Teresa picked up an acoustic guitar for this and Barry got back on the pedal steel, meaning this was the most amount of strings on stage at any point in the concert.
    • This is a straight up country ballad, and Teresa just sings it so beautifully.  With the addition of Barry on the pedal steel, this version blew away the previous one we had seen.  It has such a soulful and forlorn sound to it.
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  • Crossroads (LD & NB)
    • I kind of equate this one to “After Midnight” in my head, in that Phil took a relatively straightforward Clapton song (made famous by him at least) and stretched it out into a psychedelic journey through uncharted lands.
    • Luther kind of flubbed his way through some more lyrics, but Nicki nailed this song.
    • Like I said, the song eventually went far beyond its typical structure, but before they took it there they explored all the ways they could play the blues within its structure.  Barry was back on his guitar, and the three guitarists would trade leads amongst themselves and Jason, sometimes easing down to a shuffle, sometimes amping up higher and higher.  Eventually they wound their way into some far out regions, landing in some different themed jams.
    • Suddenly Luther slammed them back into the song itself and everyone got back to dancing before they brought it to a close.
  • Unbroken Chain (PL)
    • It’s always a treat seeing Phil play his song, and this was a great performance.  He might be getting older, but he’s singing very well at this point in his life, especially when it comes to songs that are clearly dear to him.
    • Having three guitars on this one also kind of works, because it’s a fairly dense song already, and it helps to be able to have one person basically just riffing on the different rhythms in the 11/4 and 15/4 sections to keep the song on track while blistering solos get laid on top of the shifting tempos.
    • They drop the ball right at the start of the big jam, but immediately get it back together and don’t miss a step for the whole rest of the song.  It sounds to me like at least two people on stage tried to play the album version of the song, and then remembered how much it gets stretched out live.
    • This just might be the best version of this I’ve seen live.  The first time I saw Phil with Larry and Teresa, in a lineup that was basically Furthur without Bob, might have been better, but this one is definitely going to stick in my head as a premium performance.  The solos were once again traded back and forth effortlessly by the musicians on stage, and then they seamlessly slid back into the end of the song with Larry dominating the outro solo.
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  • Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning (TW)
    • I thought maybe they were warming up for “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” from their tuning, but really should have seen this one coming!
    • A classic for Larry and Teresa that they might have picked up from Hot Tuna when they helped out on one of their recent albums, this was once again a top notch performance.
    • Teresa sang this one a little differently from when we saw them do it previously; she was still singing just as powerfully, but perhaps with a little more nuance or finesse.
    • The song itself too felt a little more uptempo with a bit of a shuffle, as opposed to the more apocalyptic versions that have been played.
  • Help on the Way (NB) >
    • I typically pride myself in spotting a song just from the tuning or count-off that leads into it, but this makes two time this year that “Help on the Way” has snuck up on me!  I was thinking “Ramble On Rose,” if anything, from the way they prepared for this song.  At least the shock of one of your favorite songs sneaking up and biting you in the face is a pretty good feeling!
    • Molo counted them off, and immediately the place erupted into cheers and a renewed vigor for dancing.
    • For my tastes, they could have gone through the solo section another time or two (or seven), but they really nailed this song as well.  Once again the abundance of guitars allowed for some creative mixes of rhythm and lead playing, propelling the song.
    • There’s a DVD out there of Phil and Friends playing the Warfield in ‘04 with Joan Osborne (and Larry and John) where she sings this song, and I’ve always wanted to see a great female singer tackle it live, so I was thrilled to have Nicki singing this time.  Like all the other musicians on stage, she stepped right up and killed this song.
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  • Slipknot!
    • This was the longest “Slipknot!” I’ve seen, and while that doesn’t always mean it’s the best version of that song, in this case it certainly meant there was plenty of incredible jamming.  They nailed the riffs at the beginning of the song and immediately dove into heavy guitar space.
    • Larry started chopping at his guitar while Luther and Barry found some melodies to stretch out in the sonic playground Phil and John were laying down.  Jason was on his Rhodes, which was a little harder to hear at the time than his other keyboards, but it comes through clearly on the soundboard.
    • At one point they started doing the ascending riff that typically signals the departure from the jam and descends into the closing riffs, but after letting it build for a while Phil waved them off and they flew back into the stratosphere.
    • Eventually they went back to that ascending line and followed through into the closing riffs.  This time it kind of fell apart, but Barry and Phil kept it together enough for them to all pull into...
  • Franklin’s Tower (PL)
    • Yet another song that Phil loves to play, and he continued to sing very well.
    • This is a perfect song to have too many guitars on, and like “Sugaree” is simple enough in its structure that you can lay down multiple layers of complex solos over it.  While it would have been cool to see what a pedal steel would have brought to these three songs, Barry continued to impress us on his regular guitar.
    • They finished the song with the traditional “Slipknot!” riff, and left the stage.

