Thursday, May 31, 2018

Dead & Company In Mansfield

Well, it was another case of it being very hard to complain!  After the stellar Dead & Company tour last Fall we've been the recipient of a continuous stream of Dead and Dead-like occurrences, like JRAD live in December, Dead & Co on the Mexican beach in February followed by the 3 makeup shows from the Fall tour, and then Bobby & Phil live in Boston and on the couch tour in March.  And of course DSO came back to town in early May (though we didn't see it), and we'd seen a spectacular Ghost Light show in April.  Where was Golden Gate Wingmen??  Oh well, can't complain, especially when Dead & Co were about to start another massive tour, this time opening on May 30 in Mansfield MA, at the whilom Great Woods, now called the Xfinity Center.

Needless to say, the rush for tickets was as intense as ever.  Our strategy was to go for tickets to the Hartford concert as well (6/13), and we decided we'd be fine with lawn tickets for that since we remembered the lawn there being as good as many of the stadium seats and there was a great difference in price.  Those were easy to snag when they went on sale.  But good tickets for Mansfield were not offered to any of us three when we tried multiple times.  And so Sarah took a shot at the lowest level VIP tickets and immediately got offered great seats, right behind the soundboard as it turned out.  We figured we were getting cheap seats in Hartford and these were only about a third more than we'd been planning to spend on Mansfield, so let's go for it! ... so we did.

Met up at Yard House in Dedham by 3 or so after some massive 128 traffic for me and the wrong train for them.  It was a *beautiful* late Spring day.  We New Englanders are still shaking off the memories of a long, cold Winter that only creakingly and hesitatingly turned into early Spring and then suddenly in May burst into color.  And of course the Eastern Mass May traffic was brutal, both on the way there and and the way down to Mansfield from Dedham after some great beers and great food (that may have given me food poisoning, took a few days after the concert for my stomach and head to stop hurting).

This was our first time at a concert in Mansfield and we'd heard that a) the sight lines were fantastic from almost all seats, especially section 6 where we'd be, and b) that this was one of those parking situations where first in was last out and we should expect a clusterfuck of parking lot traffic.  Sure enough, several local lots outside the gates were selling places at absurd prices, but what we didn't expect was that the absurd prices would continue inside the lots.  I'd thought the parking would be free except for the reserved VIP parking that we didn't go for.  But the side lot I had my eye on as maybe a good place to exit from was charging $50!  Whatever, we paid it and after being denied access to the best part of the lot ("No, that's the $60 section"), we backed into a spot among a village of happy tailgaters and soon joined them.  It was a beautiful May day and we were all going to see the opener of another highly anticipated tour.

Wandered in after a bit and spent some time signing stuff at Participation Row, and getting our pictures taken.  The Xfinity Center is a nice but kind of labyrinthine place with lots of stands to buy good beer and food.  And our seats were very good, pretty much dead center and 40 yards back from the stage.  As I say, we were next to the soundboard but I don't feel the sound was that great in the amphitheater, not top-grade depth or volume even though we were so central, and a little boomy.

We had some great row-mates, on tour themselves up from Pennsylvania.  Our hurried Dead discussion quickly got to the point and we agreed that Jeff Chimenti is the most continuously excellent thing about this band.  We detoured into discussion of side bands and all bemoaned the lack of chances to see more of John Kadlecik and agonized over the demise of Furthur.  We noted that of course they *were* from PA and so had probably had more chances to see JK than we had ... oh well.  We speculated on new songs for Dead & Co and they told us they'd heard Alabama Getaway in sound check and so that was anticipated.

