Anyone with a shred of intelligence will agree that Hunter's lyrics in his songwriting partnerships with Garcia and other members of the Dead were at least a giant step beyond the normal rock lyrics, not to mention his work with Dylan, Hornsby, Lauderdale, etc. I'm a word guy and have been captivated by his lyrics since the second I first heard them. I really liked his first two records back in the 70s, and I *really* like his collaborations with Lauderdale, his mythic meeting with and inspiration of the great Tom Russell, and most of all his ability to remain relevant as an artist, years past his "time." As he said when commenting on his famous feat of writing the lyrics for Ripple, Brokedown Palace, and To Lay Me Down in one afternoon, "Ah if only those times would come again ... they will, just not to me."
So we got tickets as soon as available, had dinner at Jacob Wirth's on a busy Monday evening, and then sauntered over to the 5th row of tables at the Wilbur to see the show. Hunter admitted in last week's Globe that he had had a medical scare recently (a possibly fatal spinal infection), and had re-assessed his goals for the last part of his life and realized he wanted to perform more. We were very glad he did, especially since this made him possibly more tolerant of a hard-edged Boston audience than he would have been earlier in his career.
Hunter came out picking a solid-body guitar and stuck to that all night, accompanying himself on harmonica for some songs. Some people seemed taken aback at how old he looked, but got over it quick. He opened with Box Of Rain and I was immediately thrown back on my figurative heels.
I'd heard this song hundreds of times before and had been captivated with it for years. But I heard it as if for the first time. I've certainly heard other versions than the American Beauty track, performed by other bands than the Dead and sung by others than Phil Lesh. But this guy wrote it and was able to present it as his original work.
Every line had an added quality. Right off the bat, "Look out of any window" became a suggestion rather than a command. "What do you want me to do?" became a plaintive moan rather than a petulant complaint. The dream in the line, "This is all a dream we dreamed" became an ideal state rather than a foggy anomaly. Well you get the point, I (and probably most of the people in the hall) *knew* these lyrics so well and yet found new meanings in them when hearing them with a confident change of inflection, an extended few measures beyond the familiar chord change, and an alternate emphasis that brought out other meanings in those wonderful words.
After he just blew us all away with Box Of Rain, Hunter proceeded to take us to Fennario, where both Dire Wolf and Peggy-O are set, and to sing both songs at the same time! Though Garcia had just hinted at it, he showed us the terror behind Dire Wolf, asking whatever God might be anywhere near the neighborhood to keep him from being murdered; and he alternated with the fury shown by the Captain confronting Peggy-O, threatening to kill all the women in the area-o. Hunter already had at least 10% of the audience (including us) in the palm of his hand at this point, and it was close to 100% by the end of the evening.
Cruel White Water, Ship Of Fools, a wonderfully playful Candyman, the Dylan co-write Silvio, and a folk-anthem-version of New Speedway Boogie followed. Hunter encouraged us to sing along with the "This darkness has got to give" chorus of Speedway, and we all knew what darkness we were referring to with the current government shutdown, the recent well-publicized incidences of lack of mental care boomeranging on us, the atrocities in Syria and the lack of international outrage, and so on and so on.
Hunter said he'd see us in 20 minutes and he came back out right on time for the second set, and he was right back on top. He started off with a version of Wharf Rat that had us all melting, like the first time we'd heard it (ok, the first 50 times). He sang the August West part like it was the dying story of a sad old man ... which I'd always tried to make it in my mind ... rather than the defiant rant that Garcia always sang ("Some other FUCKER'S crime"). And he really left us wondering if the narrator's girl had been true to him or not.
He followed this with Bertha and Jack Straw (in his version, Shannon actually called the other guy, "Jack Straw"), and then he knocked us all into the next world with Reuben and Cérise. We were all grooving with the beautiful story of true love overcoming fear, and then he changed it! Reuben ended up cradling the dead Cérise in his arms as he looked back at life on his path down to the underworld, as warned at in the myth behind it all (and in the movie Black Orpheus). My meager mind was blown by this I can tell you, and I know there were bits of gray matter splattered all over the tired plaster walls of the Wilbur from everyone else's. But we all rallied and gave Hunter his first hall-wide standing O after this song. This seemed to waken him up to the fact that all of us were *listening* to his words and waken us up to the fact that this guy had the power.
Oh yeah, next came a stellar Brown-Eyed Women where you got the rogue quality of the narrator in a way Garcia's vocal never elucidated, a mandatory Must Have Been the Roses, a rocking Deal, a beautiful Brokedown Palace, and then his later song The Wind Blows High. He finished the set with a couple of love songs: the epic Standing On the Moon and the song for his wife (he mentioned that it was written for her), Scarlet Begonias. We'd been a very well-behaved crowd at suppressing our urges to sing along with those marvelous songs (and thus aggrieve our neighbors), but by the time Scarlet came around we didn't hesitate to join in.
The interplay between Hunter and the crowd was one of the subtlest and most wonderful parts of the night. There were a couple of instances where an enthusiastic listener shouted something a non-New Englander might perceive as aggressive, there were a few audience members who had a hard time limiting their whoops and hollers to appropriate times, and Hunter showed some temper himself when he trashed a mis-behaving filter switch and ignored some audience entreaties. BUT, audience members scattered roses on the stage (which delighted Hunter to no end), we wound-tight Bostonians showed no hesitation at rising to and applauding the crescendos in his performance, and most importantly to a performer, we all showed again and again that we were *listening* to what he had to say. That's why we were there, to hear the magic words re-struck. Hunter ended the evening with a huge smile on his face and I got the impression that he had gotten as much out of it as I had. I hope so!
Encore time and he did goddamn Ripple. We were all as silent as if we were in church, listening to the parable about ... well, that's up for you to decide isn't it? We exploded in applause when it ended and Hunter made a motion to embrace us all, and then struck up his signature ending, an a capella version of his Boys In the Barroom, which was perfectly fitting for a Boston crowd of course. That was it and he smiled and smiled as he reluctantly left the stage, with a last promise that he'd be back. I think he liked playing the Wilbur on a blustery early Fall night, and hopefully he won't forget it. I certainly won't.