Blair’s Golden Road Blog: The Dead Live in Their Songs
By Blair Jackson
As has been my habit for nearly all of the past 31 New Year’s Eves, I spent the turn of the year with a few thousand fun-loving fellow travelers dancing to my favorite music on the planet. It was Furthur at the Bill Graham Civic in SF, “Sugar Magnolia” at midnight, as balloons fell. It never gets old (though we do!).
As I reflected on the Civic shows and 2012 in general, I decided that I could not recall a year when the Core Four of surviving members of the Grateful Dead—Phil, Bob, Mickey and Bill—had been involved in so many cool musical pursuits over a 12-month period. We should all be tremendously encouraged that the GD spirit is so alive, still taking on new and different forms every day.
On the Phil front, the biggest news was the opening of his Terrapin Crossroads nightclub/restaurant/bar in the Canal District of San Rafael, just a hoot and a holler from the Dead’s old Front Street studio/rehearsal hall. If Phil wasn’t out on the road with Bob in Furthur in 2012—and that band played fantastic tours in spring, summer and fall—chances are he was playing at Terrapin Crossroads. During the opening celebrations, a virtual who’s who of past Phil Lesh & Friends musicians, plus his Furthur band mates and his very musical sons, Grahame and Brian, got together in innumerable configurations to rock the house.
Bob Weir, Chris Robinson, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, Jackie Greene, Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, John Kadlecik, Tim and Nicki Bluhm, Jeff Chimenti, Joe Russo and many others helped inaugurate the place, and that was just the beginning. Over the course of the year, the beloved PLQ (Phil, Herring, Haynes, John Molo and Rob Barraco) reunited to play a couple of dynamite series at Terrapin Crossroads, and other groups featured a slew of great players (a few new to the Dead family), including guitarists Neal Casal, John Graboff, John Scofield, Stanley Jordan and local favorite Mark Karan, and keyboardists Adam McDougall and John Medeski. Phil’s West Coast Rambles, modeled after the late, great Levon Helm’s Woodstock Rambles, were high-spirited affairs with a shifting membership, and there were dozens of free shows in the bar, often featuring Phil, his sons and the likes of Mark Karan, Jackie Greene and others. The Phil Lesh & Friends de facto Guitar Army (Haynes, Scofield and Greene) knocked ’em Dead in the winter of 2012 in Colorado, and the Phil & Friends fall jaunt in the New York area—with JK, Jackie, Russo, Stanley Jordan in NYC and either Chimenti or McDougall on keys— produced some of my favorite Dead family shows of the year. Check out the Capitol Theatre (Port Chester) run on Archive.org for some amazing music.
Bob Weir and Jackie Greene
Bob, too, was perennially busy outside his Furthur obligations. As was the case in 2011, his immaculate TRI Studios complex in northern San Rafael once again hosted a number of spectacular webcast shows, including the RatDog reunion at the end of January; a sparkling confab in late March with Bob fronting members of of the moody rock band The National and various other Brooklyn-based musicians from outside the Grateful Dead sphere; and “Move Me Brightly,” the Jerry Garcia 70th birthday tribute event in early August, featuring a gaggle of old and new friends, including Phil, Jim Lauderdale, Jon Graboff, Donna Godchaux MacKay, Jeff Chimenti, Phish’s Mike Gordon, Neal Casal, Harper Simon, Cass McCombs, Adam McDougal and Jonathan Wilson (who would turn up at a number of later gigs by Furthur and Weir). That last one was definitely among the best shows I attended all year.
Once a week for four weeks in November, Bob hosted a TRI show called Weir Here during which he answered questions submitted via social media and also played a few tunes solo. Quite a treat.
Bob played a number of acoustic concerts in a trio setting (and solo) with Chris Robinson and Jackie Greene, a handful of shows with Bruce Hornsby (playing separately and together), and a couple that matched Bob and Bruce with sax great Branford Marsalis (check out the “Bird Song” > “Other One” from 7/19/12!). A few successful solo tours in April, September and November-December found the Bobster opening up his songbook in creative ways, telling stories and looking surprisingly at home onstage alone. The fall tour paired Bob with Jackie Greene for a series of warm and intimate evenings—track down the 12/12/12 concert from the Paramount Theatre in Denver for a taste!
