As mentioned, Dead & Company are in the middle of a tour, and this is huge to Grateful Dead fans. The Core 4 (Phil, Bobby, Mickey, and Billy) got together for Fare Thee Well this summer, and then several things happened, like discovering that John Mayer meshes incredibly with traditional Grateful Dead music/consciousness, Phil announcing that he had bladder cancer and continuing to express a desire not to tour, and Billy and Mickey being re-indoctrinated into the world of GD spinoff bands, after taking a few years off. This is not to mention the incredible talent shown by "the bench" recently, such as by Jeff Chimenti, John Kadlecik, Joe Russo, Neal Casal, Reed Mathis, Jason Crosby, and on and on. There is a next generation of GD musicians out there, but the old(est) guys are sticking around.
To recap: Bobby and Billy and Mickey wanted to keep things going after Fare Thee Well because it worked so well and was so much fun. They got a great guitarist on board in John Mayer, but Phil opted out, partly because he had already scheduled concerts during the rest of 2015, and partly because he was not up for touring. It may be that there's also an element of "we (Core 4) said 'Fare Thee Well' and we need to live up to that and treat our musical adventure as over, let's move on." But I don't think so, I think they wanted to continue to play with Phil (he performed a show with Mayer before Bobby did, and the two of them produced some supernova explosions) and he wanted to continue to play with them, but it just wasn't going to work out for 2015H2 and so they went with plan B. Perhaps plan A *will* work out in 2016H1?!?
But in the meantime the Core 3 and John needed a bass player and a keyboardist would be nice. How about Oteil Fucking Burbridge and Jeff Fucking Chimenti?!? They suddenly had quite the all-star band together, practiced a lot, and scheduled a tour. Deadheads throughout America (and the entire solar system) were starved for great GD music after the super feats of this summer, and we felt incredibly lucky that they announced a gig at the DCU Center in Worcester as part of the tour, which will hit large cities in the South and the Midwest next (after starting with Buffalo tonight) and then Vegas, SF, and LA. Worcester is probably the smallest city on the tour. I was barely able to get tickets, but did!
They opened in Albany (as discussed in the previous posts on Phil and Stanley), hit MSG, Philly, and DC, and then showed up in Worcester on Tuesday, November 10th. Tragically, Sarah was at the height of the Fall flu that I had just had and opted out of the show, but Scott was able to take her place. I met Dave at the train in West Concord, we grabbed subs, and then we headed for the Worcester evening traffic maelstrom, getting to the parking garage across from the DCU Center in time to wolf down the subs, have a couple of beers, and then meet Scott (who'd just arrived) and head over and in.
Saw several friends inside who were just as excited as we. We waited to get beers at the only good bar there (very efficient bartender) and then headed up to our seats in the front row of section 308, stage left about at the faceoff circles in the far zone if there'd been a hockey rink set up. These were fine seats except for the detail that a speaker stack was in the way of the Stealie projection set up behind the band, which was the central part of the visual show during the concert, decorated by shapes, colors, and film clips. Oh well, not much lost.
Is it time for me to start gushing? I'd been told that sight lines in the DCU Center were fantastic and that sound in there could be great. Even though I was several hundred feet away, I *saw* the band almost as if I was right up front with them, being able to follow chording patterns on guitar frets and see them emoting while they sang. I think part of this was lighting and part was that it just seemed like an intimate venue. And the sound was incredible! For the first quarter of the first song I knew I was in a hockey rink, but then they made some adjustments for the fact that the seats were filled now rather than the way they'd been at sound check, and the sonic atmosphere was incredibly good! Perhaps we were lucky here, being in the first row of the overhang, because we could feel the whole arena reverberating all around us with quality music.
It's almost unreal how well John Mayer can play Grateful Dead music. He describes his introduction to the music with wonder (see his quotes), and GD head after head will tell you that they don't see why everyone from Bach on up doesn't latch on to the same thing. These are great songs and you can spend your life on them. It's validating that a pop star like Mayer is so turned on to them. But the key thing here is his interaction with a band, not his individual capabilities, and he seems to have learned that as much as the songs themselves. He meshes so well with Bobby and the others it's almost like Garcia. Not in the way that he fits the mold of Garcia, but that he's able to play the role of the GD lead guitarist and set the pace, be a foil to Weir (and the others), and really take the lead when the dynamics indicate it in that subtle but titillating way that Garcia always did.
Nothing against Anastasio, who did a sterling job this summer under incredible pressure. But he didn't take the role of a lead guitarist for the fucking Grateful Dead the way Mayer did.
So what happened next? They came out with Oteil far left, John next, Bobby next, and then Jeff way over on the right with his grand piano, B3, Rhodes, and synth. Behind them was the awesome drums setup, fully as well-realized as it had been this summer. They tuned up and then launched into Cassidy, which as far as I know has *never* been an opener (wait, this just in: they opened with it once, on 1983-08-21). This was just the beginning. Here's the first set:
Ramble On Rose
The Music Never Stopped
This was one of the most excellent sets of music I've ever experienced. I know I gush a lot in this blog, but I can't imagine much being better than this. Subjectively, it was better than the Phil and Stanley show last weekend, it was better than the Alvin's at their utmost, it was better than Emmylou and Rodney playing every song they knew, it was better than the Allman Brothers with Derek Trucks. This was just incredible music. Maybe my impression of it and my ranking of it will fade over time, but maybe not!