    Phil eventually came out and gave his traditional Donor Rap.  It was hard to make out at the time, but is clear in the soundboard.  After we all turned to someone who we loved and loved us and told them we wanted to be organ donors (already am, don’t worry) the band came back out and prepared for a final surprise.


  • Turn on Your Lovelight (LD & NB)
    • While this isn’t unheard of as an encore, I once again did not see this coming.
    • Definitely the best “Lovelight” I’ve seen live (well, technically better since I’ve only seen two).  Luther continued to struggle with where lyrics were supposed to go, but it was clear that he and Nicki were having fun.  And, more importantly, the interplay between all the musicians was incredible!  They stretched this out for way longer than Bobby plays it nowadays, and filled every second of it with virtuosic leads.
    • There wasn’t any of the rapping that Pig Pen was (in)famous for on this song, but I’d rather they just play than try to recreate something that only Pig could really do.

    They brought the song and the night to an epic close, we cheered them off the stage, and the lights came back on.  What a show!  We hung out for a bit while the horde of people cleared out, and then eventually made our way to the car, and from there back to the hotel in Armonk.  We talked about the show for a while in hushed tones, and then retired to bed to prepare ourselves for another show the next day!

    Just a heads up, I may or may not post the second night’s review. I haven’t worked on it, and it’s already a month out.  I would like to eventually, and to get a review of Dave’s Picks 20 out, but haven’t had much time to write lately.  Stay tuned though, and feel free to leave thoughts and requests for topics in the comments section below!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Potential Phil Setlists 1

     Our good buddy Phil has announced some shows for Halloween at the Capitol Theatre, and I will see you folks there!  He's playing on Friday the 28th, Saturday the 29th, and then Monday on Halloween itself, so my parents and I got tickets to Friday and Saturday.  Friday's lineup is  Larry Campbell, Luther Dickinson, Barry Sless, Jason Crosby, John Molo, Teresa Williams, & Nicki Bluhm.  Saturday will be the same, but without Larry & Teresa, and with Scott Metzger.  I've never seen Barry Sless or Nicki Bluhm live, but I know that they're both great musicians, and Phil likes to play with them, so I'm excited to see what they'll bring to the table!

     I'm sure I'll come up with more as we approach the shows, but here are some initial setlist predictions for both nights.  Feel free to leave your own below in the comments or let me know what you think could be changed on mine!

Night One

Set One

Truckin' >
Pride of Cucamonga >
Easy Wind >
Pride of Cucamonga
Tennessee Jed
Dire Wolf
Bird Song >

Set Two

Shakedown Street >
Cryptical Envelopment >
The Other One >
Mason's Children >
The Other One >
Sing Me Back Home
China Cat Sunflower >
Scarlet Begonias >
Fire On The Mountain

Donr Rap/Encore

Black Muddy River

Night Two

Set One

Mr. Charlie
Ramble on Rose
Deal >
Viola Lee Blues >
Feedback >
Turn on Your Lovelight

Set Two

Playing in the Band >
Eyes of the World >
Playing in the Band >
Terrapin Station >
Dark Star >
St. Stephen >
Morning Dew >
St. Stephen >
Not Fade Away

Donor Rap/Encore

Box of Rain

Monday, September 5, 2016

How Do We Feel About Dead & Company (Now)?

     Well the Summer Tour done come and gone, folks.  Dead & Company played all they’re going to play this summer, and they hit quite a few places across the country while they were at it.  The dust is still settling and it’s probably too early to come to any definitive positions about the band, but let’s talk about it anyway!  Later on in this I’m going to get into some comparisons, but for now let’s just look at the band itself from this most recent tour.  This is kind of a continuation of this post, so maybe you should read that first.

     John Mayer certainly wasn’t shy when playing these songs last Fall, but now he is visibly more confident playing them and playing with the way he plays them.  Oteil, as well, seems to have found his place in the band more than he had last year.  Last year he and John were clearly the new additions to a group that has played together many times, and while they played very well they really stood out at times as being the new ingredients.  On this tour everyone has totally gelled and the band has a coherent and uniquely identifiable sound.  The songs all have new vitality, sometimes because they have new arrangements, but more frequently because the band is so enthusiastic and has ideas about the new places they want to take the songs.

     I think John has gotten even better at listening to the rest of the band too.  Last tour it seemed to me like he stepped on Jeff’s leads somewhat frequently, which I think came from him getting used to the band dynamics and the band still coming into being.  Now it seems fairly obvious that he’s doing just as much listening as he is playing, and that has always been one of the most important things about the Grateful Dead.  My favorite shots of the Grateful Dead are not when Bobby’s jumping in the air or waving his hands about, but rather when the guitarists are huddled together and playing.  Maybe they’re looking at each other, maybe they’re staring at some unspecified point in space, but either way they’re definitely listening to what the others are playing and building off of that to create a musical masterpiece.  John has gone from just paying attention to Bobby to paying attention to the band as a whole.

