Tuesday, March 19, 2019

More Sisters, At City Winery Boston

We were recovering from a *long* weekend of music down in Port Chester, but we had another concert to go to!  Luther Dickinson and Sisters Of the Strawberry Moon, fresh from opening for (and accompanying) Phil Lesh in Port Chester were going to be playing at City Winery Boston that Monday night (3/18) and we had tickets.

Went home after work, had dinner there, and then Sarah and I slipped into the city and parked in her garage.  The Celtics had just started and there were some frantic last-minute parkers as we walked down to the North End.

We had seats up in the front tables, over on the right side.  We tried to order beer but they were out of their only good one, so I had a cheap Naragansett.  They get very bad grades at City winery for food and drink; maybe the expensive wine is ok but who knows?

Soon the band came out and we were delighted to see that Grahame Lesh was still with them, on bass.  Drew Lindsay had a grand piano (probably the same one we saw Holly Bowling play last time we were there) and he was very present in the sound, which hadn’t been the case when we saw them Saturday.

They played pretty much the same setlist as they had on Saturday, highlighted by a great version of Luther’s Prayer For Peace.  While Amy was tuning up her mandolin for one of her leads I said (we were so close, shouting was not necessary), “Brokedown Palace!”  She thought I may have been kidding and said, “We played that the other day!”  I said, “I know, I was there.”  Damn Deadheads.  Anyway, I didn’t really expect them to play it and they didn’t.  Grahame had a mike for harmonies but didn’t do a vocal lead.

They closed with Alright Alright with Allison jumping around like Kokopelli with a clarinet … she and JT were right in front of us.  And then for an encore they did their American Flowers, dedicated to Jimmy LaFave, and got us all to sing along.

Short night but lots of fun!  We were home and in bed by 10:30 or so.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

More Phil's Birthday; 2019 part 3

As mentioned in yesterday's post, it was another mellow morning in the La Quinta of blogging and internetting after a textbook hotel breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, sugary blueberry muffins, and strangely flavored coffee.  So we were psyched, and figured we just had to get out after we were done to get some exercise and/or see the sights.  The pre-show on Saturday was Jay Blakesburg's photo trip (which we'd seen) followed by more Deadgrass (which we'd seen), so our schedule was wide open that March 16th afternoon.

The decision, not a hard one, was to go back to the Butler Sanctuary, just a few miles North of there.  We'd been there back in the past, and it's really a wonderful place.  It was a beautiful day with large, high fluffy clouds blowing past quickly through a blue, blue sky.  It was warm when you were in the sun and out of the wind, but could get quite chilly if you lingered in a shady spot which the wind had insinuated, and you realized that there were still freezing clumps of snow around that would last until well into the eventual Spring.  We didn't go there though, we went out the Red Trail and back on the Blue (more on that later), through an impossibly hilly and turbulent landscape that must have been livestock farms in the past but now featured majestic ashes, tough oaks, ephemeral maples, and luminescent beeches.  The farmers had also left a network of narrow and high stone walls, apparently meant to delineate plots and/or fence in livestock rather than being middens of agricultural discards.

We saw absolutely no wildlife though, except for a few people with their dogs, and a few birds, very high up in the sky.  Perhaps there were a few chirps in the branches, though it might have been trees rubbing against each other in the gusty breeze.  But no chipmunks or squirrels, no insects, no toads or salamanders, just the healthy forest and rocks, and the lichens and fungi growing on them.  This is a beautiful place of hidden dells, hollows, and swamps.  Most of the trees you see are deciduous, but there are pockets of grand conifers in there too.  The most impressive to me were some old, huge ashes that were barely paying any attention to winter ... it was just a season.  One fallen tree had at least 150 rings.

The trails were alternately icy and muddy, but we were making good headway.  Back on the Blue Trail though we got a little too enthusiastic and overshot our return on the Red Trail, even when Dave warned us.  We ended up walking way downhill towards the Byram Lake Reservoir, and then had to struggle way back uphill to get back to the parking lot.  In all, a great hike.

OK, back to the hotel and time to get in a decent nap.  Then it was off to the concert after getting a cup of coffee or two.  Parked in the same lot behind Kiosko under a definitely bulging moon, and trundled on in for another Mexican dinner.

As discussed in earlier posts, we may be loco to go back to Kiosko all the time, or we may not be.  They serve great food and have a very large menu, so it's not like we're eating the same thing every time we go there.  But we take our trips to see P&F seriously, and we value our observations of the music and the experience of it.  To a certain degree, you want to set a routine, a baseline for observations, and eating dinner at Kiosko is part of it.  We know what to expect there and it's comforting, and this is part of the routine of going to the Cap and hearing a concert.  How we evaluate the concert should not be pre-judged or affected by the dinner we had just before it.

