Thursday, June 14, 2018

Dead & Company Back in the Theatre

Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the really important things in life when work gets in the way, like trees, the sky, and another Dead & Company concert.  And sometimes Hartford can seem far away, especially when you’ve gotta get there through mounds of traffic and you realize you have to drive back that night.  So there was some hassle in planning the logistics for going down to Hartford’s Xfinity Theatre on June 13th to see Dead & Company … and there was a possibility of rain, thunder, and lightning, but we knew it would be worth it (unless the show was truncated by weather!) and it really was.

Grabbed iced coffees to go on another beautiful but turning tumultuously overcast late Spring day.  Met Sarah and Dave at the train (Dave and I had the same t-shirt ... very embarrassing) and then we picked up subs/wraps/quesadillas and hit the road for the Southwest.  The traffic through Worcester was as bad as ever and the rain started coming and going.  But we eventually made it to the Pike and down 84 into Connecticut and the clouds started backing off and the showers cut it out.

Pulled onto Market Street in Hartford, eschewed Yard Goat parking, and joined a line of cars wending their way up around the car dealerships and into the free lot (a.k.a. the toxic waste dump) that extends North from the Xfinity Theatre.  We considered going for VIP parking or at least some kind of lot that held out some kind of hope for easy exiting after the concert, but none really did unless you paid them a lot of money.  We figured, how bad can it be?  And we found out … it was even worse than our first time there.

Oh well, grabbed a patch of crumbled asphalt and toxic waste in the lot and settled down to eat our subs and get psyched.  They actually had a few porta-potties there this time but a lot of people used the woods anyway.  And guess who pulled up 50 or so cars behind us and parked right next to us, Dave’s friend whom he runs into at every Dead event!  That was a cosmic coincidence, and later Jimmy and friend showed up too and we all had a good time hiding our beers from the mellow cops cruising the lot and inspecting vendor wares when they came by.

And those mellow vendors were smart to come by because almost half of the long walk into the amphitheater was lined with more serious vendors who had brought booths to set up and spread out in.  Of course there were some with coolers selling beer by the can and probably whatever else you wanted.  This was by far the most extensive Shakedown Street I’d ever seen, though we didn’t slow down to look at it for long … we wanted to get in and get in position for a good spot on the lawn.

Inside at last we found our way up the the lawn entrance, where about 50 people were already waiting for the gates to open.  We joined them and had some nice conversations with people there, then the gates opened and we all ran up the stairs or around the wall onto the lawn and found where we wanted to sit.  We really had a great spot, just high enough up on the lawn to see over the people in the back rows of the seats, even when they stood up and sat on each other’s shoulders at the end of the concert.  And we were just right of center … center was dead on to the “Section 600” marker painted on the overhang, and we figured we were about in section 569.

We had brought in one of our clear plastic Dead Concert bags with some snacks and some empty water bottles, which we’d filled up on the way in, as well as getting a big cup of Sweetwater 420.  We had plenty of time to settle in to our spot on the hardy, long grass (it must take a beating and so they keep it a little long), and to then wander around.  This time when I looked over at the load-in access area, there were 9 tour busses (John must need two, but who else?) and at least 17 huge tractor-trailer trucks.

And the clouds actually started to part … we could see a little bit of gray-blue sky and it sure didn’t feel like there was any lightning approaching the area that night.  We were glad to get in early, because it must have been a madhouse out in the lots as 8:00 approached and the frantic crowds streamed in.  Strange that every other show on the tour started at 7 and this one was at 8, but strange things often happen at Hartford concerts.

Have I set the scene well enough?  The guys came out and launched into the first song.  It wasn’t Stranger but the jam instantly was familiar and it was close.  Here’s the first set:

Hell In a Bucket
Next Time You See Me
Ramble On Rose
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Cumberland Blues
Black Muddy River
Don’t Ease Me In

One of the things to watch about the tour this year has been the instruments.  Bob changes guitars so quickly you wonder how he doesn't get confused [sic].  He has that wonderful green guitar that we love, but also switches between a blonde guitar, a red one, the walnut one we loved last Fall, and one of his old chika-chika guitars ... and at least one acoustic.  John pulls out his acoustic once in a while but mainly stays on a tiger striped one for the rock songs and a gray-blue one for the blues songs.  But he switched his on-stage amps at some point between the first few shows ... going from a custom setup to all Fenders.  Oteil sticks to his great green six-string (Alembic?) and the drummers, as noted, have a more compact setup that still features lots of gadgets.

