First, I wanna say that The Other Ones kicked ass. Period. When I closed my eyes, I was positive I was at a real Grateful Dead show...and NOT in a cover band kind of way. Each time I found myself with an ear-to-ear grin, saying "holy shit," I knew something special was happening. Here's my attempt to write about it in a pseudo-professional way:
Jerry Garcia would be proud. On New Year's Eve the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead regrouped as The Other Ones to perform a four-hour concert at a level of musicianship, intensity and tightness that surpassed the Dead shows of the 90's. Something this special seemed impossible just two years ago. The Dead had split into two camps: Phil Lesh and everyone else. Everyone else toured as The Other Ones in 2000. It was a pathetic, awful, Spinal Tap puppet show-like affair that appeared to be the nail in the coffin for the Dead. Meanwhile, Phil's band Phil & Friends was performing musically inspiring, adventurous shows as he embraced the ever-expanding jamband scene that grew in the wake of Jerry's death. Phil surrounded himself with great musicians, rehearsed a LOT and found his audience continuing to grow. He was fully reborn (thanks to a liver transplant) and so was the music. Many, including me, thought that a beautiful scenario would be if Phil would be willing to work with the ol' Grateful Dead guys and show them the light he had clearly seen since `99...then lead the band to reclaim their title as the band that could put on a tight, musically adventurous show that ranges in mood, mixes up setlists, jams into never land and blows their audience away. This seemed close to impossible, but was a fun, dorky rock n roll dream to have. On NYE 2002/2003, that dream came true.
It's difficult to discuss the power and beauty of the music from NYE without looking at the amazing soap opera behind it all. Since starting in 1965, the Grateful Dead's popularity appeared to grow every single year...and continued to grow through the 1990s, which found them playing multiple sold out nights at football stadiums around the country. This growth was continuing despite the downhill slide the band was taking musically since the 1990 death of keyboard player Brent Mydland. This slide was due to Jerry Garcia's heroin addiction and health troubles combined with the fact that the band hadn't rehearsed for a decade and was ignoring the need to take a break, running on autopilot to feed their giant staff and keep the machine rolling. Jerry's lifestyle eventually led to his death in 1995, after a year where the band played like a sloppy mess and Jerry unsuccessfully used a teleprompter to help him remember song lyrics. After Jerry's death, the band members went off in their own directions. 1998 found the birth of The Other Ones, which at the time included three members of the Grateful Dead (Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart) and sometimes-member Bruce Hornsby as well as an additional drummer, two lead guitarists and a sax player. The shows were good, but two lead guitarists and a sax player proved to be messy. Bass player Phil Lesh, whose playing is essential to the sound of the Grateful Dead, and whose spirit is tied closest to Jerry's by fans, nearly died from liver failure later that year. After a successful liver transplant brought new life to Phil, he returned to the stage as Phil & Friends, embracing the experimental, boundary-less jamming elements of the Grateful Dead's music. While he was finding rapidly growing success with his band, public fighting (thanks to the internet) between Phil and the other GD band members led them to go their separate ways again. It appeared there would never again be anything like a Grateful Dead show. All of this drama makes this new rebirth of the band that much more shocking.
There is no replacing Jerry Garcia. There never will be. He was one of those rare individuals, like Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix, who had the power to channel something magical. No group can be as good without him. For those musicians who are still here, playing in the shadow of such an incredibly powerful talent and presence is a ridiculously difficult task. Although without Garcia, some may call this a glorified cover band, The Other Ones somehow managed to pull it together to the point where the show did not feel like a rehash of days gone by and fans didn't need to say, "if only HE was here." This was a band that could stand on its own. This was a band with enough power to have a future. Had I never been aware of Garcia's existence and I saw this band live for my first time, I'd probably be shopping for a VW Bus. That magical sound was there. The IT was there. That weird, incredible chemistry that can only be created by Phil's bass, Weir's bizarre rhythm guitar style and Mickey/Bill's drumming was there. Like the Stones managed to do earlier this year, the band played like they had something to prove.