So there we three judges were, lining up to get into the Cap after another Kiosko dinner that couldn't be beat, feeling totally normal.  And what a normal!  Just in time I remembered that I didn't want to get busted by the Cap security people for having ibuprofen in my pocket, and ducked around the corner to swallow the last two tabs that were in there.  Jeez, drugs can be so complicated.

We barely turned an ear to what was going on in Garcia's, and just meandered on up the ornate staircase, and into the balcony area.  Our seats were on the left that night, row F, and as it turned out, Lorien was sitting in exactly that row, across the aisle.  We had pretty good neighbors that night, though the guy to my right had a big cane and was barely mobile (but knew how to wave his cane around, alarmingly).  Oh well.

There was an opening act, and they came on right after 8.  Phil had mixed it up a little for his third show of the stand and Luther Dickinson was replacing John Scofield, though the other players were the same (and in the same spots).  I'm not even going to start trying to think about whether that was an upgrade or a downgrade.  They're very different players, but are both world class musicians with distinct styles.  Dickinson also sings, very well, and so might edge a few points out ahead for that, but Scofield has a better beard.

Anyway, Luther's latest band is Sisters Of the Strawberry Moon, with Amy Helm and Birds of Chicago (several other players also appeared on their recent album, that had been in the can for three years).  Who knows if this is a one-tour thing or a lasting partnership, but let me just say that when we read they were going to appear with Phil, that was the end of any thought of us not attending that weekend's celebration.  I mean, Amy Helm and Allison Russell with Luther Dickinson playing some funky guitar?  Sign me up!

And there they were, with the other half of Birds, JT Nero, on guitar, and with a proto-Bird, Drew Lindsay (JT's brother), on piano.  And they were excellent.  The highlight of their set may have been Luther's Song For Peace or JT and Allison's Alright Alright, including of course some wonderful clarinet.  Here's what their setlist said, though I don't think they did all these songs:

Real Midnight
Mojo
Breathing
You're Not Alone
Try
How Glad I Am
Prayer for Peace
Gloryland
Alright, Alright

I think a lot of Capitol denizens weren't ready for this.  One guy in the bathroom groused, "What's up with the opening act to a Phil show?"  But his outrage was a minority view and people everywhere were gushing about them, how could you not gush about Allison?

OK, their gear was cleared away pretty quickly.  Grahame had sat in with them on bass, played through his father's rig (I can imagine the conversation between them and the threats of withheld allowance).  He was excellent, and this brought the delightful sight of Levon's daughter, pounding away on the drums and singing right next to Phil's offspring on bass, the two of them holding down the beat and grinning at each other.  Luther's a second-generation musician himself.

But now Grahame was back on guitar and they lit into a wonderful first set.  Perhaps I'll eventually feel this was a better show than Thursday's ... which is very high praise.  It was hard to evaluate at that level at the time, but in any case, it was a sterling finale to the stand.  Phil had led the band through a couple of adventurous sets on Thursday, which worked like a charm.  And then he'd put the same band through a more straight-up show on Friday.  On Saturday it was time for him to step back a bit and let the opening act, Luther, Benmont, and Jackie shine, before taking it over at the end.  And that's not to mention his delightful female singers!

Anyway, here's the first set (see Dave's blog for more details on the songs):

Deal
Operator
High Time
I'm a King Bee
Tennessee Jed
Brokedown Palace
Sugaree

Deal is thrown into GD sets all the time, but every once in a while stands out, and this was one of those times; it was a perfect warm-up for this particular assortment of guitar sounds.  And Operator is becoming a sine qua non in a Phil set, especially with the sly kind of vocal Luther can give it.

After these two openers they played one of the most amazing High Times I’ve ever seen/heard.  Jackie again brought his own style to it but toned it down … he was singing about being low and wanting to be high.  And Luther’s atmospheric guitar brought some amazing sounds and textures, naturally abetted by Phil.  This was just jaw-droppingly good and though some crowds would have been made restless by the slow pace, this crowd was riveted.

Luther then did his thing on I’m a King Bee, and Jackie did his on Tennessee Jed, with the dual Lesh backup shining again and the jam at the end another nifty guitar showcase.

Then the level of excellence took another quantum leap.  We’d been wondering WTF Amy was … we thought she was going to be part of the Saturday ensemble and couldn’t believe she wasn’t out there for Tennessee Jed (which her Dad had recorded, with her backup).  But there was a vacant vocal mike and she sidled up to that, leading a star-struck Allison Russell by the hand, who lined up at Jackie’s mike.  Grahame stepped up to his mike also, and started off the song: an amazing rendition of Brokedown Palace with him taking the lead and the women taking us into the stratosphere.  You’ve gotta see this.

Wow!  Our minds were totally blown by that and I barely even noticed another great Sugaree, which closed the set.

