Words by Lincoln Collins :: Images by Susan J. Weiand
Comes A Time - Jerry Garcia Tribute :: 09.24.05 :: Greek Theatre Berkeley, CA
"There's a lot of music, so we're going to get started."
And David Nelson was off with a race back 40 years to the beginning. The first sign that Jerry Garcia was, indeed, in the house was when the show started ten minutes early. A six hour tribute with an extra ten? Can't beat that. Seemingly starting in chronological order like a living history book of music, David Nelson led the Black Mountain Boys - including Sandy Rothman and Brian Godchaux - through a seven-song set that included an opening "Sourwood Mountain." The song had not been played since March 1964, according to Nelson, who wanted to inform "all of you tapers out there, but last time we had a different banjo player." Garcia had played with the Boys from 1963-1964, and the half-hour set served as a welcome reminder that dear old Captain Trips began and ended his career with a great passion for bluegrass and old jug band folk. Other highlights included "Rosa Lee McFall," also an old Dead favorite that had re-appeared during their 1980 acoustic sets, and "Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie." Each song was fast and wholesome and just right — timeless music on a late afternoon as the beautiful sky stretched out past the Greek and towards the Bay Bridge and beyond.
Godchaux, Rothman, Nelson :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
There were some errors, very notable omissions, and technical difficulties, but one would be hard-pressed to imagine a better tribute than what took place on this Saturday in front of an overflowing crowd at a venue that the Grateful Dead had grown out of in the 1980s. The songs selected for the celebration of Garcia's work and spirit were tasteful and strong, covering an extremely wide variety of music, which only served to showcase the man's full grasp of Americana music. We even got a few glimpses of interstellar space during a "Dark Star" sandwich, but for the most part, the long night was filled with solid, Earth-bound performances featuring the musical work of Garcia and the lyrical genius of Robert Hunter.
Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
Speaking of, let's get the complaints out of the way first. A Jerry Garcia Tribute without Robert Hunter in the house? All of the surviving members of the Dead, including the wonderful Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay, and Phil Lesh can't make it to the gig? Vince Welnick? Where was David Grisman — the aforementioned bluegrass link to Garcia's career-length love affair with passionate homegrown bluegrass music? Why wasn't David Gans — a fine musician himself with a firm tie to the Dead legacy — invited on stage? "Touch of Grey" played instead of "China Cat Sunflower?" And finally, if you're going to call a tribute "Comes a Time" — one of Jerry's ancient treasures from the twin 1970 studio masterpieces — at least play the darn song.
Alright, enough of that. Thought I'd be a little remiss if I didn't mention the critical gripes. As Nelson said: "There's a lot of music." The evening began with a bluegrass bang that had everyone with huge smiles, but String Cheese Incident came on and produced an even higher form of bliss. Actually, it wasn't the full band as Michael Travis and Kyle Hollingsworth couldn't make the trip, but the scaled-back SCI plus an excellent Scott Law on guitar hit a major X-factor zone from the opening notes of "Friend of the Devil" and raced to a euphoric "Ripple." In a triumphant year in which the Incident produced a new album, headlined the year's biggest traveling festival (BIG Summer Classic), and played some pretty hot shows, this was a bona fide masterpiece set. Scott Law also played guitar and raised a few eyebrows in the house with a solid performance. Dead keyboardist Jeff Chimenti joined the band on a fiery "Casey Jones," and that trusty "Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad" offered the first ecstatic peak of the tribute. "Ripple" served as a cherry on the top of a set that could have gone on for hours and everyone would have been quite happy.
SCI :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
Melvin Seals & JGB followed with another well-played set. The true revelation of their half-hour was Stu Allen from the Jones Gang on guitar and vocals. When you closed your eyes, the goosebumps broke out all over because this cat sounded exactly like Jerry. Amazing. Merl Saunders, who is recovering from a recent stroke, sat on a bench on the stage where he received several rousing standing ovations. His presence at the tribute was easily one of the brightest moments of a great show. Saunders then joined JGB vet Melvin Seals on keyboards with Billy Kreutzmann on drums and the hardest working man in show business, Warren Haynes, on guitar, making their first appearance of the night on a scorching take of "Deal." Haynes brought his game to this song, and Kreutzmann was playing his kit like it was 1972 again — fast, loud, and kicking the tempo onwards to a solid conclusion.
Melvin Seals :: 09.24.05
The de facto Master of Ceremonies arrived on stage in the person of Bob Weir and Ratdog. Weir has put up with a lot of grief throughout his 40-year career, but you share the same space with an unusually gifted genius and see what that does to comparisons. Having said that, Weir did a fine job of orchestrating the next three hours and forty minutes while keeping the entire wild train of participants continuously coming and going without a hint of instability. The music was nearly non-stop and inspired with Weir constantly directing band members and guest stars without missing the true nature of each song. Garcia's spirit was served well, and quite frankly, I find it a stretch to find any criticism of his former partner's performance. Weir has aged very well and is the equal of just about any other musician guiding a group on the improv circuit.
Bob Weir :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
Ratdog played a brief set that included a tasty "Bird Song" — a tease of which was offered in the opening jam before "Mississippi Half Step." This theme would run throughout the night as melodies and hooks seemed to float in the air until they coalesced into the next Robert/Jerry gem. "Bird Song" slowly rose from the stage and soared to the grassy hills of the theatre before Weir flawlessly segued the band into a poignant "Lazy River Road." "Road" drifted on a soft, bluesy trip before the early '90s chestnut dropped into a perfect set-closing surprise - "Big Railroad Blues," which concluded the first set of the tribute. Next? The Jerry Garcia Tribute Band featuring Weir, JGB, Chimenti, Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Hamza El Din, Bill Walton, Haynes, Jimmy Herring, Bruce Hornsby, Donna Jean, and, of course, one of the main attractions - Trey Anastasio.