Spring Fling! Catching Up with Recent Music from Phil, Bob, Mickey and Bill
by Blair Jackson
What a spring it’s been for Dead Heads! Bob, Phil, Mickey and Bill have all been incredibly busy, making damn fine music coast-to-coast in a variety of settings and band configurations.
The biggest news was probably the mid-March opening of Phil’s spectacularly intimate Terrapin Crossroads venue and restaurant in San Rafael. In its first months of operation, it has hosted an incredible variety of lineups anchored by the indefatigable and eternally youthful Mr. Lesh. At different shows he was joined by a virtual who’s who of past Phil Lesh & Friends bands, along with all of his Furthur band mates, and other Bay Area music luminaries, each offering different spins on the Dead’s repertoire, while also adding his and her own individual song specialties. Phil’s son Grahame has proven to be a fine singer and guitarist who has fit in easily with the ever-shifting multitude of aggregations. The end of April saw the historic four-show reunion of the much-loved PLQ (Phil Lesh Quintet), with Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Molo and Rob Barraco. In May, Phil began hosting the first several “Rambles” at TC, inspired by the ones put one by the late, great Levon Helm at his place near Woodstock, NY. There have also been several free shows in TC’s restaurant and on the patio outside, as well.
In the midst of all that, Phil still found time to play a fantastic 14-show spring tour with Furthur, which included eight nights at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan—the group’s longest residency at any venue—and a two-day co-headlining gig with the Allman Brothers at the Wanee Festival in Florida. He also turned up at the Fillmore in SF for a big chunk of one of Railroad Earth’s shows there.
Besides the Furthur tour, Bob branched out with a very well-received series of solo shows—just him and an acoustic guitar, playing a broad range of tunes—and collaborated on a pair with Bruce Hornsby at Oakland’s beautiful Fox Theatre; a duo set capping each night. One of the real treats of the whole spring season came when Bob joined forces with the excellent Brooklyn-based alt-Americana band The National at Bob’s magnificent TRI Studios complex for a free webcast. Lots of good music comin’ out of that place.
The Mickey Hart Band put out its much-anticipated first album, Mysterium Tremendum, in early April, and toured almost non-stop supporting it. Reviews have been universally strong from both the mainstream press and Dead Heads who have turned out in force to see the MHB both in big cities and more out-of-the-way places. If they come to your town, don’t miss ’em!
And Bill Kreutzmann’s 7 Walkers have continued to bring their patented “swampadelic” sound to audiences far and wide—the spring found them playing all over Northern California, and also hitting the road to play in Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, with lots more dates coming in the summer.
With such a dizzying number of Dead Family shows happening seemingly all the time, how’s a Head supposed to keep up? It’s tough! But we’ve spent untold hours listening to as many recordings as we could find from the various spring tours and what follows are some recommendations (presented in chronological order) of a few favorites worth hunting down.
7 Walkers, Van Duzen River Grange Hall, Carlotta, CA, 3/24/12. So far, this is the only one of 7 Walkers’ spring shows I’ve managed to track down online, and it’s definitely not an ideal recording — the audience is very chatty in places — but it’s an excellent show from start to finish. All four guys in the band are monster players who aren’t afraid to lay it down, but also leave space for each other. Papa Mali’s lead guitar is often surprising and unpredictable; bassist George Porter Jr. provides a solid but always moving bottom; Matt Hubbard is dynamite on keys, harmonica and trombone; and Bill K’s ability to move fluidly between styles never ceases to amaze. This show has a nice balance of Papa Mali/Robert Hunter originals from the group’s excellent eponymous 2011 debut album (“7 Walkers,” “King Cotton Blues,” “New Orleans Crawl”); Hunter-Garcia tunes such as “Bertha,” “Deal” and, best of all, a very jammy “Birdsong,”); a wonderful take on Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”; and a number of cover tunes associated with the Dead but played 7 Walkers-style—check out the encore of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Sugaree” and “Lovelight.” (There are a number videos of individual songs from the 7 Walkers spring tour up on YouTube.)
