The Dead | 05.10.09 | Mountain View

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

Bob Weir – The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline
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.

“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.

Warren Haynes – The Dead :: 05.10
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.

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.

Jeff Chimenti – The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline
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.”

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.

Lesh & Kreutzmann – The Dead :: 05.10
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.

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…

Words by: Garrin Benfield | Images by: Susan J. Weiand

The Dead :: 05.10.09 :: Shoreline Amphitheatre :: Mountain View, CA

Weir & Kreutzmann – The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline
I arrived early to Shoreline last Sunday for what I hoped would be The Dead‘s triumphant return to Northern California. After weeks of monitoring setlists and checking out audience recordings on, I knew the band was well rehearsed and in a reflective mood that had them returning to long-neglected treasures in their repertoire. I also knew that the band seemed to be deliberately fashioning very different shows from night to night. Some sets have included a relatively small number of songs but many improvisational avenues, one pre-drums sequence might include only acoustic tunes, and of course, there was the Madison Square Garden second set that started with “Drums” and “Space!” I wondered how the band would adjust to the first outdoor show of the tour for the notoriously laid-back Shoreline audience. It turns out the answer, like the band itself, resists easy categorization.

The party in the lot didn’t really get off the ground until I was about ready to head into the venue, as I had lawn seats and wanted to get a spot on the only fully horizontal section near the rear of the main concert bowl. It’s pretty comical that after all these years hosting concerts, and more importantly hosting Dead shows, that this venue can still bungle the process of parking early-arriving vehicles! At one point there seemed to be more parking lot attendants than cars, with no clear leadership or direction as to where those cars should go. The security presence was also a bit overbearing for my taste, with large groups of yellow-coated staff patrolling the burgeoning little lot, swiftly shutting down any vending. Ah well, it was a beautiful California spring day, we parked right next to the Furthur bus, and someone had two PA speakers cranking out soundboards all afternoon. Not so bad, really.

Lesh & Kreutzmann – The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline
At about 7:15, Phil, Mickey and Bobby could be seen huddling on stage right. Mickey then surprisingly took the mic and said, “We just want you to know we’re not up to our old tricks. There’s still about 10,000 people outside waiting to get in, so we’re going to push back the start of the show a bit.” Bobby then admonished the crowd to tell their friends to please not hang out outside but to be inside for showtime, as it created a safety hazard to have half the venue rush the gates when the band started. He finished with the oblique, “Dig yourselves!” After a few more delays, at around 7:45, the band took the stage, assuring us that they were going to play past the venue curfew.

With little hesitation and no meandering opening jam, the boys slammed into “Help On The Way.” I’ll admit some ambivalence over “Help” as an opener, as I feel adventurous, challenging tunes are sometimes better served when the band and the sound are better dialed in. And despite having secured the best lawn position possible, the sound was pretty pale and just not loud enough. Experience told me to relax and wait a few tunes for the situation to improve, but alas the poor fidelity continued and impeded the effectiveness of the whole first set. I even had that weird thing happen where I found myself judging the music by the reaction of people in the first twenty rows. I could feel the intention of the band, however, and that was clearly to dive right in and try to take us somewhere. “Help On The Way” was executed perfectly, and “Slipknot!” patiently developed. A sense of relief waved through the crowd when “Franklin’s Tower” somewhat awkwardly jumped out of “Slipknot!,” as this is far from a foregone conclusion these days. Pedestrian takes on “Good Lovin'” and “Cassidy” followed. There was nothing wrong with these tunes per se, no train wrecks or missed cues, just a sense that everyone was still warming up and that they weren’t firing on all cylinders yet.

Lesh & Weir – The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline
“Bird Song” opened up nicely, and while I’m no huge fan of Phil’s vocals on this delicate melody, I loved his inspired re-harmonization of the main guitar line. The “Bird Song” jam fell neatly into “Uncle John’s Band,” a left-field choice that seemed to catch everyone pleasantly off guard. Even Bobby turned to Phil with his first smile of the night, as if to say, “How exactly did we end up here?” “Uncle John’s”, which closed with the cool, long-forgotten vocal lines over the 7/8 bridge, was a buoyant closer to an intriguing set that worked best for me when I met it half way and checked my expectations at the door. The playing so far was measured, introspective and mildly rocking. No one broke a sweat, but you could hear those familiar thought processes churning within the first stabs at collective improvisation.

