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.
Merl Saunders:: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
Everyone from JamBase and beyond was pleased to see Merl doing well...
For over twenty years, the Rex Foundation has been the charity arm of the Dead organization, and in fact, the tribute was a dual event meant to serve as a benefit for the worthy cause. After Ratdog's brief yet potent set, Rex Foundation Executive Director Sandy Sohcot and President Freddy Hahne told the crowd about the tribute's intent and then introduced the Garcia family members. Annabelle Garcia said a few words about how long they had been trying to get this night to happen and thanked the crowd for their continued support of her father's work. It was an unexpected and heartfelt prelude to the main event.
Mickey Hart led a percussion contingent on stage fronted by Hamza El Din, who brought the Garcia story up to 1978 and their legendary September trip to Egypt. Along for the ride to the Pyramids? Bill Walton back in '78, and he took his place on stage in '05 on percussion along with a dozen or so others as they played "Olin Arageed" — a piece first performed during the Dead's dates in Egypt. Each performer wore a white robe and was in a semi-circle as El Din directed the ensemble. Kreutzmann and Hart went to the twin drum kits, Jimmy Herring and Trey Anastasio on guitars, JGB-ers Gloria Jones and Jackie LaBranch and Donna Jean on backup vocals. Weir led the supergroup into "Help on the Way," and we were off - literally. Herring suddenly left the stage, and Trey handled the lead vocals and guitar work until the sound cut out. This was the tensest moment of the whole evening. I thought, "Great - just what Trey needs." My old friend was up there to pay tribute to one of his idols, a man who inspired an entire generation of jam music, and the power failed. The crowd, being an extremely intelligent group of heads, roared with support for the situation. They weren't going to let anything, not even a technical glitch out of hell's lower regions, spoil the magic. Quickly, VERY quickly, Bob Weir raced over with his guitar to the soundboard on stage-left, chatted EXTREMELY briefly (perhaps even threatened a good ol' Angels-style stomping), and suddenly the volume returned to full force - a classic GD moment in a classic California setting with classic music being played by the best from yesterday and today.
Walton & Hart :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
Trey rolled into "Slipknot!," and the band turned this bliss into a majestic little pearl before abruptly stopping the jam. "Franklin's Tower" did not conclude the usual trilogy, and Trey walked quickly off stage as Weir and Warren Haynes started up "Sugaree." This sequence would occur throughout the rest of the night — the band would jam, hit a peak, stay there for a little while, we would be dancing and yelling and shaking back and forth, and the song would suddenly end. My take on this is that there were so many songs that the supergroup wanted--check that--needed to cover, that brevity became a requirement.
Trey Anastasio :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
"Sugaree," featuring Haynes on guitar and vocals, was played well, but I had to scratch my head when I saw Bruce Hornsby enter late in the song to handle keyboards. Quite frankly, Hornsby would have been a perfect foil for Haynes on the Garcia debut album masterpiece from the get-go. I was just being impatient for Hornsby, I suppose. His presence would become monumental as the night wore on as we rode the wave of great music towards the astonishing version of "Standing on the Moon," where Hornsby matched forces with Anastasio on a song for the ages. "Loser" followed, and Hornsby immediately grabbed the spotlight with conviction.
Herring, Anastasio, Kang :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
Hornsby has played this song in the past many times, but hearing him bring it up to another level on this early fall eve made you wonder if Hornsby was the best keyboardist the Grateful Dead ever had. I had been waiting for this song and I thought that Weir would handle the vocals, but Hornsby just seemed to make the tune his own in a big way — all heartbreak and true feeling from the gut. J.V. Collier took over the bass duties from the strong Robin Sylvester of Ratdog on "Loser" and was a familiar sight to those who had seen Hornsby's band in action.
Michael Kang on violin drifted on and off stage after SCI's strong set and participated in an ingenious pairing of "Brown-Eyed Woman" and the first verse reading of "Dark Star." Jimmy Herring, in this wonderful guitar tag team that was going on, sat in on these two numbers, which eventually melted into "Bertha" featuring Herring and Haynes. The initial half of "Dark Star" ventured into space, but this wasn't to be an evening of mysterious, mind-blowing, deep interstellar exploration. Alas, most of the time, the grip was fairly tight on the yokes of the Triple Crown of guitarists.