Bob Weir and The National, TRI Studios, San Rafael, CA, 3/24/12. We wrote extensively about this show in Dead World Round-Up at the end of March. Briefly, though, Bob and The National put imaginative spins on very cool selection of tunes, from Dead classics (“Help on the Way,” “Cassidy,” “The Other One,” “Standing on the Moon,” et al), to songs by The National sung by Bob, a fantastic new (for Weir) Dylan cover (“Most of the Time”), and even the revival of “My Brother Esau.” The encore is a loose mini-acoustic set performed in the middle of the crowd at TRI. Audio and visuals are stunningly clear.
Phil Lesh & Friends, Terrapin Crossroads Grate Room, San Rafael CA, 3/25/12. This very hot show was offered free on the Internet as a single, stationary-camera shoot, showing the entire band at all times, with exceptional soundboard audio. (This turns out to be great way to see and hear a band!) The group that night consisted of Phil and Grahame Lesh, Furthur’s Jeff Chimenti, Joe Russo and John Kadlecik on keys, drums and guitar, Larry Campbell on guitar and fiddle and, on a few songs, Larry’s soulful wife, Teresa Williams, on vocals. In a show filled with top-notch playing and singing, highlights include back-to-back JK-sung versions of “Foolish Heart” and “Comes a Time” (the latter with Larry on evocative fiddle), a stompin’ “Box of Rain,” Teresa wailing the old blues “Keep You Lamps Trimmed and Burning” (which tore down the house at MSG last fall), “Days Between” slotted between two sides of “Slipknot!” and a gorgeous “Attics of My Life” encore.
Phil Lesh & Friends, Terrapin Crossroads Grate Room, San Rafael, CA, 3/27/2012. This was another potent lineup during the opening weeks of Terrapin Crossroads: Phil and Grahame, Warren Haynes, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Jeff Chimenti and Joe Russo. With Warren as the de facto leader, we’re treated to an inspired selection of songs that he sings like no one else, including “Blue Sky,” “Sugaree,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” (with fiddle!) and even an emotion-filled “Stella Blue.” Larry shines on The Band’s “Chest Fever,” while Teresa nails the cool Gillian Welch tune “Look at Miss Ohio.” The group’s solid harmonies are showcased on “The Wheel,” “Uncle John’s” and the wonderful encore selection, “Angel Band.” A tremendous show all around.
Mickey Hart Band, Madrone Studios, SF, 4/4/2012. Another live webcast that has made its way to Internet, this superb hour-plus gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the Mickey Hart Band working it’s magic on a half-dozen powerful songs from the new album—“Heartbeat of the Sun,” “Supersonic Vision,” “Slow Joe Rain,” “Let There Be Light,” “Who Stole the Show” and “Cut the Deck”—and then a pair of Grateful Dead tunes: “Bertha” and “Brokedown Palace” (sung like an angel by Crystal Monee Hall). This is an excellent introduction to the group if you’ve never seen or heard them before.
Furthur, Wang Theatre, Boston, MA, 4/6/2012. By this point, it seems Furthur never plays a weak show, so choosing three from their East Coast swing was tough. This was one of those strong JK nights, from the opening combo of “Foolish Heart” and “Dupree’s,” to “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” Brent’s “Just a Little Light” and “Morning Dew.” Bob leads the charge on excellent versions of “Estimated Prophet,” “Feel Like a Stranger,” “Jack Straw,” “Let It Grow” and “Throwing Stones,” while Phil is masterful directing the group through “Box of Rain,” a typically adventurous “Mountains of the Moon,” as well a group improvs on “Dark Star” and “Viola Lee Blues.”
Furthur, Oakdale Theatre, Wallingford, CT, 4/7/2012. The night after the Boston show above, this one also features magnificent playing throughout. In the first set, my favorites are “Althea” (always one of JK’s best), “Mississippi Half-Step” and “Bird Song.” The second set offers “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance” and “China Cat” > Rider” before dropping into an epic version of the full “Terrapin” suite. Bob does a great job with “Standing on the Moon,” “Eyes” appears in a rare late-set spot, and then “Sugar Magnolia” and “One More Saturday Night” provide the rocking close. This is state-of-the-art Furthur in action!
Furthur, Beacon Theatre, NYC, 4/18/2012. I wrestled with this choice because there were several worthy possibilities from the Beacon run. But the second set of this final Beacon show of is such a monster and so well-played, I couldn’t resist. In fact a simple recitation of the setlist should suffice to entice: “Shakedown Street” > “Dear Mr. Fantasy” > “Cassidy” > “Dark Star” > “The Other One” > “Dark Star” > “The Other One” > “Help on the Way” > “Slipknot!” > “The Golden Road” > “Slipknot!” > “Franklin’s Tower.” Wow! The first set ain’t bad, either, with “Here Comes Sunshine,” “He’s Gone,” “Viola Lee Blues” and “Cosmic Charlie” among the selections.