     While John is the newest member in the band, and the easiest to talk about, let’s not forget anyone else!  Mickey and Billy are playing way better now than they were at Fare Thee Well or on the last tour, and I think that’s due to a couple of reasons.  First, this is the same band as it was last year, as opposed to being one put together for five shows with limited rehearsal, so the added rehearsal time and time on stage has really helped solidify their place in the band.  Second, I think they’re both feeling like they’re back in the saddle again, especially Mickey.  While they have played in a few bands of their own since the last version of The Dead with two drummers, they haven’t been nearly as prolific as Bobby and Phil, so being on tour again must have been a change they had to get used to.  At FTW they seemed a little tentative and not quite as locked together, but at this point all the cobwebs have been shaken off, the the Rhythm Devils are once again a coherent unit.

     Another great change the band has made is the expansion of singing roles.  This tour they swapped vocals on quite a few songs, and some shows would even have different people singing.  “Franklin’s Tower,” for example, was sung just by John in Boston, but in other shows he and Bobby would trade verses.  Also of note were Oteil and Jeff taking more prominent vocal duties, with Oteil even taking a verse in “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”  I knew that Oteil sang before he joined this band, but it’s great to see Jeff singing more and more!  While he hasn’t taken any lead vocals of his own (yet), his harmonies are crystal clear and very present in the mix, revealing the voice of an angel!  I think he did sing a little in Furthur, but with two backup singers and three lead singers his voice was always lost in the mix.

     And let us not forget the biggest surprise in the band’s vocal world: Donna!  Ms. Donna Jean Godchaux made several appearances on this tour, and while I think that makes her more of a guest star than a member of the band, I think she was a great addition.  As with all things Dead, a little more rehearsal wouldn’t have killed anyone, but she seemed so happy to be up there and sounded great with the band (when they were all on the same page).  She threw in a few tasteful and enthusiastic screams here and there, but didn’t have any of the off-key shrieking that typically sent people running for the hills back in the day.  I’d love to see her back for future tours, especially if she gets to sing some of her songs; I would kill to see them do “Sunrise!”

     A final note about the band on this tour is that they’ve shown they’re not afraid to alter the songs.  “The Wheel” is a great example of that, with them practically turning it into a mashup with “Stay,” and then turning it into a reggae jam!  “Jack Straw,” “Brown-Eyed Women,” and “Deal” all have new arrangements as well, with new jams and solos thrown in between verses.  They also debuted quite a few “new” songs this tour, including “Passenger” with Donna.  It even had a “new” verse thrown in that’s actually a reworking of an original lyric from when the Dead first wrote the song that got thrown out.

     Now it’s time for the hard part of this post: how does this band compare to Furthur?  Maybe we don’t really need to compare them, but the question has been in my head ever since my first Dead & Company show from last year and I think it’s worth asking.  These are the two most recent bands to really take up the Grateful Dead mantle full time, and they have done it in such different ways.  One way to frame the contrast between these bands is to compare it to pre- and post-hiatus versions of the Dead; there is a difference in drummers, but an overlap (though not as big) of musicians between the iterations, and they all play just about the same songs, with some new songs added and old songs put to rest.  It’s not quite as simple as that, but that’s a good way to get started.

     One thing that immediately stands out as a difference between these two bands is their leadership.  While Furthur was always billed as Phil and Bobby’s band, it was really Phil who was in charge.  For better or worse, Phil is a very dominating person, and I think most of the creative decisions made in Furthur were made because Phil wanted them.  The rest of the band surely had a say in what they did, and Bobby must have had more sway than, say, Joe or John, but Phil ultimately was the leader of the band.  In Dead & Company, however, Bobby is undoubtedly the leader.  Again, the rest of the musicians in the band must have a say, especially the drummers, but when you’re watching the band it’s just so clear that Bobby is the leader.

     One thing that Furthur has over Dead & Company is the variety of their setlists.  Now it’s not exactly fair to compare these two bands on this front yet, as Dead & Co is still new, but even at Furthur’s very first concert they showed they were not going to be conservative with the songs they played.  They opened with “Jam > The Other One,” played “Bird Song > Born Cross-Eyed > Let It Grow” in the first set, and did “St. Stephen > The Eleven > Terrapin Station” in the second set.  While Dead & Company has had some great setlists, they’re all pretty formulaic and there are not too many surprising combinations of songs.  Some of this I think must stem from doing “Drums > Space” every single night; I love that segment, but skipping it allowed Furthur to play even more songs and craft their setlists more uniquely.  Furthur also had a lot more cover songs in their repertoire than Dead & Co. (so far), as well as some original songs and Phil and Bobby songs from their respective solo bands.