Bob, too, now has a small live venue to play in whenever the mood strikes. He’s a principal investor in the tiny and charming Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, which opened in the winter of ’12 with gigs by RatDog (following the TRI event) and has hosted all sorts of cool acts all year. Next week a little band called Furthur checks in for a few days—now, that was a tough ticket!
The Mickey Hart Band toured much of the year and also put out one of the finest albums to come from a former Grateful Dead member, Mysterium Tremendum, featuring a bunch of songs with lyrics by Robert Hunter (and several with lyrics by Mickey, who turns out to be a good writer himself). The MHB has a strong identity outside of the Grateful Dead connection—only bassist Dave Schools, of Widespread Panic fame, could be considered a serious Dead fan before the group formed—and that has made their Dead covers sound utterly unique. Gawain Mathews is far removed from Garcia’s influence but comes up with one creative guitar line after another, song after song. And singer Crystal Monee Hall brings a soul/gospel touch to everything she sings, Dead songs included. If you still haven’t seen the MHB live, you owe it to yourself to make the effort, because they’ve really tapped into something magical. Their tour picks up again in mid-February, rolling on until early March (with Ghana’s African Showboyz opening), and hopefully they’ll be playing many more dates as the year progresses.
2012 was a bit of a roller coaster for my main man, Bill Kreutzmann. His excellent band, 7 Walkers, was cruising along nicely the first half of the year until lead singer/guitarist Papa Mali fell ill and the group had to cancel a couple of months of shows in peak touring season. Bummer! Then, shortly after Papa’s return, Bill was sidelined by an acute case of elbow inflammation. Still, it’s good news that Bill has resurrected the BK3 (Bill, Scott Murawski and Oteil Burbridge), did a New Year’s Eve sit-in with Govt. Mule at the Beacon Theatre in NYC, and is taking the BK3 to Costa Rica for the Jungle Jam. Here’s hoping that everyone will be healthy in 2013 and we get lots more music from Bill and his pals!
What got me reminiscing about the past year, was thinking about how many astonishing versions of Grateful Dead songs I heard—both in person and on recordings on Archive.org and videos on YouTube—by the plethora of different Dead-connected groups. From straight-ahead guitar-and-voice readings, to complicated arrangements with walls of guitars and saxophones, to songs that jammed out to “space” and back, the Dead songbook was never explored in quite so many ways. (I often think of the first interview I did with Phil, back in April 1990, for The Golden Road, in which he said, “I’ve always thought that every one of our tunes has got the potential to open up and flower like ‘Dark Star.’” It didn’t happen with the Grateful Dead, but in the post-Garcia world, it’s actually happening! Listen to the Furthur New Year’s week versions of “The Wheel,” “Terrapin” or “Slipknot!,” among others.)
Which brings us to the triumphant return of The Dead Covers Project, currently revving up for its second go-around here on Dead.net. It was such a gas to comb through the literally hundreds of versions of Dead and Dead-associated tunes that were uploaded to the DNP last winter. Some of them were positively mind-blowing, some simple but sincere; all of them were heartfelt. Who would’ve guessed that some of the most creative videos would be for lesser known tunes such as “Rosemary” and “I Will Take You Home”?
What will this year’s crop bring? Plenty of everything, I hope! Here’s my personal challenge: Who’s going to be the one to find the great song we know lies beneath the nitrous oxide haze of “What’s Become of the Baby”? Maybe you’ve heard the hissy studio tape of Garcia singing it alone with acoustic guitar. Or perhaps you have some brilliant idea of how to show that song’s true colors. C’mon blow my mind!
Beyond that, just have fun!
I don't go to nearly as many shows as you do, but having caught them on December 30 I was really taken with how generally tight the band was and how appealing the music was. I also loved both Bob's and Mickey's (alone and together) sets at the Rex show in early December.