As night fell, the band eased into the second set with “Unbroken Chain,” a surprising but always welcome choice. Phil, like Bobby, has taken to re-phrasing the vocal delivery of many signature tunes, this time stretching some lines to near breaking point. It always makes me a bit anxious hearing this song, as my mind’s eye is still trained on Jerry’s inability to play it well in 1995. I have to consciously remind myself that this band can much more easily navigate the trickier paths of the Dead catalog (they’ve been handling “King Solomon’s Marbles” just fine on this tour, after all). The riff-based, instrumental section of “Unbroken Chain” really took flight. Warren was digging in, the sound overall was finally reaching an acceptable volume, and the show was taking off. “The Other One,” complete with Phil’s thunderous bass intro, expanded and retracted, eventually reaching the twenty minute mark. Everyone in the band except Jeff Chimenti and the drummers gradually left the stage, and Jeff led Mickey and Billy into a funkified Rhythm Devils segment, playing a Herbie Hancock inspired groove on the Rhodes. All of Jeff’s organic keyboard tones were fantastic all night – piano, Rhodes and B-3 sounds that make you wonder why the Grateful Dead wandered so far off course in this regard towards the end. Chimenti proved to be the perfect guy for this job all night long, continually infusing authentic jazz-based ideas into taught, muscular rock jams. His splashes of McCoy Tyner or Bill Evans chordal voicings were never overdone but balanced with a clear understanding of the rolling Keith Godchaux bar room piano sound.

Hart & Haynes – The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline
Chimenti eventually ceded the stage to Mickey and Billy, who continued to tear through a pocket-driven drums segment. Seeing these two together remains a clear highlight of the modern Dead era. You truly feel, perhaps more than at any other time in a show, that anything could happen. And despite the aforementioned sound issues, the drums were mixed well all evening – crisp, loud, and crackling. Also of note is that Mickey was not playing a standard drum kit but rather a hybrid of toms and various percussion elements, with Billy more than ably handling all of the bass drum and cymbal duties. The result was a band with a deeper, slinkier groove than at any time in recent memory.

Then, in a move that really made the 20,000 seat venue seem a lot smaller, a troupe of fire dancers appeared, creating sculptures of light at the lip of the stage. A very nice touch. The “Space” that followed managed to be hypnotic and gnarly at the same time. “Sugaree,” which mysteriously blossomed out of the mire, was a highlight of the night. Perhaps a bit slow for some tastes, I found the paced delivery to be stately and dignified, and Bob’s vocal phrasing actually worked really well in this context. Both Warren and Jeff took fantastic solo breaks in this long version. In a break from tradition that I found refreshing, the band brought “Sugaree” to a gentle conclusion, rather than insisting that every post-drums song be connected by a segue, no matter how forced or awkward.

“Gimme Shelter” came next and gave Warren a chance to sing his first full lead vocal of the night. The song is well suited to his throaty growl, and the band built up some serious heat behind his solos. “Sugar Magnolia,” never a disappointment, was really tight and had the venue grooving as one. One thing about this version of The Dead, for better or worse, when they pick a tempo they tend to stay there. After years of slippin’ and slidin’, it must feel good to Bobby to be able to deliver one of his best tunes with such confidence in the groove. In fact, Bob seemed confident all over, playing as instinctively as ever with a startling inventiveness. On this night he bounced back and forth from his mid 70s-era Gibson hollow-body to the late ’80s pink Modulus Strat (with Zebra striped strap to complete the get-up).

Weir & Kreutzmann – The Dead :: 05.10 :: Shoreline
A long break preceded the encore, almost as if we were in store for another mini-set. Phil reminded us to become organ donors and teased the opening of “St. Stephen” before the band cascaded into the tune for real. This was no tossed off version. The band was now crackling with energy and proceeded to jam through “The Eleven,” the conclusion of which Bobby transformed into a “Throwing Stones”-esque vocal rave-up by repeating the “What Now?” refrain – pretty cool, and a great surprise as most folks were expecting the Sunday “Samson and Delilah” encore. “Touch of Grey” ended what turned out to be a very generous show on a high note.

I have to admit, my ears (and feet) were almost fully taxed at this point. I think these guys had the audience beat in terms of energy, which probably says a lot about the restorative powers of playing music. Warren, in particular, has a heavy burden placed on him. From most reports, the “core four” have not been overly specific in what they want him to do, but his work is cut out for him, trying to occasionally lead this unruly beast of a band. Playing with The Dead seems to have greatly expanded his musicality, though. He now develops narrative ideas slowly and methodically, instead of applying a blues-based approach. In retrospect, I was happy to see these guys towards the end of the tour, when they are clearly reveling in the open channels of onstage communication. And as they took their bows, the smiles and laughter seemed to hold promise of a continued future. Onto the next show!

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

There are a bunch more pics of this show, including all the fire dancers here.

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The Dead perform again Thursday night (05/14) at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA. Check back for another double-review following the show. Complete Dead tour dates available here.

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