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A Review: Dead to the core

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesThe Dead, with Bob Weir, left, and Warren Haynes, Thursday, May 7 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
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DENVER Bruce Hornsby once noted that the Grateful Dead, for all their emphasis on improvised music, were actually quite predictable in their concerts. Hornsby, who was a quasi-member of the band in the early 90s, was on target. From the mid-70s on, the structure of a GD show was essentially set in concrete. There was a song-oriented first set; a second set that focused on longer songs and instrumental jams that linked one tune to the next. The drums-and-space segment meant to be all free-form and weird, but which had become so routine that many Deadheads considered it a bathroom break came in the middle of the second set. The final set was capped with a rock-n-roller, and the hordes were sent home with a gentle-sounding encore. There were first-set songs, second-set songs, and they were rarely shuffled. When I saw the 6/17/91 concert at New Jerseys Giants Stadium, and they opened the show with Eyes of the World, fans rejoiced it was a first for the band, and it did, indeed, kick off an especially hot night of music. Still, more typical was another New Jersey show 28 years ago today, in fact when my friend Pinhead forecast the entire second set, song for song.The Dead the occasionally touring band that features the four surviving core members of the GD, rounded out with singer-guitarist Warren Haynes and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti have made it a mission to explode that sense of predictability. On their month-long tour, which closes tomorrow in Washington state, order and structure have been almost as noticeable in their absence as the late Jerry Garcia. This isnt just a matter of slotting songs into unexpected spots in the setlist, resurrecting tunes that had been abandoned decades ago, or splicing together songs in unheard-of combinations all of which they have been doing with a vengeance. The Dead are being big-picture unpredictable: Each show is given a character of its own. The April 25 gig at Madison Square Garden, large chunks of it anyway, looks like a flashback to 1969. Three nights later at New Jerseys Izod Center, with saxophonist Branford Marsalis sitting in, the show seemed geared toward their guest, with an emphasis on long, jazzy songs including a splendid take on Miles Davis Milestones, a number never covered in the GD days. April 26, in Hartford, Conn., was a rock n roll show, opening with the GDs own peppy Bertha and running through covers of Dylans All Along the Watchtower, the Bands The Weight, and the Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows.Towards the end of last Thursdays show at Denvers Pepsi Center, I quipped to my friend Alan that it looked as if the Dead werent going to be playing a second set that night. Technically, at the time, they were in the second set. But the first set was notable for being just like a first set of yore: an opener of Feel Like a Stranger, a funky number that kicked off many a GD show; the linked combo Lost Sailor and Saint of Circumstance, which were typically played together back in the day. The closest things to a surprise were Casey Jones, which was a rarity after the early 70s; and Easy Wind, a gritty blues number that had been retired with the 1973 death of Ron Pigpen McKernan.The second set opened on an unexpected and thoroughly pleasant note, with a four-song acoustic sequence. Logically at least in the logic of the old GD era the wooden guitars should come out during the first set, the acoustic songs being shorter, folkier, more grounded in the earth. The highlight of the acoustic portion at least for those in search of the most obscure song choice imaginable was bassist Phil Lesh singing the traditional Irish tune, Whisky in the Jar. The Dead never performed it; the only appearance it ever made was at a 1990s rehearsal session, when Garcia, apparently out of nowhere, started messing with the song and the band jumped in behind him. (That one-and-only version was included in the So Many Roads box set.)After a stumbling but spirited acoustic version of The Weight, the Dead made a clunky transition to Space. But the early move into the free-form portion of the show was not a foreshadowing of a loose set: Two of the three highlights of the second set were songs that typically appeared in the first set. Ramble on Rose was played crisp and tight, the line I know this song it aint never gonna end getting big applause. And Cumberland Blues featured brilliant country licks by Haynes. The other high point was a jamming, dynamic King Solomons Marbles an instrumental piece performed exactly once by the GD.I have heard people who attended the Denver show refer to the setlist as mellow, even boring. I suppose if youre going to be truly unpredictable, you cant bust out the killer setlist every night. But it was drummer Bill Kreutzmanns birthday his 63rd and one would have hoped for a little more daring. Still, the Dead sounded generally good, well-rehearsed, in noticeably better spirits than they were in the final death throes of the original. And