OK, time for the concert to start!  Dave writes an excellent song by song breakdown in his blog, and I won't approach that much detail, but I agree with most everything he says.  Here's the first set:
  • Shakedown Street
  • Alabama Getaway
  • It's All Over Now
  • Brown-Eyed Women
  • Tennessee Jed
  • Bird Song >
  • Loose Lucy >
  • Bird Song
And here are some notes:
  • I was immediately in love with this concert.  Not the best sound but great seats and great sight lines ... we could see everything on stage in detail.  And the vibe was lovely; that could have to do with Oteil being higher in the mix (as Dave says), like at our first Dead & Co show in Worcester.
  • And what a great song to start with, getting right into the groove and showing the band's amazing ability to take a song we've heard a million times and rock the hell out of it.
  • Jeff Chimenti is the Master (in a good way) and had a great concert.  He excelled on all of his keyboards (and he had a lot of them), especially the grand and the B3.  And on Shakedown he latched onto a delightful riff in the last part and dangled us all from a string.
  • A valid criticism has been their slow pace, and that was back.  But they seemed to be more tactical about their pace than on their earlier tours, turning Shakedown into a groove rather than a disco tune, and using a bluesy tempo to great affect in BEW.  This arrangement allowed John to deliver one of the best vocals I've heard to one of my favorite songs.
  • A lack of innovation and envelope-pushing has also plagued these guys in the past.  This tour opener was a case of them playing it safe to some degree, but they also showed that they were determined to roll out new songs and new sounds.  They played two new songs right off the bat: Alabama and the 60's R&B of It's All Over that the Dead had done so excellently, and both showed great practice and great timing.
  • But the most exciting bit of innovation to me was their intro to Bird Song, which included Mickey droning on the beam and them all setting the sonic mood of the song like had never been done, before launching into the repetitive melody.  They didn't take this as far into the stratosphere as Bobby & Phil had at the Wang, but they took it a long way.  And they threw an excellent and (generally) tight Loose Lucy into the middle, though they stumbled in transition back into Bird Song.
Another fantastic first set!  Got out of there pretty well for a bathroom and beer break, but it's such a convoluted place I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find my way back!  I did, and it turned out to be good I was back so soon, because this was a very short break by their standards.

I should mention the triptych of video screens that they had set up behind the stage and were used very dynamically.  Being right in the middle we got a great view of them and the content was great: sometimes a theme related to the song, sometimes abstract artwork, but most often cameras focussed on different angles of the stage and the players.  They were great, and the Xfinity Center had their other screens going too, so there was lots of video.  I kept my eyes on the stage though.

They launched right into the second set and Dave hadn't returned yet, but he got back after a few notes and I was already gushing about the fact that Bobby was on his great green guitar.  And he was playing Scarlet.  Here's the second set:
  • Scarlet Begonias >
  • Fire On the Mountain >
  • Althea
  • Estimated Prophet >
  • The Other One jam >
  • Eyes Of the World >
  • Drums >
  • Space >
  • Stella Blue
  • Touch Of Grey
Again, see Dave's blog for detail on these songs.  I was a bit disappointed that they didn't do any of their monster songs (ok, they hinted at TOO), though many would contend that Scarlet > Fire is one of the most monstrous of all.  And of course, Eyes ... this was a fantastic, long jam featuring a whole bunch of everything: ethereal, persistently excellent chording from Bobby, smoking leads from John and Jeff, and an outro bass solo from Oteil that was just ideal.

Billy and Mickey have significantly reduced the size of their drum setup, perhaps because the road crew offered to work for half the price if they did.  But the array of sounds they produced in the Drums segment was just as fine, especially when Oteil and Jeff joined in with a passel of weird instrumental sounds of their own.  And Mickey benefits from his setup being more compact ... he was able to strum The Beam without getting up from his traps.  No licking though (hey, I've never seen Mickey and Brad Marchand in the same room!).

And then the band returned and they calmed down from another frenetic Space segment, and then they went into the Stella Blue of death.  This is one of the most lovely songs ever and Bobby sang it and John led it with perfection.

Then a strange segue into Touch?!?  I can't say I don't like Touch because it's a fun singalong and has some great history and panache.  But it was kind of a shock right after Stella Blue.  But we realized when they finished it quickly and then gathered on stage for a group bow that their time had run out.  My phone showed it was exactly 11:00 and people were saying that this was the hard curfew at the Xfinity Center.

Oh well, another great concert and we'll see them again in Hartford!  Took some time to get going out of the parking lot, but once we got back onto the highway it was a quick trip up to Quincy to drop off Dave and then back to Woburn with friend Jimmy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Sacred Shakers Bust Out At The Burren

It was kind of hard to believe when we saw that the Sacred Shakers had been booked at The Burren in Somerville.  It's a small room and they're a big band, and they hadn't played together in a while.  But we didn't stop to think and got tickets right away, though only General Admission was available by the time it crossed our radar.  That show soon sold out and they added a second show, which sold out too, and all of this for a Tuesday night in early May (5/1/18)!

We showed up at a little after 5 and got the booth first in the corridor to the Back Room (so we could get our pick of General Admission tables), had a couple of beers and recapped the day.  The crowd was right behind us and the booths to the back soon filled up, and the line extended through most of the club by the time the doors opened at 6:15 or so.

