Continuing what has become a cherished early-December tradition for the Grateful Dead Family, the Rex Foundation put on another Wang Dang Doodle of a fundraiser at the Fillmore in San Francisco Dec. 3. Titled “Run for the Roses,” this year’s fete served up three fine sets of music—heavy on tunes associated with the Jerry Garcia Band—played by a parade of top jam band favorites in unique configurations. Most of the hundreds of folks on hand also enjoyed a sumptuous pre-show buffet dinner at elegantly appointed tables that covered much of the Fillmore’s floor, and the upstairs bar/gallery hosted an impressive silent auction of cool photos, posters, signed memorabilia (a Bill Walton basketball!) and more, raising thousands of additional dollars for Rex.
As most of you know, the Rex Foundation started in the early ’80s as an outlet for the Grateful Dead’s philanthropic inclinations. Through the years, the organization has dispensed around $8.7 million to more than a thousand nonprofit groups of every stripe. Supported for many years by benefit Dead concerts, Rex has in recent times had to get creative about revenue sources. Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of generous musicians willing to play for Rex fundraisers or donate tracks for the foundation’s occasional CD releases (see below).
The evening’s musical program began with an engaging acoustic set by Tim Bluhm and Greg Loiacono of the Mother Hips, joined by Tim’s wife, Nicki Bluhm, on backup vocals and keyboardist Danny Eisenberg (Mother Hips, Ryan Adams, Tift Merritt). As fate would have it, this was the third time I’d seen Tim, Nikki and Greg that week—first they turned up at Jackie Greene’s birthday gig at the Fillmore Nov. 26, then were part of the ever-changing group that played at photographer Jay Blakesberg’s birthday bash at the Café Du Nord in SF the following night, and now here they were again! Their four-song set was the perfect appetizer for the evening. It opened with a gentle “Bird Song,” then rolled into “Tennessee Jed,” a superb “Brown-Eyed Women” and then closed with a graceful and mesmerizing “Brokedown Palace.” Tim, Greg and Nicki’s voices blend beautifully together, and by virtue of his time touring with Mickey and Bill in the Rhythm Devils last year, Tim seems able to really get inside these songs as a guitarist, while still maintaining his own musical personality.
Next up was a wonderful electric band led by Furthur axeman John Kadlecik and featuring JGB keyboardist Melvin Seals, Zero drummer Greg Anton, bassist Mike Sugar (Jambay, Frank Vignola, et al) and Furthur singer Sunshine Becker. I loved seeing JK front a group, singing lead on every song but one, and mostly playing tunes that Furthur does not touch. Their generous set opened with “Run for the Roses,” and it was instantly apparent that this grouping really had the JGB spirit. Melvin, of course, was such an integral part of that band’s musical tapestry; Sunshine somehow managed to sound like both Gloria Jones and Jackie LaBranch when she harmonized with John; Greg had that crackin’ drum sound on the rockers but also laid back nicely on the softer tunes; Mike brought in the confidence and energy of the early John Kahn sound; and we certainly know that JK can interpret Garcia’s approach as few others can. He was totally on all night.
After the “Roses” opener, the band settled in and played an exciting “Sugaree,” “They Love Each Other,” “Alabama Getaway,” “Mission in the Rain” (always a highlight!), followed by an absolutely smokin’ “That’s What Love Will Make You,” with Melvin on lead vocals! (I don’t think I’d ever seen him sing before; he was pretty good, too.) John and Melvin traded long solos on that one, which had nearly everyone in the place up dancing.
Next, John came to the mike and announced that the group was going to play a pair of original tunes written by a short-lived aggregation known as The Mix, which consisted of JK, Melvin, Anton and bassist Kevin Rosen; they made one album, called American Spring, back in 2004. The two songs they played were both co-written by Robert Hunter and Anton but were sung by JK: “The Business” (as in “givin’ me the business in my own backyard”) was a funky number that almost sounded like an extension of the previous “That’s What Love…,” whereas “American Spring” was more in the classic Hunter ballad vein, with evocative lyrics (including a couplet I recognized from the new Mickey Hart-Robert Hunter song “Cut the Deck”). Sunshine contributed some airy flute to the latter song (who knew?) in addition to her always-stellar backing vocals. I always like hearing unfamiliar material, and I was impressed by both of those songs. Furthur really should give “American Spring” a test-drive.