From the first note to the last I could hear every instrument; as mentioned, the sound was incredible and the technique of all the band members was unreal. They went from a long, jammed out Cassidy that might have been the crescendo of a first set but was just the opener here into a funky, spacey, slow but crackling with energy Row Jimmy. Bob started rowing with his guitar neck while singing the chorus, tapping a few notes on the fretboard like, Stanley who?
I can't begin to describe everything that was great about this set. The vocals could have been better. Ramble on Rose could have been longer and more syncopated. Big River could have been more country, and Peggy-O could have been played less academically. But the positives were all around us with every note. Oteil was messing around on a palette that Phil never used and was arguably as good (he also had an awesome thick-leather guitar strap featuring a beautiful leather, painted carving of the Virgin), the drummers were distinct and loud and like the clocks of eternity (Billy on sticks and Mickey on mallets, with his white gloves), Jeff was jumping between his keyboards like he had been when I saw him with Ratdog and playing them all excellently. Bobby was riveting, strumming his strat with a tempo and a feeling that can't be equaled by anyone else on this Earth. And John was just aching to play lead, like Garcia, filling in where he was allowed to and then rearing back and ripping one off when he got the chance, stopping just a millimeter shy of the next verse.
My Dog, these guys were a tight band! They did not step on each other at all and there wasn't a hint of aimless noodling or not knowing who was going to step up next in that set. Dave and Scott and I were in a state of amazement. The others in the front row of 308 had screwed for the floor or something ... there was no security inside and all the aisles and walkways were jammed with fans throughout the show ... and that left plenty of room for us to spread out and dance.
John let his character out on Sugaree a bit more than a mellow San Francisco musician would, but that was fine and he just got the soul of these songs so right. And in the middle of Sugaree I knew that they were going to go into Music next and it would be the last song of the set. I told Dave so and then they did it, and this was one of the best Musics I've ever heard. Play that tape!
Phew, time for the set break. We'd been standing and dancing all along and sank into our seats like deflated balloons when the guys left the stage and the lights came up. Hung out and analyzed things for 15 minutes or so, but then Scott decided to brave the beer stands, and then a while later I thought it was time for a bathroom break. I got back just a bit late for the second set and Scott was on time with the beer; those walkways were a solid mob of people.
So did they do a normal set opener here? No, they ripped right into Deal, which is always a later-first-set song. And they did it excellently; they were breaking the bounds of music left and right and up and down, like the Grateful Dead always did. Expect something, and then something else even more wonderful would occur. Here's the list:
Uncle John's Band
Get Out Of My Life, Woman
Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad
I was a bit hyper-ventilated when I took my position in the front of 308, having just run up the arena's stairs (dodging many heads on the way) from the bathroom for fear of missing notes. But my heartbeat soon dropped to the pace of Oteil's bass and again, I was hearing and seeing every note vividly from all of the players. At one time in the second set, Jeff stopped tickling the grand and shifted over to the synthesizer, which he just brushed some with his fingers, looking for the right sound. But we could hear every note of what he was doing! I don't know what it was, but the sound in that hockey rink was just extraordinary.
After Deal they went into the UJB of your dreams, beautiful precision story-book playing with crows telling tales, silver mines sparkling on sunny days, twirling dancers calling out tunes to ghostly fiddle players. And then the one song we would have predicted (and did), Estimated. Bobby pulled out all stops for this one, though he gave it more of a dead-pan crazy prophet take than a wild-eyed crazy prophet.
And this was a most awesome Terrapin. By that point everyone in the arena was hanging on every word and the musicians were so much in control of their sound that this swelled to baroque proportions you could not measure. And at the end of it Oteil had taken off a run and then got louder and louder and OMG, what is that sound? It's Mickey fucking pounding on the thunder drums!! This was a totally enthralling drums segment, especially when Oteil sat down at Billy's traps while he was trying every drum that had ever been made and laid down a beat on snare and cymbals that you thought would (hopefully) never end.
Space was great too, though the song selections right after it were not the best. This is how hard it is to criticize that show: this was an incredible Dear Prudence sung with exquisite folk phrasings by Bobby and here I am finding fault with it. But maybe Stella Blue would have been better. Whatever!
And Get Out Of My Life (which the Garcia band had covered but was never done by the Dead or Bobby's bands) was a tribute to its composer, the great Allen Toussaint, who had passed away late Monday at 72 after a show. Time was running short after that, and they finished with a tidy cover of GDTRFB, leaving everyone a quivering mass. There was a lot of toweling off after they were done, phew!
Short break after the set and then they were back on stage for an encore, John and Bobby both sporting acoustics. Time for Ripple, and they sang it like it had just been struck, like a perfect jewel.
We gathered our things and started out of there pretty quickly when the encore was over, knowing it would be a long road home. As great as the DCU Center had been, their common spaces really become chaotic mosh pits when everyone tries to move at once, and it took a while for us to get some breathing room after mashing through endless crowds. It was spitting rain outside, but better than battling the hordes inside, and we finally made it back to the parking lot. Dave and I had parked on the 5th level and Scott on the 7th, and we realized soon that it would be a LONG time before we'd be able to move our cars. The line was stationary for at least a half hour, and then barely moving after that.
Oh well, had a beer and talked and talked ... nothing else to do. Finally things started to clear out and we jumped in our cars. An hour drive home from there for me and Dave but this was so worth it, it could have been 100 hours and we'd still have been buzzing. Got to bed around 2AM and had to go to work the next day!