The reason they were late opening the doors was that the "sound check" really had become a rehearsal as the band was panicking about remembering who played what when, and they took turns running out for coffee or snacks.  We could hear and partly see all this confusion going on and found it pretty entertaining itself.

No counter in front of the stage was set up this time, but they had managed to cram as many tables as they could into the room when we finally were let in.  We grabbed a small table near the bathroom side, where we could get a great angle on the stage (we had to kick Daniel Kellar out of it, he was idly thumbing his phone and realized he had to move!).  And we were soon joined at the table by another couple (it was set for 4 close diners) and the room quickly became packed.  Our table-mates said that they'd been there for a couple of Irish events where it was all elbow-to-elbow standing room, but this was as full as I've ever seen it with tables.

The 8-piece band came out soon and lined up with Jerry Miller and Johnny Sciascia over on the far right, Eric Royer, Gregg Glassman, and Eilen Jewell right to left at mikes in the front, Jason Beek on a large kit behind them, and Dan Fram in front of Daniel Kellar over on our side.  They lit into the song they probably know best, I'm Gonna Do My Best, and we were off!

They were just the wrong size for the room and sounded and looked a little awkward through a good deal of the set.  They were as packed in on stage as we were in the audience, and Dan Fram actually stepped off the stage so people could see Daniel Kellar when he took his fiddle leads.  The Back Room really has a good sound system IMO, but Jason Beek was drumming as loud as Jason Beek usually does, and the rest of the band had to match this volume, and it took them a long time to get this sounding good in that small, crowded space.  And they had 5 vocalists, which added to the sonic confusion at times.

But it got very, very good nevertheless.  Here's some of what they played:

I'm Going To Do My Best
Straighten 'Em
Won't You Come and Sing For Me
I'm Tired
I Saw the Light
Before This Time Another Year
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
You Got To Move
Jordan Is a Hard Road To Travel
Lord, I Am the True Vine
Gospel Plow

There was a whole lot of talent on the stage, but I first have to mention Eilen Jewell who is in a very upper class of talent.  They weren't doing her songs and she only got to sing a lead when it came around, but she was the focus for most everyone there.  And she was playing and singing as well as I've ever seen her.  In particular, Won't You Come and Sing For Me (one of my all-time favorite songs, written by Hazel Dickens) was just melting and I Saw the Light (Hank Williams of course) was brilliant.

Everyone had to hold back a little since they were playing in such a large ensemble.  Jerry Miller was as great as ever, though they didn't let him have more than a couple of measures here and there and so there was no mind melting going on.  And I was delighted to see Johnny, who used to play in Eilen's band, but he was just holding up the bottom line and didn't solo.

Jason Beek got a good number of vocal leads and was excellent.  One great feature of the night was the baritone harmony, with Jason, Eric Royer, and Dan Fram or Gregg Glassman (depending on who was on lead) combining for a great male chorus (too bad they didn't have a true bass).

Another feature of the night was Royer's excellent banjo work, which managed to be sparse and spacey even in such a large band.  We've seen him several times (and I ran into him in the bathroom and talked about how difficult it can be to get barbecue sauce off your hands) and he's truly a sui generis musician.  Kellar's fiddle work is also distinctive and I loved his fills especially.

Eilen, Fram, and Glassman took most of the leads though and switched a couple of guitars and a couple of gourds between the three of them, like they had a plan.  This actually worked out quite well, if they'd all been playing guitar at once it would have been too much, especially with the fantastic banjo rhythm Royer was providing and Kellar's fills.

I was kind of bothered by the fuss on stage; they had told us, "Welcome to the rehearsal!" and were kind of embarrassed that they were bumping along like a loud jalopy trying to navigate a rutted road for the first few songs.  But for me things started to sound right (to say the least) when they calmed down and got it together to do some excellent ensemble backing work for Eilen's vocal on I Saw the Light.  Then everyone took a deep breath and they played a great second half to the set.

It went pretty long, and then they came out and did two songs for an encore, though they kept both of them short: Twelve Gates To the City and John the Revelator, both real crowd pleasers that had people dancing and singing along.  Lots of fun!

They left the stage and we got out of there, shouldering our way back up the corridor to the Back Room and past the long line waiting for the 9:00 show.  We realized it was 9 already!  Hope the late show went late and that they'll be back again and a little better rehearsed.  And they need to play a larger room, though The Burren really has its charms.