The drummers pounded away in synch with the power of musicians half their age. Bob Weir was in great voice and still has all of his silly rock star moves down. In addition to providing the remaining essential trippy ingredient to the band's sound with his bass, Phil Lesh was without a doubt the leader of this band. He was watching the musicians carefully throughout the night, giving directions via the band's special ear monitor/step-on-a-pedal-so-the-audience-can't-hear-when-you're-speaking-into -the-mike system. Keyboardists Rob Barraco (from Phil's band, formerly of Dead cover band Zen Tricksters) and Jeff Chimenti (from Bob's band, Ratdog), but particularly Barraco, lent a ton to the sound of the band. He played piano with the energy of Brent Mydland, thankfully forcing all to forget that Vince Welnick ever existed in this band's history. Jimmy Herring (from Phil's band, formerly of Aquarium Rescue Unit and briefly the Allman Brothers) kicked ass at lead guitar. Standing in Jerry's shoes can't be easy. Yet with comfort, he brought his own style to the lead guitar role and proved to be a great choice for this band. He copied Jerry's licks only when essential to the song and brought his fire to the tunes throughout the night.
The two main thoughts that kept returning through the show: Jerry would be really proud to see this right now. Not just how great the band was, but the fact that the Oakland Arena (Golden State Warriors basketball stadium) was packed with people of all ages. The other thought was what a shame it is that Jerry didn't get to clean himself up and participate in this rebirth. If Jerry was at this show, playing at this intensity and playing a setlist this crazy, there would have been hundreds of heart attacks in the room and loads of people quitting their jobs to follow the band around the country once again. Instead, it took his death to lead to this rebirth...as well as Phil's brush with death.
Here is the setlist: Set 1: St. Stephen > The Eleven > Jack Straw, Unbroken Chain > Playin' in the Band > Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain. It was tight as hell, and fun as could be. Powerful stuff. Mickey singing (not even rapping) "Fire" wasn't the greatest concept, but the great music made that move tolerable. Other vocals were handled by Bob and sometimes Phil, with backing support from the keyboard players and occasional lines of lead vocal from Borraco.
Right before the second set began, an emcee taught the crowd about the tradition of Grateful Dead New Years by listing the lineup of each show from the 60s until today. The video screens supplemented the lesson by showing the concert posters from each year and showing how Bill Graham flew to the stage as Father Time for every show. When they got to 2002, the band took the stage for the ten-second countdown. At midnight, fireworks exploded as tons of balloons fell from the ceiling and Wavy Gravy (who had been sitting in front of us) was onstage in his Baby New Years outfit throwing roses out into the first rows on the floor. The band jumped into "Sugar Mag" as balloons bounced around above the crowd.
Set 2: Sugar Magnolia, Shakedown Street > Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One > Drums > Space > Lady With a Fan > Dark Star > Terrapin Station > Throwing Stones > Not Fade Away
The second set started out as great as the first. The Other One rocked harder than any I had ever seen. Even "Drums and Space" were entertaining. The usual bathroom/hot dog break wasn't necessary here. Some inspired, creative playing created some real interesting techno/new age-like music. Some momentum was definitely lost by dividing the "Terrapin" into two halves by placing "Dark Star" in the middle. These two songs combined probably filled 45 minutes and descended into some boring noodling. Although there were moments of musical brilliance scattered through the long, instrumental passages, much of it should have been avoided. It even got sloppy and started to feel like the mid-90's. They eventually picked things back up, but it was already 1:30 am in a stadium that was full by 6:30 pm. It's a little late for sloppy, endless noodling at that point. That would be the one and only solid complaint about the show.
ENCORES: Caution Jam > I Know You Rider, No More Do I > It's All Over Now Baby Blue > Stella Blue (instrumental)
Shockingly long encores. Lots of fun. The energy had dipped a bit in the room because by the time this set was ending, it was 2:30 am. Everyone had already sat through the 6:30 set of acoustic Hot Tuna (which was excellent) and the 8:00 set of Medeski Martin & Wood with a horn section on several tunes (which was also excellent). It was a loooong night. If not for the one hour "Terrapin/Dark Star" situation, this long set might have been even better. Closing with a beautiful, instrumental "Stella Blue" was a nice tip o' the hat to Jerry and a very classy way to end the event.
Overall, I'd give this show an A. There is no place I would rather have been that night...no show I would rather have seen. This band is definitely not the Dark Star Orchestra. It's also not the Grateful Dead, but it feels real close. It's a great band that is definitely worth seeing. Anyone who wants to return to that Grateful Dead headspace would have a good time. Any young person who was born too late to see the Dead would get the experience by seeing this band...and could likely have a new favorite band. I definitely look forward to seeing them again and congratulate them on pulling off what seemed impossible not too long ago. Happy New Year!
Words by Marc Luber
Photos by John Croxton
JamBase | West Coast
Go See Live Music!