What a wonderful year it was for the various Dead-connected bands crisscrossing the continent. So many good shows in venues ranging from tiny clubs to cool old theaters to arenas to festival grounds … to our computer screens!
I am often chided for being too much of a cheerleader for the ex-GD—guilty as charged! I just happen to really like the directions the Core Four are heading these days.
Two-plus years into the great Furthur experiment, Phil, Bob and Co. continue to play with tremendous passion, consistently keeping their set lists and their musical interactions fresh and spirited. They rarely have a bad night and their overall batting average is amazingly high. Fortunately, the widespread rumors of their impending demise, which circulated during the second half of 2011, proved to be inaccurate. Even so, it’s been nice to see Phil branch out with occasional gigs featuring other “Friends,” and for Bob to convene from time to time with Scaring the Children and in other configurations.
Bill K.’s 7 Walkers showed that they are a serious band by gigging all through 2011, picking up new converts to their unique N’Awlins psychedelic gumbo at every appearance. With a fine repertoire of evocative originals co-written by guitarist-singer Papa Mali and Robert Hunter, and cover tunes plucked from the Grateful Dead, Dylan, Dr. John, The Meters and others, the group takes listeners on quite a journey from show to show. The bass slot has been in constant flux, with three able players filling in—George Porter Jr. (who’s the theoretical “permanent” bassist), Tea Leaf Green’s Reed Mathis (who is all over the superb 7 Walkers album) and sousaphone player Kirk Joseph (of Dirty Dozen Brass Band fame). With a new album in the planning stages right now, 7 Walkers have the potential to make 2012 another big year for the group. Here’s a link to a pretty good audience recording of a 7 Walkers show from Madison, Wis., last spring.
The new Mickey Hart Band was just hitting its stride as 2011 ended, and that group, too, promises to have an album out this year. Mickey’s had so many bands through the years—each cool and fascinating in its own way—but this one is quite a bit different. At the heart of this group is a solid collection of new songs featuring lyrics by Robert Hunter and sung beautifully by the band’s two main singers, Tim Hockenberry and Crystal Monee Hall. In Gawain Matthews they have a versatile guitarist who can play nasty and sweet (and lots in between), and of course any unit with Mickey in it is going be a polyrhythmic wonder—here he’s helped by bassist Dave Schools, drummer Inx Herman and talking-drummer Sikiru. They play a handful of Dead songs, but that’s not what drives this band. The original songs and the players’ obvious chemistry are propelling them to a bright future. This audience recording from the group’s Dec. 9, 2011 show in Boulder gives a good sense of the MHB’s range.
Some other highlights from 2011:
Best New Venue: Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA. Like a lot of folks, I first caught a glimpse of Bob’s deluxe rehearsal, recording and Internet video broadcast facility when Furthur did a pay-per-view concert there on June 7, 2011. Later, when Slightly Stoopid played there in September, I had a chance to check it out in person and I was blown away by this remarkable, state-of-the-art music playground. Bob’s been putting it to good use, too, letting different friends and acquaintances take advantage of TRI’s stellar equipment collection and crack staff of Grateful Dead sound and video veterans (and many others). The neo-supergroup Chickenfoot (Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, et al) rocked TRI a little while back, and several less-known groups have also performed there on the Web, including The Fall Risk (led by Furthur singer Jeff Pehrson), Matthew and the Atlas, Scaring the Children (with guest Jackie Greene) and others. Next up is a FREE live RatDog Reunion webcast on Jan. 25, beginning at 5 p.m. West Coast time. The band will consist of the most recent lineup plus alumni Steve Kimock and Rob Wasserman. Should be very cool. Check out TRI’s website (lots of great video there) and sign up to be able to watch their streams; it’s easy!
Two Furthur Shows You Should Check Out: A few weeks ago I offered a list of some of my favorite shows from the first two years of Furthur’s existence. But that was before the group’s fall 2011 swing, which was generally stronger than their summer tour. I will point you to two consecutive shows from the fall you might enjoy:
The 11/10/11 Madison Square Garden concert is notable for its off-the-charts stellar song list but also for the appearance of guitarist/fiddler Larry Campbell and his thrush of a wife, Teresa Williams, both of whom have played often with Phil & Friends (Larry had one of the longest tenures) and Furthur. The duo take the lead vocals on a spunky first-set version of “Tennessee Jed,” and Larry’s fiddle adds a warm, down-home quality to several tunes, including “Uncle John’s Band,” “So Many Roads” (another fine lead vocal from JK) and “Box of Rain.” In the second set, Larry mostly plays guitar, and there are times when three guitars going at once is a bit much, but you can also hear them pushing each other to new heights. The trio of “Shakedown” > “The Other One” > “St. Stephen” really lights up the Garden early in the second set, and later on Teresa surprises everyone in the house with a gritty, wailing version of the old Rev. Gary Davis blues number “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” (popularized in modern times by Hot Tuna). And if Teresa’s in the building, there’s a better than even chance you’re going to hear “Attics of My Life”—it’s another gorgeous version as the encore.
