Sometimes you can just tell a concert is going to be magical before the first note is played. It's setting, it's vibe, it's anticipation, it’s a can’t-miss lineup of pickers and singers waiting eagerly in the wings. Like what went down at the Fillmore in San Francisco December 4: A Rex Foundation benefit dubbed “The Wheel—A Musical Celebration of Jerry Garcia.” The three announced acts included the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band; 81-year-old bluegrass legend Jesse McReynolds, making his first Bay Area appearance since his fine album, Songs of the Grateful Dead: A Tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, was released; and the always trippy and wonderful David Nelson Band. No really big names, you might be thinkin’. But a recitation of the lineup doesn’t tell the story at all. This was one of the coolest, most moving and musically satisfying events I’ve been to in a long time. And judging from the satisfied smiles I saw on the faces of the rapt audience, I don’t think I’m alone in that judgment.
First of all, the place looked fabulous. Nearly the entire floor of the Fillmore (save for some narrow open strips on each side) was covered with numbered tables adorned with black tablecloths and a small bouquet of roses and carnations, and surrounded by padded folding chairs. Populating said tables beginning at 6 p.m. were a broad range of Grateful Dead family (everyone from Mountain Girl to ex-managers Jon McIntire and Cameron Sears, GD crew members Steve Parish and Harry Popick, Ice Nine Publishing administrator Alan Trist and many, many others); Rex Foundation folks (a lot of overlap between those two groups); and plenty of “regular” Dead Heads (I know...we’re all special, it’s true; but you know what I mean)—all of whom paid from $150 to $500 for the privilege of sitting at a table, enjoying a fine buffet feast (including all the wine you could drink), and enjoying four hours or so of fantastic music… all to support a great cause. As most of you know, the Rex Foundation has been the major philanthropic wing of the Dead Family since the early ’80s, and has donated 8.6 million dollars to over 1,000 mostly small non-profit groups through the years. It was largely funded by Grateful Dead shows for many years, but in the post-Dead era, Rex has turned mostly to smaller shows with ex-GD members’ groups or the sprawling web of fellow travelers (like DSO, the DNB, et al).
Serenaded by Revolver and then “The White Album” playing softly over the P.A., the revelers on the floor cheerily hob-nobbed and dined on chicken satay with peanut sauce, lovely sliced beef on toothpicks, spanakopita, Asian veggie rolls, pita bread with hummus, other assorted veggies, and a slew of sinful chocolate desserts. Meanwhile, upstairs in the large poster room/bar (its walls covered to the ceiling with Fillmore posters), musician and Grateful Dead Hour host David Gans played a nice selection of his original tunes and classy covers (heard a very psychedelic “Norwegian Wood” that had him looping multiple electric guitar parts) as folks milled about and placed bids on a large selection of auction items, ranging from superb Dead photos by Jay Blakesberg, Bob Minkin and others, to posters, to a guitar signed by the evening’s featured musicians. Once the dinner had concluded and the live music was imminent, a couple of hundred standing-room folks (a quick sell-out online at $45) filled in along the sides and in the balcony that stretches along one wall of the club. The venue’s ten chandeliers glowed above.
The music onstage began with two songs from David Gans—his sprightly version of Jim Page’s “Goin’ Down to Eugene” (“to see the Grateful Dead”) and a lovely and graceful rendition of “Lazy River Road.” Then he surrendered the stage to Peter Rowan’s quartet, and these guys wasted no time getting down to some very serious business. They opened with a Rowan tune called “Jailer Jailer” from their most recent album, Legacy—which had been nominated for a Grammy just two days earlier!—and immediately showed what makes them one of the most vital traditional groups around. Rowan has always been a superb songwriter—he understands the conventions of bluegrass, but isn’t afraid to stretch them as needed—he’s evolved into a truly great singer over the years, and he leads his band with a confident authority. Joining the guitarist in the group is veteran Bay Area mandolin ace Jody Stecher (who played in a folk/bluegrass group with Jerry in the mid-‘60s, and taught him “Oh, the Wind and Rain”), banjo player Keith Little and stand-up bassist Paul Knight, and they offered perfect accompaniment: These guys don’t go for speed and flash, but every solo felt completely “right” for the song (Stecher and Little are amazing minimalist pickers) and the tight harmony vocals—with Rowan, Stecher and Little standing around a single microphone, balancing their harmonies by ear, on the fly—were astonishingly effective and appealing.
Songs from Legacy dominated the early part of the set, and I loved them all. Having lost my father to cancer earlier this year, and my mother a year earlier, I was deeply moved by several songs about departed loved ones (always a popular theme in bluegrass)—never underestimate the healing power of music; I was smiling through tears. Toward the end of the Rowan group’s set, they played the heart-lifting Carter Stanley hymn "Let Me Walk, Lord, By Your Side" (also from Legacy) and then, in a major mood shift, played Rowan’s lone "hit" (for the New Riders), the doper anthem “Panama Red,” which had many folks singing along (and toking up). That segued into a short jam and eventually into the first verse of Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight,” which of course had been in the repertoire of Old & in the Way and then the Garcia Band.