clearly, theyre reaching for something way beyond the GD shows of old.Fixing the predictability thing seems to have been a simple thing for the Dead. They didnt even need to write new songs, or even add a big batch of cover material to their repertoire. (They have added a few, including the Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter. My suggestion to expand the new repertoire even further: play songs from Leshs and Weirs solo albums.)Another problem with the Dead, as it now stands, seems a tougher fix. Bob Weir how do I put this gently? finds himself in an unfortunate situation. As the surviving principal singer of the group, he is front and center in the Deads stage set-up. His history warrants this positioning. But his talent and personality do not. Twenty years ago, with Garcia at his side, Weir came off as youthful, cute and high-spirited, if only modestly gifted. Now, in his 60s, behind a thick gray beard, flanked by the 49-year-old, powder keg that is Haynes, his appeal is more muted than ever.One can assume there would be no Dead at this point without Haynes. In Rolling Stones list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time, Haynes is number 23. But that list was created in 2003, just as Haynes was becoming recognized as not just a superb guitarist but a super-human musician. One assumes that if the list were compiled today, Haynes would move up several notches. Ideally to number 14, which would put him one spot behind Garcia.Haynes also holds membership in the Allman Brothers Band and fronts Govt Mule, and somehow, he doesnt need to borrow the licks he plays in those two groups for the Dead. More amazingly, he doesnt borrow from Garcia either, and how many guitarists would have had a strong enough vision to disregard the Jerry sound and put their own stamp on the music? And the talent to make it work?As a bassist, Lesh remains utterly unique, a player who hears the song in a way that no one else could. My instincts tell me it was Lesh who, before the GD, was a composition student with a taste for the avant-garde who has given the Deads show structure a kick in the ass. There were times at the Denver show when Lesh and Haynes (who played together for several years in Phil & Friends) looked at one another across the stage, and together were driving the music, with everyone else just along for the ride.In my 16 years of writing about music and photographing concerts, Id never really covered an arena show shooting and all till Thursday night. But at the Dead show, I had a photo pass which got me, for 15 minutes, leaning up against the stage. I felt like a farm kid seeing the big city for the first time, staring up and out, wide-eyed with an awed smile, taking in how big it all was.After the photographers were ushered from the absurdly cramped photo pit, I retreated to the general vicinity where my ticket said I should be one level above the floor, off to the side of the stage. Having just been closer than anyone else in the arena to Weir, including his bandmates and being accustomed to my usual three-feet-from-the-stage spot at Belly Up it felt like the action was terribly far away. To think, there were people who were probably three times as far away as I was. And they paid for their seats! Yes, I realize the depths to which Ive been spoiled. I also thought of a comment I read long ago: That Crosby, Stills & Nashs 1969 tour, the first to play in stadiums, ruined rock n roll.For all its size, the Pepsi Center struck me as friendly in the extreme. You cant walk 10 paces without bumping into a food or booze booth; I didnt notice any lines for the bathroom. When I had an iffy situation with my press pass, a security guard named Jerry, of all things appeared as my personal guardian and told me exactly where he would be if I needed anything.Missing from the atmosphere was the GD vibe I remembered from shows of old (approximately 90 of them). The professional Deadhead, the people VW-bussing from show to show for weeks at a time, is a thing of the past, and gone too is the element that went with it: strung-out, just plain weird, the grateful feeling of just having made it to the next show. The Pepsi Center, the crowd, the air seemed strikingly clean and safe. The band itself seems uncharacteristically chummy: In song after song, the singers take turns on the lines; at shows end, they all gathered center-stage for a group bow. The trip may have gotten longer, but its nowhere near as strange as it once was.Ultimately, I loved the experience enough that I could see not waiting another 16 years to do my next arena show. The Dead still have moments of musical magic up their sleeves. On any given night, you stand a chance to hear a Cosmic Charlie. I missed Jerry hell, I miss him every day but I didnt find myself appalled at the idea of playing this music without him. Even when Weir sang Garcias part on the Ripple encore.Still, I did find myself wishing that my first trip to the Pepsi Center had been for some other event. Say, a Nuggets game. Hey, I can see Warren Haynes any old Labor Day just down the street from my house, at Belly Up. Carmelo, Chauncey and the gang these days those guys arent living on past glory. Now thats worth a trip.stewart@aspentimes.com


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