Time for the last setbreak of our wonderful trip to the Phil/Port Chester Island.  It was definitely warm in there at that point, though not stifling like Friday night.  I took one last trip to the upstairs bar for another (local) Captain Lawrence Hop Commander and one last excursion to the beyond-funky upstairs bathroom.  No trip to the smoking areas was necessary for me that weekend, navigating the crowds upstairs were enough.  But luckily Dave had his vape pen, which I inspected closely a time or two.

We discussed the first set a bit.  At that point we realized we might eventually consider this to be as good as Thursday’s concert had been, which was hard to imagine, but could be.  Alternately they could still fall flat on their faces in the second set!  Actually, I don’t think Phil would have let them do this.  And then they came out and performed …

Viola Lee Blues
Jack Straw
Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)
Truckin’
China Doll
Terrapin Station
Morning Dew

Oh geez, how am I going to describe this set that again, meant so much to me?  How about a few bullet points:
  • The over/under on whether a P&F band (or any current GD band) will play Viola Lee is pretty low.  You won't get rich betting on that.  But this song never fails to deliver and somehow is both a cathartic sing-along and a vehicle for the deepest jamming.  They did some pretty deep jamming here, but they had a long set in front of them and so didn't dwell.
  • Beautiful transition from the funky end of Viola Lee into what's become the customary, long, mellow intro into Jack Straw.  Grahame/Shannon started the vocal interplay and Jackie took the Bobby part.
  • As you might imagine, Dave and I had been goading each other to come up with setlists for the stand, and mine always started and ended with Caution, especially knowing that Luther would be there for one of the nights.  Sure enough, deep into the second set and here it was!  Luther has his own way of mumbling the blues, and if we didn't know the story we might have been puzzled about why he ended up with a mojo hand, but that's Luther for you (in fact, he has a current song called Mojo).
  • It had occurred to me Saturday morning that they were going to play Truckin' on Saturday night and so they did.  Phil wrote it you know (well, along with the rest of the band).  This was a quick and breezy take, a respite from the seriousness of the rest of the set.
  • And then the level got upped even more!!  Benmont so far hadn't uttered a syllable and then suddenly he was playing a beautiful introduction to China Doll and then singing it to rival Oteil.  His piano part on this superseded genre and the song was arranged as a duet between that and a strident Phil Lesh bass part that played around it.  And on top of it was lovely singing with a world-weary voice.  The other guys contributed too, but at a lower volume level and the ensemble sound filled the hall.  This was one of the most perfect songs of the night.
  • Then a beautiful Terrapin featuring struck in steel guitar parts from Jackie and Luther, and the top-level vocals we'd been hearing all weekend.  Grahame started singing about that bitch throwing her fan into the fire and expecting the military to get it back for her.  But when it came to the meat of the song, the Lesh Brothers took over.  From "Since the end is never told" to the very end, the pair sang in unison with Benmont wandering all around them (and Jackie contributing the high part when he could).  Wow!
  • And I hate to repeat myself, but then they upped the musical level even fucking more!  Dew is always a possibility when it comes to P&F, and this time Amy and Allison came back out for it.  It occurred to me when hearing Larry and Teresa sing this with Phil several years ago that it could be done as a call and response (as they did Peggy-O that day), and that's what Grahame and the women did.  Amy and Allison sang in incredible harmony the questioning part about what was going on, asking why they couldn't walk out in the morning dew.  And Grahame answered them with the detachment and panache that you need in a nuclear disaster, I guess.
Well, perhaps I'm not taking this as seriously as I should.  That was an incredibly performed, emotion-laden, and meaningful second set.  And as before, my eyes and my ears kept on turning back to Phil, even when Allison Russell was leaving her heart on the stage.  To see him singing, "The spiral light of Venus rising first and shining best," diving into the netherworld (and beyond) with Viola Lee, marvelling about what a long strange trip this had been, dropping bombs on Dew, and so forth, was what we were there for and might become only memory at any point.  We were living it at that moment though.

OK, the experience was almost over and I wasn't about to sit down.  I stood and waited for Phil to come back out, and he gave the most stumbling, repetitive, easily distracted old-man, heartfelt donor rap ever.  He was overcome by the emotion of the moment also and was perhaps a little embarrassed by this, but then it was time for the encore and he stuck his ear-plugs back in with glee.  Good old Phil.

Amy and Allison came back out and they cruised through a classic Midnight Hour.  One thing I'd noted was that they stuck to the Grateful Dead songbook all weekend.  The only songs before this night that were not GD-penned were Public Domain songs (or Minglewood), and then this night they went a little farther afield with King Bee, Morning Dew, and Midnight Hour, but these are still solidly in the GD canon.  No Dylan, Furthur songs, or semi-country for that stand.

And speaking of the GD canon, everyone stayed on-stage at the end of that song and scratched their asses, and then Luther started up the real closer: Turn On Your Love Light.  Another short, perfect version of a classic Dead song, like the guys (and ladies) had been doing all weekend.