     When looking at the vocal talents of the bands, it’s a lot harder to draw the line.  Furthur had Sunshine Garcia Becker (no relation) and Jeff Pehrson doing beautiful harmonies and backup vocals, as well as signing from Phil, Bobby, John, and occasionally Jeff Chimenti.  Dead & Company has no backup singers (except for when Donna shows up), but the main members of the band I think are all better vocalists.  I love Phil’s singing, but Oteil is objectively better at it, and Bobby is singing better with Dead & Co than he has in years.  I also really like Kadlecik’s singing, and some songs I think he might be better at, but overall Mayer is a way better singer.  He just so happens to be a professional pop musician, so his career kind of depended on him singing better and in a more accessible style than Garcia.  Like I said earlier in this, Jeff has also been singing a whole lot more with this band than he did with Furthur, so it’s easier to hear him and appreciate his voice.

     While I remember people complaining about some of Furthur’s tempos being too slow (“Truckin’,” “The Other One,” and “The Music Never Stopped” being some examples that come to mind), they played much faster than Dead & Co does.  Some songs like “Caution” and “The Eleven” were actually pretty fast, and “King Solomon’s Marbles” was both fast and complicated!  Dead & Company, while they have found a good sound and groove in their slowed down tempos, plays way too slow on most of their songs.  I don’t necessarily want the coked-up speeds of the 80’s, but I do want the music to get a little frantic now and again.  “Saint of Circumstance,” especially, loses a lot of its appeal and fun when it’s slowed down so much.  I understand that Bobby has a hard enough time remembering lyrics when the songs are at higher speeds, and slowing some of these songs down gives them room to evolve, but we want to dance!  At my first Furthur show, on the way into “Cosmic Charlie” out of “New Speedway Boogie,” I even remember Phil stepping to the mic and saying, “don’t slow down,” to the band.

     The Grateful Dead basically invented the jam band genre, and both Furthur and Dead & Company have carried on the tradition.  Dead & Company, however, has not yet gotten as good at jamming as Furthur.  Sure, they can jam on a particular song for a while without problem, but jamming between songs is always a little iffy with them.  More often they’ll just stop playing one song and start playing the next one, maybe with someone (Bobby) still playing a little in between.  Furthur, on the other hand, totally mastered the art of the transition jam.  Jeff, Joe, and John were so good at just taking off on a totally new jam at the drop of a hat, and Phil and Bobby were always right there with them.  Some of my most profound moments at Dead shows have been during those in between passages, and you just don’t get them from Dead & Company.

     Now it’s time to get a little more specific, and things could get a little personal here, so I just want to clear the air right off the bat and remind you that I love both of these bands and everyone involved in them, so there are no hard feelings.  To compare the bands here, imagine you’re in a version of Boston in another universe where Furthur and Dead & Company are somehow both playing at the same time.  Not only that, but both bands are playing in Boston tonight, Furthur at the Wang Theatre and Dead & Company at the Wilbur Theatre.  The Wang is maybe a little nicer, but let’s say they’re exactly the same quality on the inside, the only difference is the band that’s playing; which band do you see?

     Let’s start with the two carry-overs, Bobby and Jeff.  You’d think there wouldn’t be much to compare here, but Bobby really is playing very differently now.  His guitars sound way better with Dead & Company than they ever did with Furthur, where I always felt like his sound was too shrill, distorted, and piercing, compared to the more melodic and cleaner sounds he’s getting now.  He still makes some of the same sounds, but they still manage to sound better than they used to.  He also has a new guitar that just sounds beautiful, so that helps.  I think he’s singing better now too, and just seems healthier overall.  So for prime Bobby, I would definitely see Dead & Company.

     We’ve already mentioned Jeff’s singing, which is better and more prominent than it was with Furthur, but I think his playing in Furthur was better than what he puts out with Dead & Company.  He’s still the best keyboardist around, at least for Dead bands (sorry, Benevento and Barraco), and I don’t think he’s playing any worse; in fact, after seeing him with Golden Gate Wingmen, he’s probably better than ever.  But in Furthur he had a much more prominent role in the band.  While Dead & Company might be “more Grateful Dead” in that the lead guitar takes 90% of the solos (more on that in a bit), that means that Jeff doesn’t get as many leads or as much of the spotlight as he did in Furthur.  He and Joe Russo were arguably as fundamental to Furthur’s sound as Bobby and Phil were, and that psychic link hasn’t quite translated to Dead & Company.  With one drummer the music can change at the drop of a hat, but with two drummers you need to plan things out in advance a little more, and that just doesn’t leave room for the rhythmic deconstruction that Jeff and Joe would engage in.  So Jeff is still playing incredibly, but if you want more Chimenti for your buck, you would have to see Furthur.

