Words by: Dean Smith | Images by: Jay Blakesberg
The Dead :: 04.15.09 :: John Paul Jones Arena :: Charlottesville, VA
Standing in line to attend my first Grateful Dead show at the University of Virginia in 1982, I noticed a woman in a tapestry skirt selling a bumper sticker with a strange design and a phrase I'd never heard before. I asked her politely, "What is 'Dark Star'?" "It's a song, man," she replied in disgust, shaking her head. From that moment on, I embarked on a musical journey that returned me to where it all began last Wednesday night.
|Weir & Haynes - The Dead :: 04.15|
As I drove through the cold rain along Route 20 to Charlottesville, I remembered Virginia shows from the past - an inaugural "Box of Rain" after a long hiatus at the Hampton Coliseum, where the crowd cheered so loud the song was barely recognizable; a Richmond show in 1985 that did its best to drive old Dixie down. My expectations have been pleasantly recalibrated over the years through a steady diet of Dark Star Orchestra shows and the Sirius radio channel where I first heard the 1978 Cameron Indoor show last summer on a long drive with my family. I thought about all this as the lights went out and I dared ponder what might come next as America's greatest rock 'n' roll band took the stage.
Opening with "New Speedway Boogie," The Dead played a boisterous, intriguing and powerful show at the John Paul Jones Arena - a welcome change compared to the acoustically horrific University Hall back in '82. They rocked and tottered but never faltered. Their ambitious set list was littered with gems, including a song that first debuted in 1969 ("Mason's Children"), "The Eleven," "St. Stephen," "Doin' That Rag," "Big Boss Man" and "Crazy Fingers." This old school lineup harkened back to shows played in the first six months of 1970 and levied a weighty "tax" on the audience - as fans sought out veteran Heads for song titles.
The Dead flashed brilliance in one instance with taut, extended jams and faltered slightly with rusty vocals in the next. When the spaceship veered too close to the sun, the band righted itself quickly. Phil Lesh orchestrated the pacing with brilliance, navigating through the weaker moments with an adroit sense of leadership. Mickey Hart and his Bill Murray-like sidekick Kreutzmann delivered punishing blows to the drum skins. Hart loomed over the right side of the stage like the Native American profile on a buffalo nickel, the rhythm shaman of the tribe. The Dead battled and scrapped to deliver a wildly entertaining show highlighted by extended exploratory jams.
|The Dead :: 04.15|
Looking as though he'd leapt off a 1974 Lynyrd Skynyrd album cover, relative newcomer Warren Haynes tantalized the audience with two virtuoso performances on "High Time" and "Crazy Fingers." Haynes crooned "High Time" perfectly, evoking Jerry's renditions both in Charlottesville and that rain-soaked night in Richmond.
With a joyous extended introduction, "Crazy Fingers" included a cascading waterfall of guitars and organ in tribute to the man who played that song for decades with just four fingers on his strumming hand. Haynes delivered a flawless vocal and then took the song in a reggae direction via the wah-wah pedal, aided by Jeff Chimenti's piano. It was the night's masterpiece - a thing of pristine beauty.
Weir then joined Haynes for a blistering, muscular "St. Stephen" followed by "The Eleven." Haynes worked the fretboard with ferocity, uprooting the notes and smoothing them out while rocking back and forth.
The only weak moments involved Weir's vocals, which were shaky and breathless on "Foolish Heart" and "Standing on the Moon." "Half-Step" also seemed to step off in the wrong direction. Looking a little like his "lost sailor" with his seafarer's mustache, Weir seemed reluctant or unable to accept the responsibility for reinventing those classic Garcia tunes and could have easily passed them onto Haynes. "You sing," he stopped at one point during "Foolish Heart" and turned to his first mate. Haynes immediately obliged.
Weir's almost symbiotic attachment to Jerry, which began at the age of sixteen when he was walking the back alleys of Palo Alto, CA and heard the sound of a banjo playing in a music shop, can never be recreated. They dueled endlessly from song to song, each trying to out-wrestle the other, lifting the band in the process for 30 years. The new alchemy with Haynes will take time but progress is being made. Weir teased Van Morrison during space and Haynes followed up later in the set with a nod to Jimi Hendrix by playing the opening bars of "Foxy Lady."
|Phil Lesh - The Dead :: 04.15|
Overall, Bobby was solid, underpinning the melody with the relentless drive of his rhythm guitar. He excelled on "Playin'" and ended the show on a strong note with a raucous "G-L-O-R-I-A" harkening back to the 1985 uprising in Richmond, where 200 people crashed the gate and the band was forever banned from the city limits.
"It was a great show, some of the time," said sixteen-year-old Jack LeBien from New Orleans attending his first Dead show. The crowd was a vintage mix of young and old, with many students, alumni, locals and seasoned Heads partaking in the glorious festivities.
Delving deep into their massive canon as they have done in the first three concerts bodes well for the remainder of the tour, and will delight the purists and keep everyone guessing. The band's impeccable songbook contains some of the best American folk rock music ever written. Those expecting to hear "the hits" may leave wanting. One thing is for certain, tunes will be impossible to predict. Thirteen years after losing Garcia, they have raised the bar considerably with this effort - the degree of difficulty is high - and it appears they are soaring adventurously into the musical cosmos on an Icarian quest. The physicality of the sound remains strong but the vocals need attention. Haynes appears ready to take on more of the load, and in so doing open the music to new directions with his versatile slide guitar. Something new is waiting to be born.
04.15.09 :: John Paul Jones Arena :: Charlottesville, VA
Set I: New Speedway Boogie, Bertha, High Time, Mason's Children, Big Boss Man, Doin' That Rag, Standing On The Moon
Set II: Playin' In The Band > Crazy Fingers > Drums > St. Stephen > The Eleven > Mississippi Half-Step > Playin' In The Band (reprise) > Foolish Heart
Encore: Donor Rap, Gloria
For more pics of this show, go here. You can order this show for download at LiveDownloads.com. The Dead are on tour now, complete dates available here.
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