They got to the end, put down their instruments, gathered at center stage, and bowed to us.  They started drifting off and though Phil was immediately involved as ever with the careful dismantling of his rig, suddenly he disappeared!  I looked around and he had just then remembered his responsibilities as band-leader apparently.  He rushed after Amy and the star-struck Allison, who were gabbing at the back of the stage.  Phil thanked them respectfully and then hugged them.  Perhaps all of us old guys will have opportunities to be as gracious.

What else is there to say?  The Capitol guys screwed up for once and had us all line up to go down the wrong staircase because of fire laws or something.  But soon we were back out on Westchester Avenue under a now almost-oval moon, and then back in the lot behind Kiosko, and then driving away.  Lorien declined a ride back to her hotel that night, and we had a quick trip North, up the few miles to Armonk.

Was this my favorite time at the Cap?  Maybe.  We'll see what happens next, because that's what music is all about.

Here's a link to Sarah's pictures, including lots of shots of the ethereal trio of Grahame, Amy, and Allison.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

More Phil's Birthday; 2019 part 2

Another beautiful Armonk day right now (no kidding, blue sky and big fluffy clouds, around 50, almost Spring!) after a Phil & Friends concert the night before (3/15, his 79th birthday).  Definitely not as good as Thursday night, but still an experience not to be missed.

It was forecast to be a rainy, gloomy day yesterday but turned out to be almost partly sunny.  After a bit of a late sleep and just catching breakfast, we sat in the room and blogged and internetted, through a lunch break with the sandwiches and beer in the frig.  Then we packed up for the movies!  Seeing as it was supposed to be a bad day for being outside, we figured we'd take the opportunity to stay inside and see the newly released Captain Marvel movie, at the big theater in downtown Port Chester.

Left around 1:45 for a 2:15 showing, and parked in the same lot behind Kiosko after a quick trip down Westchester Avenue.  Longer walk than expected (especially since we passed it by at first), and so we were a bit late, but because of that missed just a possible few of the interminable trailers.  We all enjoyed the movie  ... you should see it.  Good plot and some very good set-pieces and lines ("I'll give you $50 if you turn yourself into a praying mantis.")

Then went looking for a cup of coffee as we were all tired, me especially.  I could have used a nap.  But there were no dedicated coffee shops in the area as far as we could see (chain or otherwise), and so after a brief fly-by of Shakedown Corner we headed up to Kiosko and started with a cup of coffee there.  David's friend Lorien showed up soon after that and we all had another Kiosko dinner that couldn't be beat and talked about Dead and stuff.

Left around 6:40 and went right down to and in the Capitol.  I was anxious to see the pre-show band in Garcia's, Deadgrass.  I have to say that I was a little unimpressed by them, due to several factors such as that they were playing a horrible version of Mississippi Half-Step when we got there (they got better) and the crowd was already oppressive.  It was clear from the get-go that this was not a mellow Thursday crowd, this was a Friday crowd out to let loose at the end of the week and the volume and jostling level were already approaching my limit.

Deadgrass was a fun band, but very spotty.  Some great banjo runs and some nice lead guitar work, but I'm definitely not rushing back to see them tonight.  They were making some headway when they finally played a real bluegrass song (Midnight Moonlight) after dabbling with Half-Step, Deal, etc.  But then they couldn't really get over the hump.  I'm a tough crowd I guess.

We got out of there around 7:30 and settled into our seats pretty far over to the right of the balcony, just one row farther back than Thursday night but seemingly much farther away.

I need to keep this short as if I went into as much detail as yesterday, I probably wouldn't get finished before we have to go back today.  And the show really didn't equal the level set Thursday night.  They played a bunch of meh songs throughout the night, even though the second set was by and large fantastic.  But the first set was a grab-bag of songs without much cohesion and the large-crowd ambiance didn't help much.  The sound also wasn't quite as crisp as it had been Thursday, probably because we weren't in the perfect spot in the theater that we were at before.

Whatever, it was still a vastly entertaining first set (see Dave's blog for more details on the songs):

Liberty
Casey Jones
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
Loser
New Minglewood Blues
West L.A. Fadeaway
Bertha

Liberty and Casey Jones (especially) were played with no mistakes, though little dynamism.  They sure got the crowd settled in though, which may have been their point.  Jackie Greene was back to his exceptional lead blues vocals on Loser and Minglewood.  They set a pattern here that really worked well in the second set, where he would sing and the Lesh Brothers (as I called them, Grahame's and Phil's voices worked together so well it was almost like a bluegrass "brothers band") backed him up, sometimes taking over the song like the pair of Grahame and Jackie had done on Thursday from Phil.

Then back to meh with West L.A.  I was psyched when they lit into Bertha, since Grahame can kill this song, but that was a little pedestrian itself.  Maybe I was just crabby and should have been put down for a nap earlier, but I know Dave agrees that it was not an "on" first set in any way, and I think most Deadheads would too.

