Last night had an early start time (6:15) because, unlike the other two shows, there was a first act on the bill—a group called Vice. Who? Why? A quick Internet search the other day revealed the answer to both: It’s a band that includes Phil Lesh’s son Grahame on electric guitar and backup vocals, so the ol’ man was giving the group a shot to play before a Dead Head audience; a good gig if you can get it! There were probably about 300 or so folks in the place when the quintet sauntered onto the stage. Grahame, keyboardist Jesse Engreitz, bassist Mac Parish and drummer Eric Saar are really the backup band for singer/acoustic guitarist Brodie Jenkins, who is completely the focal point of every song. An attractive and charismatic woman, Jenkins has a commanding alto voice that reminded me in places of Linda Ronstadt (and Bonnie Raitt less so), and she moved easily from a mild growl to brief soprano/falsetto passages, but mostly stayed in a pleasing midrange. Their songs were mostly a semi-generic “classic rock” style—kinda countryish at times, kinda bluesy, kinda rockin’—but never committing too much in any one direction. Unfortunately, the Fox was not the venue for them—even in my excellent spot, I couldn’t make out one word of what Jenkins was singing (and I was trying hard)—the words just got eaten up in the cavernous, echo-y place. This is obviously a band best seen in a club, where the nuances of Jenkins’ singing (not to mention the content of the lyrics) could stand out more. The instrumental accompaniment was solid, especially bassist Parish, who seemed to me the most creative of the lot.
Now, I’m going to don my “I’ve been writing about music for 40 years, seen thousands of bands come and go, and know a bit about the industry” hat and give these fresh-faced kids some advice: 1) Play a solo occasionally! There was no solo more than a minute long, I’m pretty sure. A good solo bolsters a song immeasurably and gives the singer a momentary rest (and the audience a change in foreground). Using the Bonnie and Linda comparison (I don’t want to overdo that, ’cause Jenkins doesn’t sound that much like either), Linda had Andrew Gold and other great players firing off solos here and there and coming up with intricate arrangements; Bonnie has Bonnie, layin’ it down on slide (and often other soloists, too.) 2) Get rid of the name. Vice? Sorry, not happenin’; maybe if you’re a metal band. But there is nothing about this group that says “Vice.” You’re going to confuse people. Trust me on this. 3) Nashville. Get out of Stanford and the Bay Area and go someplace where soulful singer-songwriters still get respect (and gigs). L.A. could work, but it’s a tougher slog. Nashville is a friendly town filled with creative people. Even though Vice is not a “country” band, Nashville is no longer strictly a country music town. And while you’re there, after you land that deal (certainly a possibility given the type of material the group plays and Jenkins’ strong voice) bring in a fiddle player for a song or two, maybe some dobro—in other words, expand the instrumental palette, which is, as currently constructed, a little dull. Good luck, kids!
Critic hat doffed, we’re on to the main event! In speaking with the friends/DSO partisans we’d been with on Friday (and happily found ourselves with again on Saturday), I was quite surprised to hear that to a person none of them had particularly liked the first set Friday, but had loved the second set. I really enjoyed both sets, but maybe because they were seeing it more through the John Kadlecik lens, they were looking for/at different things than I was. Different strokes for different folks (oo-sha-shaaa).
Saturday night, the opening jam involved the full group but never really focused itself in any direction particularly before jumping into an exciting version of “Bertha,” with John and Bob trading off on the vocals. It seemed like the sound was better balanced from the get-go—I could hear Jeff fine on “Bertha”—though strangely enough, as the evening progressed I felt the sound got worse. We lost Jeff again for most of the night (what is the deal with that?) and the vocals weren’t turned up as much, so they frequently got lost in the instrumental wash (OK, sometimes that’s a good thing). But I also felt that the mix was a little less clear and less distinct in general. I was in virtually the same spot both nights, so I don’t think it was me…though ya never know. As “Bertha” crashed to a close the band immediately picked up the old-school (i.e. ’69-’72) intro of “Good Lovin’”—another classic combo brought to life again! It, too, was nicely executed, though when Bob tried to bring the vocals back up again at the end, after a meaty jam had already taken the band elsewhere, it felt a little strained and forced.