     Since I already brought up the drummers, let’s compare the three of them.  This is where is starts getting tricky, and the most like the ‘74-’76 comparisons between the bands.  Nothing compares to the Rhythm Devils when they’re hitting their stride, but the thing is, and this is no secret, they aren’t always in that sweet spot.  I think in Dead & Company they typically do play very well with only some minor rough spots, but the old comparison to two shoes in a dryer is sometimes still applicable, and there have been a few trainwrecks in both tours.  The fact is they’re just a bit older, and drumming takes more out of you than playing guitar, so it only makes sense that sometimes they would lose their groove a little more.  Mickey is also more of an auxiliary percussionist than a regular drummer at this point, which can be good, but means the drums don’t quite explode the way they used to.  Joe Russo, however, explodes at a constant rate, and is possibly the best drummer there is.  He’s not very showy, and he doesn’t take twenty minute drum excursions (unfortunately), but he is the most driving, precise, and expansive drummer I know of.  He can switch between time signatures without hesitation, and can turn on a musical dime whenever the music demands it.  And this isn’t to say Furthur never screwed up or had miscommunications, but I think they never had a true trainwreck.  Whenever a mistake would happen or a transition got flubbed, they could just jam out of it and try again, which i something you just can’t do as easily with two drummers.

     Like comparing pre- and post-hiatus versions of the band, it’s weird comparing the drumming of one drummer to that of two.  There are things that the two drummers can build up to that one drummer just can’t compare to, and songs like “Tennessee Jed” and “Ramble On Rose” are probably performed better by Dead & Company because of that.  With one drummer, though, the music becomes a lot more streamlined, and it frees the band up to play with more dynamics.  Something like “Dark Star,” “The Other One,” or “Eyes of the World” becomes a lot more elastic, as there are fewer musicians to agree or disagree on the tempo and time signature.  While it’s true that the Dead’s flirtations with time signatures in the first place came mostly from the addition of Mickey to the band as the second drummer, that was fifty years ago and the drummers are a lot more conservative about the songs they play and the tempos they’re played at.  Furthur really dove back into the older catalogue, and played fast, tricky songs like “The Eleven” and “King Solomon’s Marbles” like they wrote them, thanks in no small part to Joe’s incredible drumming.  As close of a call as it is, I would have to go see Joe with Furthur over Billy and Mickey with Dead & Company.

     This one isn’t as close, and it’s nothing personal, but I can say without hesitation that I would rather see Phil then Oteil.  I’ve sung Oteil’s praises ever since I saw him perform with Hot Tuna for Jorma’s 70th birthday celebration, and I was thrilled when they announced him as the bass player for Dead & Company.  Not only that, but once I actually saw him with the band I realized he was playing even better than I had expected him to, and is a perfect match for the band.  He sings well, he plays a very different kind of bass than Phil that still manages to fit the Dead sound, and he is a constant picture of a happy musician.  That all having been said, Phil Lesh is still Phil Lesh.  He’s the Phillest.  Phil-er-up.  Only love can Phil.  If you really need more justification for why Phil lesh is the best possible bass player for the Grateful Dead, then I don’t understand you, please explain yourself in the comments below.

     Now we get to the part of this comparison that I feel most conflicted about: John vs John.  In some ways this isn’t quite fair, because Kadlecik has been playing the Dead’s music for at least twenty years now (according to his Wikipedia page), whereas Mayer just got on the bus in the last few years.  Now for some, his history in Dead cover bands, especially as a founding member of Dark Star Orchestra, is actually a strike against Kadlecik.  He’s what people think of when they think of Fake Jerry’s.  In reality, though, his playing style is very much his own.  I think he’s one of the best guitarists in the Dead world because he has such an intuitive understanding of the music, and he knows when he needs to play the Jerry line to pull the song together, but really adds his own unique sound.  Of course Mayer absolutely adds his own sound to the music as well, and because he comes from such a different musical world than Kadlecik that perhaps has a more profound effect on the music.  Mayer also can play the Jerry line when it’s appropriate, but to me it sometimes seems a little forced when he does it, like he’s intentionally playing a riff over the song, instead of the that riff coming from the song naturally.  I felt that way about some of Trey’s playing at Fare Thee Well too, that sometimes it felt more like a rehearsed trick than an organic part of the music.