But the great instrumental twist is Jeff's piano.  He started the tour in Mansfield with a grand, which he's always had with this band before.  But then in the third or fourth show(??) he switched to a studio grand, a kind of snub-nosed baby grand with some chrome detailing.  And it sounds great!  One would have to say that Jeff is the straw that stirs this drink (notwithstanding the excellence of all the other musicians), and the sound from his studio grand is so much him.  There's a little ragtime, a little schmaltz, a lot of old-time rock and roll, a little ethereal omphaloskepsis, and a ton of Jeff's particular style.  The action seems to be perfect for him and he doesn't seem to be working hard on it at all, though you're just gob-smacked when he takes a lead at the sounds that come out of it.  I've thought over and over, "How can you do that without having three hands or 20 fingers?"

So anyway, there was Bobby back at the mike singing about black leather suspenders while the rest of the guys were getting the sound just right.  That sure didn't take long and they started jamming and jamming as soon as they could.  John was leading the pack and this soon became a very deep and long Bucket, which was fantastic.

Dave has some great detail of all the songs they played in his blog.  I'm in agreement with him on all of them, especially how they killed Ramble On Rose in the first set, a song that you wouldn't think is made for them but that they do incredibly well.  Also the Cumberland was excellent and they pulled this off with no mistakes.  I was on a trip up to the bathrooms during that and realized how crowded the place had gotten.

The back of the lawn was way, way away from the stage and people were talking there almost in normal voices, though down in our lawn spot the sound was great.  I couldn't get over the fact that we didn't see that many speakers, a small stack was suspended from the roof a little to our right and there was another small stack over to our left.  But the sound from under the roof seemed to be projecting well besides those, and in particular Oteil and Jeff's bass notes made a perfectly rounded sound.  This was the sound that had first grabbed me about this band at our first concert in Worcester and it was back!

John did another sterling vocal on Black Muddy River, which must be one of his favorite songs.  And then Don't Ease Me In was done with a tempo and verve worthy of a great Garcia song.  I was lost in the dark for these two songs.  I headed back to our seats from the bathroom and though I got pretty close, the lawn was so huge and so dark down by our spot that I would have had to stumble over a lot of people before finding Sarah and Dave, so I just hung back and enjoyed myself.

Break time after that and I quickly found my way back when things thinned out a bit.  I wasn't about to leave and get lost again, that amphitheater is huge and was packed!  And what a great first set that had been.  To rob a phrase from descriptions of the Bobby & Phil shows, they were thrillingly loose.  As I've said, I like it when this band rolls the dice and changes tacks.  I like it when they're tight of course, and this can be thrilling itself.  But they seemed so relaxed that beautiful night in Hartford and willing to walk up to the edge of the cliff and look over it.  The first setlist had been very good and the playing was fantastic, and though the second setlist was weird and they didn't play what we were sure they were going to (like, Dark Star!), the concert as a whole was delightful.

And the night really had turned beautiful.  The clouds continued to recede and the late evening glowed a lovely violet-blue.  And then it got a little darker and Venus popped out over our heads and a little to the left, looking just right in its own spot in the sky.  "It's the spiral light of Venus!" I told a few people, pointing.  They just looked at me like I was a crazy Deadhead.

Well anyway, not a very long set break fortunately (we were worried about curfew with an 8:00 start and maybe they were too).  Here's that second set I was talking about:

Feel Like a Stranger
Viola Lee Blues
China Cat Sunflower
I Know You Rider
Man Smart, Woman Smarter
Viola Lee Blues
Looks Like Rain
Not Fade Away

This may not look like the most dynamic setlist and you'll get no argument.  We were disappointed that they didn't play Dark Star into TOO into Caution into Sing Me Back Home.  But wow, this was great!  Viola Lee is one of the most down and dirty songs you can get and they played it with such an edge (but a loose edge if you know what I mean), after opening with a sudden Stranger that had us all back on our heels.

And then China Cat rushed on us with Bobby slurring the words but John and Jeff winding all around us like a silver kimono.  And I particularly liked this Rider, which went on and on and into folk heaven, except Oteil was booming and the drummers were crunching it.  And then John would roll into another lead and then Jeff would top him.

I speak in riddles perhaps but again, see Dave's blog for more specifics.  I was delighted when they went into Man Smart next, such a great beat and they handle the vocals so well on this.  And then it was fantastic how the beat morphed into a powerful Drums segment, with Billy leading the way but then Mickey taking over.  Then they did another unusual thing, which was to come to a full stop at the end of Drums.  The drummers were done, and then the guys came out and immediately struck up a jam more than a "Space" per se.  Which morphed back into Viola Lee and we were all shaking our heads about our friends getting lifetime here.  Maybe a lifetime on the Hartford grass wouldn't be as bad as being Nashville bound.

Then Bobby really stepped up big-time with LLR.  There sure wasn't much chance of the clouds coming back at that point and I guess we had predicted that he'd sing this in the first set when rain was in the forecast.  But he capped a set of unexpected charms with a beautiful vocal on arguably the most classic of Barlow songs, a song about losing love by someone who hadn't found it yet, but would.  And this was a great substitute for the classic Garcia second set ballad.