Set break was another fun interlude.  It was pouring outside and I hung out for a while near the upper fire escape door, where there was at least a little ventilation.  I think had gotten up near 60 that afternoon, and the usher told me that when they'd arrived that day the heat was on and they were still trying to cool the place down when the show was ready to start.  It has *hot* in there with a packed, rowdy crowd.  Lorien's seat was in the back row and right under a heating vent that was stuck on but fixed right before the concert started.  The heat definitely added to the overall thick atmosphere we'd been experiencing.

But then the guys came out and just pushed that aside with an excellent second set (though still in second place to Thursday's).  First of all was Phil being serenaded with Happy Birthday while Pete Shapiro and Jill Lesh presented him with a cake, which looked just like it came out of the poster (which came first, the cake or the picture of a cake?)  Then:

Playing In the Band
Shakedown Street
Playing In the Band
Help On the Way
Slipknot!
Mountains Of the Moon
Unbroken Chain
He's Gone
The Other One
New Speedway Boogie

Right off the bat, the playing from everybody on stage was upped a notch.  And I don't know what it was (maybe it was the vape pen), but suddenly the sound was kind of "fixed" and I was back to hearing all the instruments well.  Playing and Shakedown were quite the treat as the opening songs of the set, and they were done tightly and excellently.  Scofield was back to saying, "You want me to take the lead?  Ok, hold on to your hats!"  Grahame also ripped off some leads himself, continuing his excellent recent guitar playing.

But the highlights were probably Benmont Tench, who I didn't mention as much as I should have for the Thursday concert, but seemed to have gotten entirely comfortable playing Phil's music in his band, and was startlingly good on organ and also grand piano (though this was never miked right).  AND again, the vocals.  Jackie was set free to release his inner Jackie Greene on Shakedown (etc.) by the rock-solid backup of the Lesh Brothers.  And the two rocked our world on Unbroken, singing many of the verses in unison, like they'd just written it.

And then it went on and on!  Jackie did a great He's Gone with Grahame and Phil on backup, but then they were almost back to meh with TOO (imagine a meh TOO, Phil stumbled on the first verse!).  Back up to the heights with a rocking, bluesy arrangement of Speedway (with teases of Smokestack Lightnin', Spoonful, One Kind Favor, and another one we didn't quite catch), but then it was time to bring a long and solid second set to an end.

We were pretty exhausted by then.  David had had to sit for some of Mountains (not a great version) and Sarah was nodding.  But we finished the last of the water we'd brought in and were back up for the long Donor Rap and then another great encore.

The crowd couldn't contain themselves and had been attempting an NFA chant during the break.  But then the band lit into the real thing and it was excellent.  Great arrangement of Not Fade Away, and Jackie stretched it out and out, egging on the crowd to sing and clap.

And then they stayed on stage, scratching their asses and wondering why they were still there.  Oh well, might as well finish up with Ripple!  Again, this was a rocking, bluesy arrangement as opposed to the folkie thing it usually is, and Phil actually turned in an excellent lead vocal on it.  And as cynical as I may be, the very sight of Phil F. Lesh closing a concert by singing the stuffing out of a song like Ripple....  Well, if it didn't bring a tear to my eye that was because of hydration issues, not lack of emotion.

Let it be known, there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

Big group hug after that!  They had done some great things in the last couple of nights and it was time to go home.  Well maybe not, Grahame and Jackie hung out at the back of the stage until we were out of there, jabbering away like teenagers.

We walked back up Westchester Avenue to the lot behind Kiosko under a now just-past-halfway-filled moon.  Luckily the rain had stopped by then, though the streets were still glistening under the lights.  Gave Lorien a ride home to her hotel and then hopped back onto 287 for the quick ride to 684 and back to Armonk.

Oh boy, almost time for another concert!

Here's a link to Sarah's pictures, including a ghostly Stealie that appeared on our bathroom mirror.

Friday, March 15, 2019

More Phil's Birthday; 2019 part 1

It seems to happen this way all the time: we had a pretty good cadence going, popping down to Port Chester to see Phil on his birthday and/or Halloween stands at the Capitol Theater.  And then we kind of let one slide, then another, and before we knew it we hadn't been down there in a long time!  The fact of the matter is that we've seen some great Phil & Friends ensembles and the last couple hadn't been perfect, so that contributed to us opting to skip.  But we were hoping for another great lineup this year and they sure announced one.  So we got tickets as soon as they went on sale for all three nights of the stand (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, March 14-16) and booked rooms at our regular "luxury" hotel in Armonk.

I've been experiencing a lot of tension lately between work taking a lot of mindspace and my Dad's health and needed support taking concentration.  So I was very happy to load up the car with sandwiches, beer, clothes, books, whatever it takes, and to hit that dusty, care-free Armonk trail on an in-and-out but seasonably warm Thursday, the start of the last week of Winter.  It was Pi Day!