Michael Kang :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
That all changed ever-so-slightly during "Eyes of the World." Trey Anastasio, in what must have been a true thrill, took over on guitar and vocals and definitely sent shivers down the spines of the audience. He nailed all of the inter-verse solos, and his vocals were moving and hauntingly real. This was arguably Anastasio's finest performance of the evening as he completely connected with a Garcia tune that he had not played since the very early days of Phish, some 20 years prior. If you weren't moved by this performance, you weren't anywhere near me and my buddy because most people looked like heaven had suddenly fallen to Earth. It was sweet payback after the unfortunate technical glitch during "Help" > "Slip."
The beautiful otherworldly moment just wouldn't end. As a matter of fact, we had hit the meat of the show, and the highlight was next: all of the members of the supergroup left the stage except for Bruce Hornsby on keys and vocals. But, wait a minute - Anastasio stayed on stage and Weir stood in the dark, back by the speakers, watching and occasionally strumming while the true goods were about to be delivered. Hornsby sang "Standing on the Moon" as if he wrote and owned it. In-between vocals, Hornsby and Anastasio played an absolutely sublime combination of unique music that had to be heard to be believed. The best part was that the moment appeared unscripted, as if it was just supposed to be Hornsby solo. But it was the addition of Anastasio playing along with Hornsby that led to a house full of teary eyes. In an evening of song after song, one rotating musician after another, Hornsby and Anastasio somehow stopped the clock and played a truly beautiful "thank you" to Garcia that was overwhelmingly touching.
Bill Kreutzmann Centers the Beat :: Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
"Scarlet Begonias" > "Fire on the Mountain" followed with Hornsby, Haynes, Herring, Anastasio, and Kang ripping through the old warhorse, but it failed to lift up off the ground. Hart handled the vocals on "Fire," but clearly, like "Dark Star," this sequence was really hard to pull off without Garcia's presence. However, there were brief moments of fine soloing, and Kang, as he did the entire evening, again offered unique colors and a sweet undertone.
Weir, Donna Jean, Sylvester, Kreutzmann
Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
Haynes had played "Stella Blue" before, and his familiarity was of great help. He pulled it off with some inspired vocals and guitar work shared with Herring. "The Wheel" > "Uncle John's Band" saw the unique guitar triplet pairing of Anastasio, Haynes, and the vastly underrated Mark Karan of Ratdog. "UJB" featured Anastasio and Haynes toe-to-toe, soloing back and forth as I laughed out loud for two reasons. 1) It was brilliant, and 2) Weir seemed to keep looking over in horror: were Warren and Trey about to go off into a twin split-screen corner of space that would develop into a 20-minute jam?
Alas, not on this night, but it was a guitar hero battle for the ages. "He's Gone" followed to slow things way, way down before Weir again segued the huge beast into the nearly-forgotten "Franklin's Tower," delivering a perfectly fat sandwich closure to the three-hour set. Anastasio handled the vocals with Donna Jean on backup vocals up front like it was 1976 again, with Kang on violin and Hornsby and Haynes offering a fine combination of mojo heat. There were three encores, and by then, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I hadn't heard so many Garcia tunes back-to-back before - like most heads, I was used to Garcia/Weir flip-flopping during a show - and it was mind-boggling to think that the man, like his peer Bob Dylan, had created such a major body of work. "Brokedown Palace" was a fitting first encore featuring Haynes and Hornsby and was followed by the second sandwich closer, "Dark Star," as they completed the final verse with a slight bit of space exploration, but not much. (This was an encore after all, at a tribute show of tunes). "Touch of Grey" closed the epic night of fantastic music, and I groaned loudly. I wanted "China Cat," but I wasn't about to split hairs at this juncture. We all sang along to the phrase "We will survive," and the warm vibes of the evening led us out into the dark Berkeley night as Mickey Hart gave a warm speech similar to the one he gave ten years ago at the Garcia wake when he advised that we all take this spirit and positive energy and "do something with it."
Comes A Time :: 09.24.05
May that special Garcia buzz last beyond this little old dimension we share. One can only hope.
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