     So Kadlecik definitely feels more like a natural fit to the music in some ways, but in others Mayer seems more like a Grateful Dead guitarist.  Kadlecik just doesn’t have the same dominating stage presence that Jerry had (allegedly, obviously I wasn’t there), but Mayer sure does.  It’s not that he’s flashy or flamboyant, but that everyone on stage and in the crowd has their eyes and ears on him at all times.  When he goes in for a solo, everyone stands back and gives him all the room he needs, and he always comes up with great results; he’s more of a soloist than a jammer.  That’s why you got more Jeff solos in Furthur and fewer in Dead & Company, which is a lot more like classic Grateful Dead: Mayer is just going to solo over everything.  That approach works great for songs like “Loser,” Brown-Eyed Women,” and “Eyes of the World,” but when it comes to something like “Bird Song” or “Dark Star,” it feels again like Mayer is struggling to fit the pieces of the puzzle together instead of playing the music as a whole.

     When it comes to singing, though, there’s no contest.  I do really like Kadlecik’s voice, and there are some Dead songs he might sing better than Mayer from a stylistic perspective, but Mayer’s voice is liquid gold.  I thought it was a little too poppy at first, but I think he’s made it fit with these beautiful songs so well.  He’s great on everything from Jerry ballads to rockers, from Pig Pen blues to the majesty of Terrapin.  And when he’s singing, it’s harder for him to make those silly faces, so it’s a double win!

     But get down to brass tacks, which John is the better guitar player?  We could equivocate all day about the different factors, differences in taste, and backgrounds, but forget all that.  Which one would get me to go to their hypothetical show in Boston?  I think that John Mayer is the better guitar player from a technical standpoint; he’s a virtuoso.  But I would rather see Furthur with John Kadlecik.  I love the ways that he plays Grateful Dead songs, and the musical blesh that he had with that band.  I acknowledge all the bias that I have because it’s the first Dead band I saw and fell in love with, but that’s just how it is.  If this last tour was any indication, Dead & Company is only getting better, so maybe my answer will change as time goes on, but I think Furthur was a better band than Dead & Company currently is.  They were a tighter musical unit, they were more adventurous, and I think they were better at connecting to the Old Powers that these bands all draw from.

     Like I said earlier, it’s kind of like comparing the band before and after ‘75, and that’s because it’s hard to say which band is “more” Grateful Dead.  I think Mayer brings a big presence to the band that has been missing since Jerry died, but Furthur captures the spirit of a younger Grateful Dead.  Dead & Company sometimes feels to me like what would have happened if the Grateful Dead had never stopped touring, but that’s not entirely a good thing.  Part of what killed Jerry and created divisions in the band was the constant burden of touring, and playing the same formulaic sets every night.  Furthur, on the other hand, felt like a return to the early days of the band, when they were still exploring the new territory they had created for themselves, before they really knew what a Grateful Dead concert was or would become.

     So there it all is, folks.  There is of course so much more that could be talked about, and I encourage you all to do so in the comments below.  I started this as just a short review of the Dead & Company tour, but it ended up turning into a great catharsis for the conflict I’ve been feeling between these bands, and I hope it was elucidating for the rest of you in some way.  Of course, there is no real right or wrong here (maaannnn); both bands are great for different reasons, and really we’re all lucky to live in a time with so much incredible music in the Grateful Dead world.  If you want to stay updated on when more posts are coming out, you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @21stCenturyDead, or just keep checking back here!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Golden Gate Wingmen - Brighton Music Hall - 2016-08-13

    The Dead & Company tour may be over, but there’s still plenty of Grateful Dead music being played!  This past Saturday my parents and I went back to the Brighton Music Hall to see John Kadlecik, but in a different band.  This was the Golden Gate Wingmen, who we saw in the same place last summer, and it is made up of John, Jeff Chimenti, Jay Lane on drums, and Reed Mathis on bass.  They play a lot of non-Dead songs, but can be put in the same category as JRAD; if you’re the kind of person who puts labels on things, mannnn.

    The show wasn’t quite sold out, but there was still a lot of people in the dance hall, and I think Jeff Chimenti might be more responsible for that than anyone else.  The other musicians are obviously big draws themselves, all having played in various band including ones with Grateful Dead members, but Jeff has been in the most Dead bands and is the least divisive among fans.  I actually ran into John and Jeff in the smoking area out back (and I didn’t pass out of freak out at them), and after a bit someone asked Jeff, “What’s it like playing with John Mayer, did you finally dose him?,” at which point Kadlecik kind of rolled his eyes and went inside and Jeff shrugged the question off.  Maybe John has some hard feelings about there being a new guitar-John on the Dead scene, but I think probably not.
    The show got a bit of a late start, but we were all ready to dance all night, so we weren’t bothered!  We were dead center, just a couple people back from the stage, so we had great view and sound.  For whatever reason, there’s a soundboard of the show available here, which is awesome!