We picked up Dave in Quincy and then backed up to the beginning of the Pike in downtown Boston, then quickly West and Southwest on the highway.  We stopped to eat a convenient sandwich at a slovenly picnic area near the Connecticut line, and then motored full speed down to Armonk, arriving at the shop-worn La Quinta right around 3:00.  As referred to earlier, the sun was in and out, glaringly lighting the bare trees and melting banks of dirty snow, the muddy forest floor showing through when it surrounded the highway, but still without a hint of Spring life.  That'll be changing soon.

Moved our stuff into our second floor room and stowed it like the experienced travelers we are.  There was time to hang out for a mellow hour or so, and then we hit the road again for Port Chester, parking in the municipal lot behind Kiosko.  Went right in there for an excellent, leisurely, early dinner, and then headed down the hill to the Cap.

There were two attractions leading to the line we joined outside of the theater at 6:20 or so (the small Shakedown Corner was dismissed with a glance).  The doors were opening at 6:30 and most of the people in line had GA-floor tickets and were bound to grab spaces in the Phil Zone or as close to it as they could get.  But what we and some others were there for was that there was going to be a pre-show gig in Garcia's, the Capitol's bar, by Jesse Bardwell and the Free Union, with Grahame Lesh and Elliott Peck (with Nathan Graham on drums and Joe Cirotti on lead electric guitar)!

Grabbed a spot by the soundboard, grabbed a couple of beers and ciders, and enjoyed an excellent set while the crowd swelled alarmingly.  Jesse is an Americana singer-songwriter type who meshes very well with the country vibe Elliott (on acoustic) and Grahame (on electric bass) can bring.  Elliott also sang a couple of her songs to my delight.  And they stopped the show with Ring Of Fire, a couple of tunes after Elliott's Highway Song:

So meet me on a highway 
somewhere between Roanoke and Baltimore 
We can sing some tunes like Johnny and June 
and make the most of this time together 
Meet me on a highway 
where the river meets the Mason Dixon Line 
Climb on your bus write a song that we can sing 
to them sweethearts together 

We pushed our way out of there as they started their last song and made our way into the ornate Cap and up the stairs.  Dave had earlier bought the poster for the night, which is psychedelic.  The Thursday show apparently wasn't sold out, though it was pretty full in the balcony.  We were about dead center, in the fourth row, not bad at all!  They weren't painting the alcoves with film loops, as they have in other years, but they had huge projections of the poster for the whole stand (as opposed to the one for the night ... merchandising you know), which is a delightful motif of a terrapin which is kind of a tent and kind of a world unto itself, and kind of a parade balloon, being shepherded along by six dancing bears.  Pretty good!  And I should mention that throughout the show they splashed some wonderful, colorful patterns on the lovely Cap interior dome.  They can do a light show really well in that room.

I haven't mentioned the ensemble that had piqued our interest.  On Thursday they had Phil on electric bass, John Scofield to his right (as we faced the stage) on electric guitar, Jackie Greene and then Grahame Lesh on guitars in the center of the stage, John Molo on drums behind them, and then Benmont Tench on the full keyboard/organ/Leslie setup to the far left.  And they were excellent.

Really, I gush and gush, but this was a fantastic concert.  Here I am the next morning on a gloomy day in Armonk after another styrofoam hotel breakfast, looking out on bleak trees and an endless parking lot, and just the smallest recollection of what we experienced last night thrills me.

We were pretty thrilled in real time too.  As with other amazing concerts I've seen, I was trying to hold on to and appreciate the moment all through it, especially at certain junctures (like when Phil sang the last set of codas to Box Of Rain and I was trying as hard as I could to experience and preserve the moment, knowing I might never see him do this again).  But at the same time I was aware of the nature of music and of time, and that it's the liquid, moving aspect of both that makes them delightful, makes them exist.  I mean, the Star may be Dark, but it's moving at a speed we can't really fathom and that's what makes it so fascinating.

Well anyway, the guys came out a little late because of a late-arriving crowd (many people coming right from work, probably).  And they played an amazing first set (see Dave's blog for more details on the songs):

Mason's Children
Mr. Charlie
Bird Song
Scarlet Begonias
Eyes of the World
So Many Roads
U.S. Blues

Right from the start they were on!  So many things about the concert were excellent, and top of the list was the incredible sound in the Cap.  It might have been partly because we were in a perfect spot in the middle of the space, but it was one of those nights when I could hear and see every note from every player on stage.  They were all playing excellently, but possibly number two on my list of great things about the concert was Phil's playing, which was as good as it gets.  I'd call him riveting, but he's more than that.  He can make you float like a great bass player, but still comes up with that amazing, shocking Phil power and dynamism.  Several times he was leading me along by the hand and then surprised me with volume, reverb, scariness, emotion, speed, and/or virtuosity.  Several times, one in particular, he left me breathless and laughing.

