Editor's Note: In honor of both The Dead's return to the Bay Area as well as the constant talk of shows far exceeding expectations, we thought it might be fun to give fans two very different reviews of both shows at Shoreline Amphitheatre. The first review is from our Associate Editor Dennis Cook and our second is from Bay Area musician Garrin Benfield. Enjoy!
Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
The Dead :: 05.10.09 :: Shoreline Amphitheatre :: Mountain View, CA
I'm not one for nostalgia. Music either proves it all night or it doesn't, and while capable of sentimentality I'm rarely swayed more than momentarily by it. So, much like the first time I saw the Grateful Dead in Berkeley in 1984, I entered Shoreline Amphitheatre a little dubious. When so many people rave without qualification it's probably wise to approach with a pinch of skepticism. However, like that July night introduction, by the end of The Dead's first set I was scrambling to secure tickets for the next night in the run.
|Bob Weir - The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline|
"Grateful Dead Music" is its own genre, a messy chef's special layered with things that make little sense when you see them on the menu but make you go, "Yum!" when you stick the fork in your mouth. There have been numerous torchbearers since Jerry Garcia's passing, and being honest, often least among them has been the various aggregates of the surviving Grateful Dead members, who seemed as touched by nostalgia's sloth as many fans when they came together, seeming more switched-on when they played the same songs with their own outfits. There was, and remains, an empty place set at their table, and up until this show I felt his absence skunked the chemistry of Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, no matter who else surrounded them. But, as the urgent-yet-cooling wave of "Help On The Way" splashed us, the sheer tangibility of the music announced that what they were up to was alive and immediate. And as the well-loved trilogy unfolded that feeling grew as the players spoke to the music in the moment. There was no calling back to old ways, old versions, old feelings. Like the best times with Garcia, this band is serving the music as it comes, premeditation kept to a minimum, slop intact and fearless as all get out.
There is no discounting the impact and importance of Warren Haynes (guitar, vocals) and Jeff Chimenti (keys, vocals). Much as I adored Brent Mydland and have appreciated other piano men that have shared the stage with them over the years, Chimenti might be the boldest, most technically gifted keyboardist they've ever had. Capable of Ray Charles clomp 'n' soul and '60s Impulse Records sophistication, Chimenti was often the catalyst for off-the-book escapades, his own excited exploration of this music snatching the elders up in some new gravitational pull. And singing with a clear, powerful, aching romance, Haynes now inhabits many of these tunes the way a certain bearded man once did, imbuing them with his large-lived life and troubadour understanding. Paired with guitar work that fully unleashes his avant-y, Zappa lovin' side, Haynes is a different man this time out, and that also had a distinct impact on the others. Weir, in particular, seems to spark with the Southern man as both a singer and guitarist. Haynes' vocal intensity and style brought out all of Bob's finest tics – his caveman handling of lyrics, his delightful upper register, out-of-his-range squeals, his lustiness and hairy-chest masculinity. Taken together with the strongest singing from Phil and Chimenti I've ever heard, one of the traditionally weakest elements in recent years was bolstered greatly here. What shines out now is what always appealed about the Dead's vocals – their humanity and capacity for strong, finely etched feeling. It ain't always pretty but it hits you way down deep in both happy and dark places.
|Warren Haynes - The Dead :: 05.10|
For the sum of it all to truly work the music has to have the same divergent palpability and barking great range to encompass all moods, all times, all people... if they're patient and attuned and open. The Dead themselves proclaim this much, that a concert is a collaborative thing, a joint ritual (pun intended) with strong pagan overtones. The comely fire dancers in tribal dominatrix outfits during "Drums" were almost too obvious in spelling out this aspect of the Dead experience, but nifty just the same. However, during some of the sleepier sections of "Bird Song" and "Space" I was reminded how one should never be in a hurry with these guys. It is what it is, and while "Space" seems positively quaint in a post-Animal Collective, post-Black Dice, post-Akron/Family age, I not only accept their willful lollygagging I embrace it. There's moments when it all seems a lark, a prank carried with them from their beginnings, to see how long they can wander about like a pack of Mr. Magoos with fat amp stacks in front of 20,000 people. It remains a transgressive, honestly experimental act for a stadium band, and while it may bore one to tears at times I was still cheered to see them going way off-script.