Following that digression, it was back to the JGB songbook for two reggae classics, “The Harder They Come” and “Stop That Train,” and then the set closed with a rollicking version of “Tangled Up in Blue” (which generated one of the greatest crowd roars of the night for the suddenly relevant line “There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air!”)
The final set of the evening promised to be interesting. Matt Butler (of Jambay, the Everyone Orchestra, and one of the Rex Foundation’s most passionate and helpful board members) told the crowd that a mega-group consisting of all the musicians who had played (plus a couple of others) was going to attempt some improvisations, which he would conduct and which would also involve the audience. His plan was to hold up signs he’d write hastily in marker on a small erasable white board to give cues to the musicians, and also occasionally instruct us what to shout or do. I was, frankly, a bit skeptical. These jumbo jams are usually pretty unwieldy, and the notion of one guy trying to keep the reins on it and us was, I thought, optimistic.
But damn if they didn’t pull it off surprisingly well! The group was huge: Melvin and Danny Eisenberg played keys, JK and Greg Loiacono were on electric guitars; Tim Bluhm was on acoustic; Greg Anton and, for some of the set, Morgan Kimock (guitarist Steve Kimock’s son) played drums; JK’s wife, Katy Gaughan, was bangin’ away on congas (who knew, v2?); Railroad Earth’s exceptional fiddle player, Tim Carbone, added his tasteful licks; and handling vocals were Kadlecik, Loiacono, Becker and both Bluhms. It was quite a racket, as you’d expect!
Their first improv was a funk jam, and Butler directed the players with a combination of white board instructions—key changes, players to solo and single words, such as “soft”—and rather theatrical hand signals to count off key shifts and direct solos and combinations of solos. (Carbone and JK, for instance, engaged in some spunky back-and-forth at Butler’s command; or he’d quiet the group with a hand wave and urge Melvin to solo. We in the audience added our voices by shouting the word “Rex” on command at various points.) Another, more melodic improv later on, which started in the key of C, included such instructions to the band as “16th notes” and “8 beats of silence.”
I really enjoyed watching John flourish in this non-Dead setting, confidently leading much of the time and following when necessary. Sunshine also got into the act with some neat scatting.
“Don’t Let Go” turned out to be the best showcase for the huge group, and again Butler steered the players effectively, even getting them to split phrases between them, and having the audience clap parts of phrases that the band would then complete. It was a gas! After that tour-de-weird, “My Sisters and Brothers” was a lovely way to end an inspired night of experimentation and Big Fun—truly a night the whole Family could (and did) enjoy!* * *
I’d also like to throw in a hearty plug for the new Rex Foundation benefit CD/download release of Grateful Dead songs performed by 11 top jam bands, called Jerry Jams for Rex: Vol. Two. I bought my FLAC download the other day and have been diggin’ it to the max on my iPod!
The overall quality is so good, and there’s so much variety on the set, it’s tough to pick favorites, but I will mention a handful: the opening instrumental version of “Shakedown Street” by STS9 (whom I had heard of but never heard); Railroad Earth’s fabulous take on “The Wheel” (complete with a big jam after the song); “Yonder Mountain String Band’s dynamic, uptempo “Althea”; Bruce Hornsby’s just-about-perfect reading of “Standing on the Moon” (which I raved about here a few months ago when it appeared on his recent Bride of the Noisemakers live album); and, available on the download version only, ALO’s hypnotic and surprisingly mind-blowing “They Love Each Other”—never heard that song go there before!
Other acts include the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Umphrey’s McGee, New Monsoon with Tim Carbone and Steve Kimock, String Cheese Incident, Widespread Panic and Dark Star Orchestra. It’s a win-win-win-win! Chances are there are a few things on there you’ll love, and of course it’s all for a great cause! Wow!
To order Jerry Jams for Rex II and to find out more about the Rex Foundation and the magnificent work they do, click here.
(Special thanks to Jay Blakesberg for the photos! You can check out his highly entertaining website here.)