Another aspect of the show worth mentioning was the vocals.  Jackie, Grahame, and Phil all split the leads pretty equally, and all were in fine voice.  As I've said before, I'm an adherent of the widely held notion that Grateful Dead music, as old as it is, has an incredible amount of depth that people haven't explored to its limits.  An example is JRAD, who the night before had opened their second set with Man Smart Woman Smarter into The Eleven(!!!).  But P&F out-JRADed JRAD last night, like a gauntlet had been laid down.  The first sign of this was Jackie's singing on Mr. Charlie, which was equal parts homage to Pigpen, true blues, and true Jackie Greene, who has his own unique inflection.

And Jackie's vocal lead on So Many Roads was another example, making us teary-eyed with the remembrance of Jerry later in life singing it, but at the same time bringing his own interpretation to the song.  And I should mention Grahame's playing, on his huge country Gibson.  He naturally falls into the Bob Weir role in any band he plays in, leading the rhythm of the song and deferring endlessly to the other players while maintaining a standard of excellence and pace.  Several times after Scofield had taken a lead and Greene had taken a lead, and Scofield had taken another and then looked across the stage like, "Who's next?"  Then Jackie and Benmont would look at Grahame like, "Go for it big guy!"  And Grahame would take a measure or two and send it right back to them.  This was charming but perhaps Grahame should have taken the bull by the horns more than he did.  Oh well, he's young!

And I haven't even mentioned Eyes Of the World!  I mean, talk about doing something new with an old song that we've heard (and adored) a million times.  They had just played an excellent, tidy Scarlet Begonias when they jammed and emerged into Eyes, and just made the theater ring with a tight, juicy, perfectly sized Eyes.  Grahame took the lead (he pronounced "nuthatch" with precision), and then the boys thundered through the changes.  He stepped up again for the next few verses when they were just about to go off the edge into free-form jazz and brought us back to the song's country sensibility.

Jeez, I was wondering how they were going to end that set.  Our minds were blown but then they let us regain our composure by closing with another neat and tidy sing-along, U.S. Blues.  Ack!  I screwed out right away at the end of the set and was getting another beer and cider while people were still wondering how to wipe the smile off their faces and get to the bathroom or something.  Then I got back to our seats and tried to deal with my own smile.  That set alone had been more than worth the long drive, the expenses of the weekend, and the hassles of the crowd.  And there was lots more to come.

Pretty long set break, but I timed it well, finished the beer and some conversations with the people around me (my neighbor had seen Weir and Wolf Bros the night before and wasn't ready to hear any criticism of them), and then hit the funky upstairs bathroom in plenty of time to be back in the seats and a little bored by the time they came out for the second set.

It has been a pretty long (though only 7-song) first set followed by a pretty long set break, and people were already beginning to wonder what kind of shape they'd be in for work tomorrow.  We were on vacation so had no sympathy ... play all night!  And then they did.  They opened with:

Dark Star
Box of Rain
Wharf Rat
Box of Rain
Franklin's Tower
Uncle John's Band
St. Stephen
Let It Grow
The Wheel
I Know You Rider

Dave and I debated this a bit.  I feel that properly the first sequence was Dark Star jam > Dark Star > jam > Box Of Rain > Wharf Rat > Box Of Rain.  But Dave hates calling things "jams" when they could be seen as parts of a specific song.  I feel the opening jam (which Dave called very quickly as Dark Star) should definitely be rolled into the song on the eternal tape label.  But after Dark Star they went into a jam that was so unique it even seemed to surprise them, like "What are we playing now??"  Should this be its own track?  Well, let's let time tell.  This was such a wonderful jam I can see them trying to re-capture it.

And at the same time I have no idea what to say about the Box Of Rain/Wharf Rat medley, and I also could rhapsodize about it until Armonk is no more.  I mean, Phil's bass holding up his song about his father's passing, his stepping up to the mike and beautiful singing of those lines that touched on sorrow and family bonds and the idea of carrying on, and his band's incredible pace and melody.  And then Jackie stepping up to the mike in the middle of it himself and all of a sudden we realized that they'd arrived at Wharf Rat and Jackie was singing it with a fresh quality in a fresh octave.  This is another song that I've heard a million times and wondered how much was left in it, and then a Jackie Greene sings it with a Phil Lesh backing him up and you think, "OMG, I've never heard this song before!"  And then they jammed and jammed and I wondered what was going to happen next and then boom, we were back in Box Of Rain and approaching that amazing ending.

And then they kept on going!  Another case of out-JRADing JRAD: they suddenly were playing the last few measures of Slipknot! from a standing start, and then they jumped into Franklin's Tower with a full head of steam and with both feet (well, with all 12 ... at least).  And the following UJB was amazing too.  As mentioned, I found the vocals last night to be top-notch and one of the best things about this ensemble was how Grahame's and Jackie's voices supported each other when they did dual harmony.  They had gotten to the point where they could sing really, really loud and yet be totally in synch with each other.  And they shone on UJB like you wouldn't believe, Phil singing the supposed lead (e.g., starting with "It's the same story the crow told me") and then the two backup singers taking over the verse.