Discussing the show with buddy Mike McKinley, editor and publisher of the great State of Mind magazine, he cogently remarked, "Take the ride they offer. I think the older I get the more I appreciate that aspect. And I appreciate the uncompromising way that they play - the free form, the meandering, the patience, the way they play like they're confused all the time and so on. The core of that band is 40-plus years of an improvisational language that is so deep and wide - the only thing I've seen like it is Ornette Coleman. It's an American language at this point and it's cool to see that they, themselves, are still evolving with it and within it."
|Jeff Chimenti - The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline|
That's it - a language they and only they could have invented. Like America herself, The Dead (and before them the Grateful version) are 'bout assimilation, interpretation and pronounced execution. Full of hiccups and sometimes less than planted landings, this music framed by gorgeous, ever-giving compositions is free range, baby. It'll only stay on the farm until harvest comes, and then it grabs the caboose rail as it passes and moves it down the line. And it was a sense of stasis when Weir, Kreutzmann, Lesh and Hart came together after 1995 that made me wonder if they were capable of carrying their legacy forward. As we swerved hard and fast into "The Other One" in the second set just about all doubt had dissipated. One of my personal litmus tests for the health of anyone attempting "Grateful Dead Music," this version swung big fists, steel eyes locked on something gleaming just out of reach as they sent us "comin', comin', comin' around, comin' around, in a circle," their minds un-bended as the rainbow colors blended. An unhinged yelp escaped my shaking body as I once again came face-to-face with a kind of cosmic reality unique to these musicians. Except, it's different now and all the better for it.
Any attempt to recreate what they did with Garcia is D.O.A. Despite a real distaste for the gross deification of Jerry that's occurred after his passing - t-shirts with star dappled backdrops and Garcia cradling the Earth in his hands and the whole "the moon came out and Jerry willed it" mumbo-jumbo that makes people think they can buy his "magic" ashes from Barry Garcia – I know he was special, unique as they come. I miss his presence and his music in a way that surfaces like a physical wound some days, but I also love this "language" he developed and then bequeathed to his comrades and anyone else foolhardy and skilled enough to wade into it. I want to see this larger thing cared for in a manner that keeps it alive for future generations. I want teenagers to catch the same spark that sent me down the rabbit hole of their influences to discover Miles Davis, Bill Monroe and Karlheinz Stockhausen. "Grateful Dead Music" shatters and reshapes us, and played no small part in generating the curiosity and affection I have for music that's made me dedicate my life's work to chronicling the best damn stuff I can find in ANY field - genres be damned, categories be damned. When their music is hitting it right it should make you hungry – hungry for what they do and for the world of sounds and experiences always hovering around us but too rarely accessed in our day-to-day hustle.
|Lesh & Kreutzmann - The Dead :: 05.10|
While I could delve into specifics, crow about this solo or another, there's no real reason. The Big Picture is where it's at with The Dead today. I may indulge in more spot specific observations for this Thursday's performance for those hung up on details, but for now I'll say that against all expectations I left the amphitheatre much like I did the Greek Theatre on July 13, 1984 – ravenous as hell and ready to wave that flag high and proud.
The Dead :: 05.10.09 :: Shoreline Amphitheatre :: Mountain View, CA
Set I: Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower, Good Lovin', Cassidy,
Birdsong > Uncle John's Band
Set II: Unbroken Chain, The Other One > Rhythm Devils (Drums) > Space >
Sugaree, Gimme Shelter > Sugar Magnolia
Encore: St. Stephen > The Eleven > Touch of Grey
Continue reading for Part II of our Dead at Shoreline coverage...