First Set
  • Nobody Told Me
    • We had seen John do this a few months ago with his JK Band, but we could already tell that this show was going to be a lot better.
    • John really sings and plays Lennon songs so well, and the rest of the band was already playing like mad men.  Reed Mathis plays bass like no one else, feeling more than comfortable just sitting on two notes for a whole song, but liable to slip into an incredible lead at any point.  Besides his regular bass playing, he also has a filter that makes his bass play two octaves at once, so he sounds like an electric guitar and a bass playing together, which is mind blowing.
    • Jay Lane, of Furthur, Ratdog, and Primus fame, was playing way better than I remember him playing last year, augmenting the rhythms and timings of all the songs they played, but staying right with the other musicians.  It’s a very Furthur-esque way of playing, which makes sense with three members of that band.
  • Brown-Eyed Woman
    • Another one we had just seen John do, but this was again worlds apart from that version.
    • This one was played so ferociously, with John, Jeff, and Reed exchanging the most blistering solos, while Jay played with and deconstructed the beat below them.
    • I always think of the 11/11/11 Furthur performance of this song as the gold standard, and I think this one might actually have been better, but it’s truly hard to say.
    • They took a small tuning break and make some Yellow Submarine jokes.
  • Seen Love
    • Three in a row that John played last time he was in Brighton, but three in a row that were better performances!
    • This song mostly has an undulating reggae-esque feel, but this band took the jams way out there.  They got into some truly deep space, getting close to a kind of “King Solomon’s Marbles” feel, then ditching that for some pure, jammy goodness.
    • I don’t want to get too into this now because I already have a post in the works somewhat devoted to this very topic, but John K can get to those formless spaces so much easier than certain other guitarists in the Dead world.
  • Just Like a Woman
    • Reed asked how we were all doing, and got a much bigger thrill out of our response than he expected, so asked if we could do it again.  I hadn’t seen him out in the smoking area, but he was definitely in some kind of State of Mind.
    • Reed’s first vocal lead of the night, with John singing all the other songs.  Reed has such a beautiful voice, very folksy while also sounding a bit like alternative rock.
    • He and Jay were the main forces behind the heavy syncopation that was present in a lot of these songs, and John and Jeff never lost a beat, playing their solos over the breakdowns and coming back to the regular rhythm all together.
    • Jeff got a literal solo in this song when Reed told the rest of the band to cut out and shushed the crowd, leading into a breathtaking lead from John.
  • Lazy River Road
    • Not my favorite Dead song, but I like it a lot better than plenty of others, and it gave the band room for more mellow, harmonic solos.
    • This is also a great song for John’s voice, which is not the most refined voice, but is still very nice and emotive.
  • Givin’ Me The Business
    • This is from the album that John made with Melvin Seals (of the JGB), American Spring, and besides the chorus being a serious case of questionable phrasing (givin’ me the business, in my own backyard) it’s a great song.
    • It’s got a harder vibe to it, kind of like a mix between “After Midnight” and “Me & My Uncle.”
    • They rocked through the jam section with everyone, including Jay, getting solos, before briefly rocketing into unknown, feedbacky territory.
  • Loser
    • One of the highlights of the show, and like with “Brown-Eyed Women,” it passed the 11/11/11 test.
    • A great intro jam to this one, with Reed and John teasing the main riff, but taking their time actually getting into the song, sometimes getting close to a “Spanish Jam” feeling.
    • Reed repeated the “cup of cold coffee” verse, but acknowledged it by singing “I told ya twice.”
    • The solo to this “Loser” has got to be one of the best pieces of music there is, it’s just so heart wrenching and haunting, while also being a perfect platform for blistering rock and roll.
  • Feel Like Dynamite
    • Super funky, this one got everyone dancing!
    • Again, this band is so good on just turning on a dime and going of on a jam that’s almost totally divorced from the song they were playing.  It’s different from how Furthur did it in that this is a lot more democratic, whereas Bobby and Phil (mostly Phil) were always the chief deciding factors in what direction a song or jam would take.  These guys have the classic non-leader vibe going on, with each of them stepping up to lead the band only when it was right, and no clash of egos at all.

    They closed out the set with big smiles and loud cheers from us.  They were all found in the smoking area during break, but not a lot of us stayed out there as the rain and thunder started to roll in.  During the first set, Jeff had removed the top of his Rhodes piano and had been repairing it while he was playing it, which is impressive!  He had some feedback issues with it, but folded up some pieces of paper and fiddled around with a needle or something, and soon had it in working order.  He had that Rhodes and an organ, neither of which I think we’ve seen him play, and both sounded great.  Not only that, but Jeff was the real hero of the show, playing those instruments like no one else in the world can.  You could even say he showed us his power...