And then the set went on and on and on.  Seriously, this was a *long* second set.  I kept on thinking they were going to wind it up here, or here, or here.  And they kept on rolling out those songs and playing the shit out of them.  One definite criticism you could make was that they could have used a bit more practice on some of the songs they did later in the second set, like they were a little disjointed at times on St. Stephen (which featured a pretty fresh jam itself) and Let It Grow.  And The Wheel failed to take off ... maybe they were getting tired themselves, though they sure seemed to be enjoying things.  They wanted to play all night too!

But then they finished up with a song they all knew, I Know You Rider, and we were back to perfect.  Wow, what a show!!!  Really, as great as lots of P&F shows I've seen have been, that one might be at the top of the list ... at least for today.  My balcony neighbor (who's also going to Friday and Saturday) agreed.  "Phew!" he said, "They sure set the bar high with this one!"  We'll see what they do for their next trick, but there were things about this show that absolutely could not be equalled.

Time for the donor rap, which was a heartfelt as always.  Phil mentioned a recent, unfortunately passed donor, Chub, before going into his standard talk about Cody.  Got to side with Phil on this, even when he tricked us all into promising him our organs.  And we'd realized during the break that we were well past midnight and it was now his 79th birthday!  An off-key but sincere chorus of Happy Birthday broke out.  And then the band played another easy sing-along everyone knew to close the night, Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad to send us all on our way.  By then a lot of the people who had to work the next day had taken off to beat traffic, and we had plenty of room for dancing up in the balcony.

What fun!  Made our way out of there and back to the lot behind Kiosko, and then hit the road back to Armonk.  Short drive under the misty half-moon and we were back.  Drank lots of water in the car and had another sandwich when we got back to the room.  It had been 8 hours since dinner!  And again, there was going to be lots more to come.

Here's a link to Sarah's pictures.  Note the poster for the entire stand with terrified bears trying to run away before a gigantic terrapin crushes them.




Sunday, January 6, 2019

Popa Chubby in Na Tick

Great friend Dave Keyes is always doing something, and this time it was accompanying the Popa Chubby Band at The Center For the Arts in Natick.  Great friend Barb got tickets for everyone: Al, Fud, Pam, Walter, Leslie, and me and Sarah.  Great friend EJ called me the day before and he made plans to meet us all for dinner at Dah Mee in the center of town.  Dave showed up too, as well as some other FODs.

It was a rainy, unseasonably warm early January night, and we all had a great dinner and lots of talking.  EJ bought the drinks and distributed Christmas presents.  By the time we got over to the theater the opener was on, but we all huddled in the lobby with some drinks and talked and talked some more, so never heard him/her.

Barb had bought most of the second row and we all filed in just as the band was about to start.  Dave was wearing a vintage Fine Lines t-shirt from the old band, and of course had a handsome jacket on over that and his trademark leather Scally cap.  Popa Chubby was looking like ... well, Popa Chubby, and he did not hesitate for longer than it took to mis-pronounce "Na Tick" and to get everyone's nerves on edge before he was blasting the blues on his beat-up old Strat.


He had a bass player and drummer, and they were a tight unit.  He usually plays as a trio but this time he had the ineffable Dave Keyes on electric piano, and that piano was sounding great.  Dave could get an edgy organ sound out of it as well as a bright piano sound, and everything in between.  And Popa Chubby seemed to be feeling it that night and was burning up the fret-board with a strong left hand.  He was not only limber and imaginative, he was incredible at bending notes and emoting ... he made that guitar squeal.  We'd seen him once before but as Walter said, that night he was pissed off at the sound guy.  This night everything was just exactly perfect and he was on fire.

He did a great Hendrix-y cover of Hey Joe (as opposed to a bluegrass-y or folk-y cover) early in the one, long set, did some of his best songs like Angel On My Shoulder and Sweet Goddess Of Love and Beer, a supremely-paced, lyrical cover of Same Old Blues (by Nix/Russell/Dunn), did a huge medley of Hey Bo Diddly/Who Do You Love/Not Fade Away, and later a great Stones medley of NYC Blues 1977 Till/Sympathy For the Devil.  And he encored with a beautiful and long Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

In between Dave sang a couple of songs and had a great duel with Popa Chubby, with Dave singing a measure and then Popa trying to out-do him with a measure of guitar.  Neither of them really had the advantage, though Popa could have probably kept it up until Dave's voice wore out!

We hung out and talked some more after the show, until suddenly we realized we were the only audience members left and better get going before they kicked us out.  One last picture and then goodbye to everyone (EJ had had to take off earlier).  Out into the Na Tick night to our car and a pretty quick drive back home.