Photo: Bob Minkin/minkindesign.com ©2010
After 45 or so minutes of this intense music—alternately sorrowful and uplifting, like the best bluegrass—I presumed there would be a set break, but no: Instead the quartet remained onstage and Peter introduced Jesse McReynolds and two members of his group: his grandson Garrett, who plays guitar and sings, and fiddler extraordinaire Steve Thomas. And joining the group on drums was Matt Butler, of Everyone Orchestra fame. Let me tell you—this Jesse McReynolds is a trip! A slight man, dressed nattily in all charcoal, from shoes to fedora, McReynolds immediately showed that his 8.1 decades on this shiny ball of blue is just a number. He is as spry and nimble as a much younger man, and he attacked his mandolin with flying fingers beneath a sly smile. You want flashy pickin’? This guy was all over the fretboard as he led the ensemble through a series of instrumentals and bluegrass tunes I didn’t recognize. And Steve Thomas was his secret weapon—unleashing one jaw-droppingly good solo after another (shades of Vassar Clements!). A few songs into the set he tackled “Black Muddy River” from his new album—Garrett and Steve joining on the soaring harmonies, again around a single microphone—and it was yet another cathartic moment in an evening that had already been full of them. What a stunningly good arrangement of this under-appreciated late-life Hunter-Garcia classic! This time my tears were for Jerry...for all of our losses… and the beauty of joyful communion that endures.
David Nelson came out and led us through “Ripple” (also on Jesse’s album) and later they tackled “Deep Elem Blues” (plenty of good solos on that one). Then, after a couple more tunes, there was a set break, and you could tell by the buzz in the house that people were having Big Fun. During the intermission, Gans was once again holding court upstairs in the poster room (great “Black Peter” there, dude!) and the bidding on the auction items grew more frantic as the cut-off time approached. Downstairs there was lots more mingling, friends still catching up, strangers stopping strangers… you know the drill. To paraphrase: “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead ... set break!”
Then it was on to set two—what, we really get more?—and the David Nelson Band sauntered out onstage, David resplendent in tie-dye, vest and headband, as usual, and joined by two DNB stalwarts—the spectacular electric and pedal steel guitarist Barry Sless and keyboard titan Mookie Siegel—plus more recent addition drummer John Molo (Phil & Friends; The Other Ones, every other group known to man) and bassist-for-the-night Robin Sylvester (of RatDog fame) subbing admirably for regular bassman Pete Sears (who was in NY celebrating Jorma Kaukonen's 70th birthday at the Beacon Theatre). Here’s my take on this group: I’ve loved, loved, loved every set I’ve ever seen by the DNB—but I haven’t seen them nearly as often as I’d like. In fact, this was the first time in a couple of years for me—way too long! I think they jam in the Grateful Dead style—without actually aping them—as well as any group I’ve seen. Their music goes to so many cool and unpredictable places and they play so well together as a group. Barry has long been my favorite guitarist of what I like to call the “Garcia School,” and this night re-confirmed that view for me. He was especially brilliant on pedal steel, which he probably played more than half the time.
Steve Thomas, Barry Sless. Photo: Bob Minkin/minkindesign.com ©2010
After a few group originals and a spellbinding “Peggy-O” that had me thinking of both Jerry and Bill Graham (“Sweet William he is dead…), Jesse and most of the other players filtered out onto the stage over the course of a couple of tunes, and we were treated to a good old-fashioned combination of a hootenanny and a jam session. Solos were traded liberally around the group—mandolin to electric guitar, to fiddle, to pedal steel, etc.—and now there was a multitude of voices joining together on some of the harmonies. One of my personal highlights was Jesse’s thoroughly stunning reading of “Standing on the Moon.” The crowd totally ate it up and Jesse seemed positively humbled by the crowd’s enthusiasm. He had actually prefaced the song by saying he hoped we could accept his interpretation… Ha! By the time it was over, that tune was his! Magnificent. I swear I saw Jesse McReynolds actually getting younger over the course of the evening. He was definitely lovin’ it!
There was also a rockin’ “Alabama Getaway” sung by Jesse in there somewhere; a "high lonesome" Jesse-led "Franklin's Tower" (again, both on Jesse's album); a jammy romp through Rowan’s “Sweet Melinda” (from Peter’s Texican Badman album; Garcia played some hot licks on that studio version); a completely juiced “Cumberland Blues” (recall that Nelson played acoustic guitar on the Workingman’s Dead track); and, fittingly, a high-spirited version of “The Wheel” that had everyone dancing and singing along. The penultimate tune was one more death-and-heaven bluegrass spiritual that Jerry played during his folk days and later in the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band—Bill Carlisle’s “Gone Home” (popularized by Flatt & Scruggs). Then, the Nelson Band kicked it into gear for a big boogie ending with “Rocky Road Blues” and that definitely got all those old bones shakin’ for real one more time. That’s what it’s all about! Head, heart, feet… it’s the music trifecta!
We glided out into the cool night air around half-past midnight… elevated, enriched, glowing. What more could anyone ask of a night out on the town? We should all do this again real soon.
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