The next night, 11/11/11, upstate at the venerable Oncenter War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, NY, the band is back to its regular configuration, but the inspiration that was dripping from the MSG show is all over these sets, too. On paper, the first set might look motley, but I love these songs, and they’re all played well, from “The Last Time” to “Reuben and Cherise” to “High on a Mountain” (my favorite of the newish songs) to a raging “Jack Straw” and a “Revolution” set closer that seems particularly apt in the midst of the current Occupy movement. The second set opens with a solid “Weather Report Suite” and includes an amazing sequence of “Playing in the Band” > “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” > “Dark Star” > “We Love You” > “King Solomon’s Marbles.” That’s some serious tuneage, folks. The encore, which started exactly at 11:11 (on 11/11/11) was—natch—“The Eleven,” followed by “U.S Blues” and then—get this—a recording of the “Star Spangled Banner” by some military band. Strange but cool! I can’t recommend this show highly enough.
Coolest One-Off Event: The “First Fusion” concert at Marin Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium May 7 featuring Bob Weir & Friends with the Marin Symphony Orchestra. More than a year in the making, this intriguing marriage of Grateful Dead songs and symphony musicians could have been a disaster. The world does not need Muzak Grateful Dead. But with Bob working closely with Italian composer/arranger/conductor Giancarlo Aquilanti (who teaches at Stanford), this concert offered something much richer and deeper. Aquilanti wrote orchestral arrangements for a varied bunch of Dead tunes, including “Playing in the Band,” “Dark Star,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Days Between” and “Jack Straw,” but left space for a rock band to play with them, so Bob was joined by his RatDog buddies Jeff Chimenti, Jay Lane, Robin Sylvester and Rob Wasserman, as well as a small choir that backed up Bob’s lead vocals. (A first set had the RatDoggies playing occasionally with a string quartet and a few soloists from the orchestra.) The results were frequently stunning, particularly the two halves of “Dark Star” and the best-sung version of “Days Between” I’ve ever heard from Bob. The acapella “Attics of My Life” that closed the night was sublime, as well. You can hear a fair-to-middlin’ audience recording of the complete First Fusion concert here (though it doesn’t begin to capture the complexity of the arrangements or the fullness of the sound in the hall).
The good news is that Bob is actively exploring the possibility of staging similar “Fusion” concerts at a few different venues, perhaps even this summer. Don’t miss it if it comes to your city!
Dance to the Beat of the Universe: Major props to Mickey Hart for providing the spellbinding intergalactic score for the Alonzo King LINES Ballet original production called “Triangle of the Squinches,” which had its world premiere last April at the intimate Novellus Theatre at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. The piece has graceful and athletic dancers interacting with one another and with two very different kinetic architectural sets (designed by Christopher Haas), accompanied by a fascinating sound collage by Mr. Hart.
There’s exciting news here, too. The ballet will be performed again at Yerba Buena April 12-15, 2012. You can find out more and order tickets here. I know there are a bunch of you adventurous types out there who would really get off on this. It’s both trippy and compelling; mind food and eye candy.
Another Show You Need to Hear: Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam at the Asheville (NC) Civic Center, 12/10/11. Warren’s annual star-studded holiday benefit concerts (this one supporting the Asheville Habitat for Humanity) typically run about eight hours, so I guess it's not too unusual to have a one-time-only version of Phil Lesh & Friends allotted two full hours. The “Friends” in this case are Warren, Jackie Greene, Jeff Chimenti and Joe Russo, with Jimmy Herring sitting in for the whole second half — that’s a lot of guitar firepower! The sequence of “Dark Star” > (The Beatles’) “She Said She Said” > “Dark Star,” is incredible, and “The Other One” (with Phil singing it really well) is also deep and mysterious. Jackie sings lead on “Deal” and the rollicking “China Cat,” and he and Warren trade verses on a riveting “Sugaree.” The whole set is bursting with energy nearly every second. The quiet encore, “Angel Band,” offers a lovely contrast to the Wall of Guitars that dominate the overall sound.
Best Archival Release of 2011: Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings, of course. It’s a shame so many people were disappointed by different aspects of the megabox—from the marketing foul-ups early on to the packaging (which I love)—because the music is unassailable. It’s never sounded this good and its going to be a cherished part of my collection until my dying days.
Best Archival Release Under 73 Discs: Europe ’72: Volume 2. It’s just two discs, and what’s with the no artwork on the interior gatefold (inexcusable!)? But it’s a worthy companion to the original Europe ’72, with memorable versions of “Dark Star” > “The Other One,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Playing in the Band” and lots more.
And a Final Tip o’ the Hat to: Robert Hunter, 70 years young and still writing great songs. Besides the stack of new ones that went to Mickey’s band this year, RH also collaborated with Jim Lauderdale on their third full-length album together, an instant bluegrass classic called Reason and Rhyme. In early December, the album picked up a richly deserved Grammy nomination in the bluegrass category, and though it’s going to be tough sledding against perennial winner Alison Krauss and living legend Ralph Stanley, Jim has already won our vote. It’s a sparkling piece of work!