Mickey Hart Band, Granada Theatre, Dallas, TX, 4/25/2012.
If the MHB web show above is a nice introduction to the band, this is a show that gives you the whole enchilada. It includes a couple more of the band’s most hypnotic originals (not on the Madrone Studios webcast)—“Djinn Djinn,” and “Time Never Ends”—and a varied collection of covers, such as “Not Fade Away,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “The Other One,” “Fire on the Mountain” and more. Singers Crystal Hall and Tim Hockenberry show their versatility at every turn, and guitarist Gawain Mathews is a real find—so different and imaginative. The whole band grooves together amazingly well. They are the epitome of passionate cool.
Bob Weir, Kirby Center, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 4/27/2012. Talk about performing without a net—you blow a line or hit a clam at a solo acoustic show and there’s nowhere to hide! But Bob carries on fearlessly, a man on a mission, bent on sharing his vision. This particular concert offers a good cross-section of material from different parts of his career and beautifully showcases the uniqueness of his guitar work—it’s fascinating to hear him in a solo context, supporting just his voice, rather than being part of a full band. A number of tunes work well with a folky guitar approach—“Friend of the Devil,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Black-Throated Wind”—but others force him to get more inventive, such as “Victim or the Crime,” “Playing in the Band” (which has a slightly John Fahey-esque feel in places), the brief “Dark Star,” and the combo of “Lost Sailor” > “Saint of Circumstance.” At a few points, the ever-personable Bob shares info about the songs—explaining the origin of “The Winners” (it’s from a Rudyard Kipling poem) and telling a fun story about the writing of “Saint of Circumstance.” And for those of you still chuckling over Bob’s “Yellow Dog” joke from the late ’60s, he’s got a duck joke for you here, told in his typical dry deadpan.
Phil Lesh & Friends (The PLQ!), Terrapin Crossroads Grate Room, San Rafael, CA, 4/27/2012. The same night Bob was in Pennsylvania (above), the PLQ was playing the second of their four outstanding shows back on Phil’s home court. Listening to this, you would never guess that it had been so many years since “the Q” played together—the telepathy is still there, the adventurous approach to jamming; what a terrific band! In the first set, Warren presides over devastating versions of “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and “Wharf Rat” (check out that final jam; Jimmy goes wild!), and the first half closes with another fine “Mason’s Children.” (Who’d have thunk that this song, rejected by the Dead after a few playings, would become a much-loved cornerstone of Phil’s 21st century repertoire?) The second set is one gem after another, including a stretch consisting of a jammed-out “Cryptical Envelopment,” which goes into one of the PLQ’s best original rockers, “Night of a Thousand Stars,” then into “The Other One,” “I Am the Walrus” (goo-goo-ga-joob!) and closing with “Terrapin Station.” Massive!
Thanks for the review Blair...saves me a lot of time I don't have trawling through archive.
Good news for me is that I have tickets for 3 nights of Furthur near Portland at the end of September. It fitted in perfectly with a planned work trip to the States. These will be my first post GD shows ..I was always rather sceptical, but the rave reviews of Furthur and some persuasion from Hal R made me go for it. Can't wait.
I used to live about 20 mi from there -- home of the Red Sox AAA affiliate Pawtucket Red Sox (Pawtucket RI, just outside of Providence...but then, so is most everything else in the state that isn't actually in Providence). Capacity for ball games, about 10,000. I used to love to watch baseball there, never did see a concert, though.
I'll be "settling" for Furthur at the Koka Booth in Cary, NC, this time out. Cannot wait!
McCoy Stadium, Fluffanutter? What's the seating capacity?
That TC is off to a flying start and that Bob finally got his solo gigs together. In total it seems so incredible that there is still that much energy out there!
I'll be at McCoy Stadium for the Furthur summer tour opener and then plan to blow a lot of bubbles and have a generally great day on the beach prior to Mickey's show at Salisbury Beach in MA,.
Shaping up to be a nice summer of music no matter how you slice it. Enjoy everybody!