I'll have to admit I was a little disappointed by NFA, because I knew it was the set closer and because I knew they'd keep it short (curfew approached) and because it's turned into kind of a gimmick song.  Oh well, the crowd loved it and was clapping along while they ended quickly and waved as they hurried off the stage.  They came back soon though and finished us off with a lovely Brokedown Palace, with a great vocal arrangement.

I immediately said that that was a great concert!  It was weird and loose and there wasn't much that stood out about it, but the sound and the quality were top-notch to my ear.  The long Bucket, the professionally played Ramble On Rose and Cumberland, the second set opener of Stranger on a strange night, the power of Viola Lee, and the beauty of LLR were highlights.  And the entirety of the show was great.

Still not entirely done yet, still a long way to go!  We trucked over that immense and tilting lawn out a fortuitous exit, but then had a long walk back through the dregs of Shakedown Street, back to the deepest part of the toxic waste dump, where our car (and many others) were parked.  There were people who didn't want to be selling t-shirts trying to bully you into buying one, an extensive dentist convention of course that you thought might break out into ugliness at some point, a lost guy mumbling to himself who told me he lived somewhere in Connecticut but he couldn't remember exactly where, and a long, long line of cars trying to get out, let alone all of us who were still parked.

It was a little before midnight by the time we got to the car and cracked another beer while waiting for the line to show any sign of moving.  And it was about 12:30 by the time we got in the car and joined the line.  Once we got on the highway things weren't much calmer, but things finally settled down a bit and we finally got Dave back to Quincy by 2:30 or so, and then got back home.  It was long past bedtime and a last look at the clock showed 3:22 when my head finally hit the pillow.

Oh well ... Hartford sometimes seems close and sometimes seems like another planet.  But we had seen a brilliant concert and this one goes in the memory banks.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Larry and Teresa Back in Shirley

In between the mammoth Dead & Company concerts, we were not about to miss Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams at the Bull Run on Sunday, June 10th.  Dave was over for a birthday weekend of kayaking and other stuff, and then we drove in two cars on out there at the end of the afternoon on Sunday, where we were the only cars in the back parking lot when we arrived.

And even though our table was full (being the front center table of course) and the surrounding tables were all packed with enthusiasts, the back lot never had more than a few cars in it and the Sawtelle Room never was more than a third full!  They also hadn't opened the Sawtelle Room kitchen and we were served from the bar menu.  It was a slow night at the old roadhouse  Oh well, Teresa said they could have been playing in our living room and at times it seemed like that.  And as she also mentioned, we all were very familiar with their act and their songs and not much exposition was needed.

Larry and Teresa were accompanied by the same band we'd seen them with before, Justin Guip on drums and Jesse Murphy on bass, and they played one long set of excellent material.  They did their awesome cover of Running Wild as their second or third song and we could have left satisfied after that.  But they also did Did You Ever Love Me At All, Save Me From Myself, When I Stop Loving You, If I Had My Way, Wishing Well, Surrender To Love, Larry's amazing cover of Duke Ellington's Caravan, Turkey In the Straw, Cry Cry Cry, The Other Side of Pain, It Ain't Gonna Be a Good Night, Everybody Loves You, Lamp Trimmed and Burning, and lots of other great stuff.

Larry picked the mandolin for a few songs but usually played one of two Telecasters or an acoustic.  Teresa was on acoustic for most songs.  The two of them were directly in front of us, so we got to see some amazing fingering from Larry, especially when he stepped up to the front of the stage and seemed to be playing directly at the 8 of us, enthralled at table 63. There were so few people that they really didn't need to be amplified at all, except Justin and Jesse wanted to rock out and play it loud, and of course Larry did not discourage them.  Some of their rocking jams were as good as it gets and they had the back corners of that room full of excellent sound, though only empty chairs and tables were there to enjoy it.

It ended sooner than we wanted, but they came back out for an encore after peeking around the corner of the stairs to see if we were still there.  None of us had left, we were all there for the long run.  One woman was vocal about wanting to hear their cover of Sugaree ... Deadheads are never far from Larry and Teresa.  They complied and this was a great, syncopated bluesy version, that Teresa sang as if to a devil within herself, as perhaps Hunter meant it (the requestor thanked them for playing it, there was absolutely no wall between the performers and the audience).  Then Justin and Jesse hit the showers, Larry and Teresa unplugged and huddled near the front of the stage, and they sang a beautiful, sad, sad version of Your Long Journey.  Kind of a bummer song, but you gotta be ready for some sadness when you go to a folk/blues concert I guess.

That was it, and we split up for a pretty quick drive home.  Great weekend!