    A short setbreak, I think mostly because of the rain outside driving everyone in.  There was then a good amount of smoking and vaping going on in the venue, which no one complained about.  The Cool Mom next to me kept telling her teenage son he should feel free to start smoking and he pretended not to know who she was.  The band came back out on stage with illegal smiles, and we were off into the second set!
Second Set (* w/ Todd Stoops)
  • She Belongs to Me
    • Another great Dylan song, this time sung (very well) by John.
    • The Dead killed this one when they played it, even later in Jerry’s life, but this one was a version for the ages too.  A lot peppier than when the Dead did it.
    • Reed’s been working on a project called Electric Beethoven, which is basically a reworking of Beethoven’s classics in a 21st Century Acid Rock kind of way, and some of his solos in the second set had a more classical and elemental feel to them than other leads he played.
    • Jeff’s Rhodes had some feedback issues at the beginning of this set, but he got that baby working again.  Some banter from the band while they fixed it, Jeff complaining that it’s always his fault...
  • Golden Wings
    • I’m kind of embarrassed I didn’t recognize this song when they played it; it’s got (kind of) the name of the band in it!
    • More great vocals from John here, and some great “wooshing” noises from Jay on his microphone…
    • Once again, they took a relatively simple jam and took it out back and beat it with a  tire iron until it told them all of its secrets.
    • Reed started hinting at, and then full on playing, the “Estimated Prophet” rhythm, and they were about to really commit to it when they all kind of had a chat, then went back into “Join Together.”  The reason why would soon be clear…
    • John switched on his MIDI filter and started playing what sounded exactly like a grand piano, and it went great with Jeff’s Rhodes.  Again, hints of what was to come.
  • Dark Star >
    • Another one you could have called it “Jam > Dark Star,” but we all know how I feel about that.  John and Reed kind of gave the song away (or intentionally hinted at it) on the intro jam, and I totally called that shit.
    • A really heavy “Dark Star,” with a relentless jam on the way in.  Reed went from complicated multi-octave leads to the most minimalist bass playing he did all night, just thumping away on the downbeats while John and Jeff screeched into the stratosphere and Jay pummeled his drum kit.
    • They finally did the opening “Dark Star” riff, toyed with the main theme for a bit, dove into the first verse, and then drifted back into space.
  • Join Together >
    • I didn’t realize this was a The Who song, I always just categorized it as another generic classic rock radio song that wasn’t actually written by anyone.
    • This song has a triumphant, victorious feel to it that John really does well.
    • Not surprisingly, they jammed this song out a lot more than The Who ever did.
    • No one plays the organ quite like Jeff Chimenti, he’s truly a master of the art.  I could listen to him play that thing all day everyday, and never get bored.
  • Dark Star * >
    • They went into a serious meltdown jam on the way back into this song, then suddenly snapped together to do the final verse.
    • John sang both verses of the song, and he did it great, but I was hoping they trade the verses and Jeff and Reed would each get one.
    • John got on his MuTron and started womping about, until they finally decided it was time to play “Estimated.”
    • On the way there, a roadie brought another bench out and put it next to Jeff, then Todd Stoops came out on stage!
  • Estimated Prophet * >
    • They must have promised Todd they wouldn’t do this one without him, and he was indeed a great addition.  He had impressed us back with the JK Band, but he really stepped up his playing for this band.  He and Jeff really blended well together, and Jeff of course has experience playing with other keyboardists in Dead bands.
    • We had hoped Reed would sing this one, and he exceeded our expectations.  His drawn-out voice is perfect for the “Estimated” character and his lonely insistence that he knows the way.
    • Reed and Jay really funked this one up with their telepathic syncopations.
    • The outro jam started to build up from the uncertain dissonance they had reached to a brighter climax, and we all knew where they were headed...
  • Eyes of the World * >
    • This had been at the top of my list for songs I wanted to see the band do this time, so I was of course thrilled, especially once John took off on a stellar intro lead once they had established the song’s beat.
    • Jeff and Todd both got solos that they shared with John in the body of the song.  John also threw in some of what sounded like teases at TLC’s “Waterfalls,” which was fun and unexpected!
    • Todd did some singing, which didn’t mesh too well with the rest of the band to my ears, but definitely not the worst singing I’ve heard from a Dead band.
    • As with pretty much everything these guys played, this was a lot faster than the Dead & Company versions we had heard lately.
    • They kind of broke down to just drums and a mellow jam while welcoming Todd back off the stage, then built the jam back up and made the surprising transition to...
  • Touch of Grey
    • After this song Jay was raving about how they gave it a ska rhythm, and he was really excited about it!  It didn’t make the biggest difference to the song, but it did make it stand out from other versions I’ve seen, and was a nice touch (ha).

  • Liberty
    • One of my favorite nineties songs from the Dead, so glad to get it!  John sings it so well, too.

    Well that’s the show!  I highly recommend you all go out and see this band if you get the chance.  They’re all excellent musicians, and the music is of the highest quality, but there’s none of the pressure or angst that can come with bigger concerts in bigger venues.  Like JRAD, these guys have taken the Grateful Dead catalogue and tradition and stood them on their heads while simultaneously still honoring them.