Review & Photos | Billy & The Kids With Robert Randolph | Port Chester
Images by: Andrew Blackstein
Words by: Scott Bernstein
Billy & The Kids w/s/g Robert Randolph + Lions On The Moon :: 3.27.15 :: The Capitol Theatre :: Port Chester, NY
Read Scotty’s review after the gallery.
Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann returned to The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York on Friday night with a talented band in tow as well as special guest Robert Randolph. Kreutzmann’s Billy & The Kids ensemble finds him joined by guitarist Tommy Hamilton (American Babies), bassist Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green) and keyboardist Aron Magner (Disco Biscuits). The theme of Friday’s performance was “Europe Seventy 2.0” featuring songs performed during the Grateful Dead’s famed Europe ’72 tour.
Billy K. performances have been far and few between in recent years as the drummer dedicated time to finishing his soon-to-be-released memoir Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead. Kreutzmann first put Billy & The Kids together for a performance at December’s Christmas Jam in Asheville and the band already has a number of gigs scheduled for 2015, which is good news considering the impressive performance the four-piece and Randolph laid down at The Cap on Friday night.
Let’s start with Kreutzmann, the band’s leader, who played about as well on Friday as he has in decades. With no disrespect intended towards Billy’s Rhythm Devils partner Mickey Hart, Kreutzmann thrives when he’s the lone drummer in a band as was the case in Port Chester. Billy laid down just the right mix of keeping the beat steady when needed, driving the band to the next gear when needed and adding inventive fills when needed. What was most surprising was he seemed to show more drive, energy and power as the night continued -not bad for a 68-year-old. Kreutzmann sported a huge grin throughout the evening, as he often lip synched the lyrics while his band mates sang, and it’s clear that teaming up with “kids” has re-invigorated the drummer.
Bassist Reed Mathis was another shining star on Friday night. Each of Kreutzmann’s mates weren’t interested in imitating the original musicians who played this music and aimed to add their own sound to the Billy & The Kids stew. Mission accomplished, especially for Mathis, whose vocals and bass work gave the Grateful Dead classics a much different feel than fans have grown accustomed to. An example can be found on the “Brown-Eyed Women” from Friday’s first set. Not only were Reed’s vocals more raw and growling than what we’re used to, but Mathis delivered an intense bass solo in the middle of the song that drew a thunderous applause from the audience and huge grins from his band mates. One of the trademarks of Reed’s work in Tea Leaf Green is wah’d out, distorted tone he’ll utilize from time to time. He used that tone for the “Brown-Eyed Women” bass solo as he worked the upper register of his instrument with great success.
Aron Magner made good use of his keyboard arsenal at The Cap on Friday. As the band is a four-piece in its basic form, Magner simulated Bob Weir’s guitar parts at times as during “China Cat Sunflower” when he comped Weir’s familiar counter melody on synth. Aron’s judicious use of the synths that are so crucial to the Biscuits’ jamtronica sound worked well with Billy & The Kids and gave added impact to the moments when he utilized them. The Disco Biscuits keyboardist was called upon to sing often in Port Chester and was at his best when adding to harmonies rather than lead.
Tom Hamilton does the bulk of the singing with Billy & The Kids as he does with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Hamilton’s voice has the tenderness found in Jerry’s vocals, again without imitating Garcia. The same could be said for Tommy’s guitar work on Friday as displayed on “Loser” during the second set. The guitarist lit into a beautiful, slow-burning solo but knew when to put the hammer down as he led his bandmates through an upbeat segue into “Deal.” A “Loser” > “Deal” > “Loser” segment was the second of two creative sequences from Kreutzmann’s band following a “China Cat Sunflower” > “Cassidy” > “I Know You Rider” in the first set.
While Billy & The Kids, along with their guest, did focus on the most-beloved material from Europe ’72, they threw in a handful of rarities from that tour as well. A cover of Huey Smith/Johnny Vincent’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia and The Boogie Woogie Flu” followed a lengthy jam to end the first set, while the second set included a rendition of “Who Do You Love?” after a quick taste of “Hey Bo Diddley.” Both “Rockin’ Pneumonia” and “Who Do You Love?” were performed sparingly by the Grateful Dead in Europe ’72.
The aforementioned lengthy jam that preceded “Rockin’ Pneumonia” was one of the high points of the night. Randolph’s first appearance of the evening just may have been his best. Robert started the jam with a pedal steel solo and soon after Billy & The Kids backed him up with a Bo Diddley beat. Kreutzmann and the band paved the way for Randolph to shine throughout the jam by laying down a steady groove for Robert to shred over. By the time “Rockin’ Pneumonia” emerged, over 15 minutes later, Hamilton and Magner had engaged with the guest on a fun call-and-response section.
Robert Randolph lent a hand on most of the second set. He particularly stood out when adding scorching sacred steel melodies to such tunes as “Dire Wolf” and “Deal” and when he fronted the group for “Hey Do Diddley”/”Who Do You Love?” It’s always tough to judge just how much time to give a featured guest on stage, so kudos to Billy & The Kids for giving the audience just enough Robert Randolph while still showing off the core band for large swaths of the show.
Friday was just the third performance ever for Billy & The Kids. The Capitol Theatre was a fine choice for the band’s NYC area debut considering the Dead’s history with the venue and Phil Lesh’s more recent use of The Cap for residencies. Plus, The Cap has a light rig similar to what you’d see at a show held at an amphitheater or arena, which gave LD Jefferson Waful plenty of artillery to work with. Just like the musicians, Waful brought his own sensibility to the designs he employed in Port Chester without making it seem like an Umphrey’s McGee (his full-time gig) light show.
Youngsters Lions On The Moon impressed with their opening set on Friday night. Guitarist Brandon “Taz” Niederauer continues to progress each time out. At age 12, he’s already one of the scene’s best young talents and there’s no telling where he’ll be by the time he reaches his teens, let alone adulthood. The band’s rhythm guitarist, Nicky Dylan Winegardner, displayed his vocal prowess often as part of a set that included a number of tunes he wrote. Lions On The Moon’s rhythm section of drummer Henry Thomas and bassist Dylan Niederauer held down the bottom end, allowing “Taz” ample opportunity to show off his well-beyond-his-years lead guitar skills. The group’s set came to a climax with a cover of “Whipping Post” featuring Robert Randolph.
Next up for Billy & The Kids is a “Spring ’90” performance in Denver on April 20 featuring special guests Jason Hann and Dominic Lalli. Additional gigs scheduled for the band include a set with Bob Weir at this year’s Peach Music Festival. Keep your eyes on that one as adding Bob’s voice and rhythm guitar to the Billy & The Kids mix seems like a recipe for success.
Set One: Cumberland Blues, Tennessee Jed, Brown-Eyed Women > China Cat Sunflower > Cassidy > I Know You Rider, Jam* > Rockin’ Pneumonia & The Boogie Woogie Flu*
Set Two: Cold Rain & Snow, Dire Wolf*, Sittin’ On Top Of The World* > Big River*, Hey Bo Diddley* > Who Do You Love*, Ramble On Rose, Bertha, Loser > Deal* > Loser*, Casey Jones*
Encore: Brokedown Palace*
* -w/ Robert Randolph