“Estimated” came next, and this was the first sign I’d had in two nights that maybe the high energy and best intentions of the newcomers in the band was not always going to be enough to keep the band’s tempos consistently bright. Because, frankly, I thought this version dragged. I still enjoyed hearing it, but I felt a little like my legs were trapped in taffy trying to dance to the lumbering beat. Bob’s timing seemed a little “off” much of the night, more in the first set than the second, for sure. The post-“Estimated” jam was varied and interesting, though. “Friend of the Devil” was peppy and upbeat (again John and Bob traded off on the vocals effectively) and the solo passages by Jeff, then Bob, then John, really cooked—it was almost “Cumberland” fast! “Feel Like a Stranger” was also too slow for my taste… Let me see if I can articulate this better. It’s not like the tempo is “wrong,” because it’s totally the singer’s choice, right? And it wasn’t that much slower than a regular version. But to me it sounds a little like a tape that’s running a tad slow—you do a micro-pitch adjustment up and all of you sudden the sparkle is there! Well, for me the sparkle was not there on this “Stranger” (and Bob even seemed a little lost on the ending vocal interplay), though again the last jam was really fascinating and John and Bob together brilliantly led it all back to the melodic denouement—nicely done, lads!
“Brown-Eyed Women” returned to the upbeat side of things and was beautifully played, John building his solo brightly as he shifted through different tonal colors. The set then ended on real high note with a spankin’ version of “Hell in a Bucket,” a tune I hadn’t heard in a long time and always enjoy live. Bob’s repeated falsetto refrain of “at least I’m enjoyin’ the ride” filled the old place from floor to ceiling, echoing through the hall, maybe even putting a smile on the stern faces of the seated gold-painted idols. My overall impression of the set was that it was very uneven, with more mistakes than either of the Friday sets, but on balance still pretty good.
What is it about Saturday shows that they always seem more crowded than other nights? Friday and Saturday were both sold-out (as is tonight’s) but it felt like there were a thousand more people packed into the place. That then usually leads to more people wandering about during the first set trying to find a decent place to dance and watch, which leads to a more diffused crowd energy in general. That was certainly the case in our little corner of the world during the first half of the first set, but by “Brown-Eyed Women” and “Hell in a Bucket”—not coincidentally two of the best songs of the set—people seemed to finally find their spots and focus on the music more, and it was smooth sailing around us the whole second set.
The jam opening Night Two, Set Two was tremendous and, I thought, had “Help on the Way” written all over it. You know how, as a fan, you lock into an idea about where a jam is going and you start to intuit how they’re going to get to a song from the jam? Well, in my twisted brain I could see exactly how this was going to fall into the majestic opening riff of “Help on the Way”! But I was completely wrong! What followed was one of those earthquake-inducing explosions into “Shakedown,” and you’re sure as hell not gonna hear me bitchin’ about that! It was phat and phunky, nicely sung by JK, with expansive jams between the second and third verse, and of course after the final verse. That eventually found its way to the ominous rumble of “New Speedway Boogie” (with more traded verses) which I thought was one of the best numbers of the night. I especially dug the jam after it when John switched on his octave divider and uncorked this deep but piercing line—good stuff!
But that tune was topped by the magnificent “China Cat”> “I Know You Rider” that followed. This one totally delivered the goods, going to all the places you want it to go, and then some. The jam between the two songs was a marvel, with John and Bob interlocking effortlessly on the unison passages, and in “I Know You Rider,” Jeff shined on a long passage before handing the solo to John, who leaped in with metaphorical guns blazing and took it higher still.
Sheesh, after that opening quartet of songs, I was sated and practically ready to call it a night. The group had other ideas, however! It started with “Playing in the Band,” always a pleasure, and well-performed, though it didn’t really go “deep” before it veered off into a lovely version of “Eyes” (with shared vocals). Again, Jeff had a wonderful solo passage (this tune lets him get his jazz on), and John’s playing was filled with imaginative flourishes.
A rare stop between tunes and then bubbling up out of the ether came “Unbroken Chain,” which has been so solid in recent years. I couldn’t really hear Phil’s lead vocal for some reason, but the playing was superb, the middle jam really taking off and flying away before eventually coming back to the song. Very nice. And then… I got my “Help on the Way”! Yay! Maybe I wasn’t crazy when I “heard” it earlier. Anyway, I was a happy man and I dug this version a lot, but things really got hot when (after a minor stumble) they flipped the switch on “Slipknot!” Here’s something I observed: Right as “Slipknot!” was getting started, Phil leaned over to the drummers and gave them a signal to kick it up a notch, and man, they did! Which brings me to a slight digression—I hadn’t been noticing the drummers as much Saturday as Friday. It could have been a sound issue, but methinks that they were playing less intensely Saturday, too, so it was great to see them really get into the “Slipknot!” with gusto. There were some transitional problems getting out of this particular “knot,” but then the “Franklin’s” closer was really action-packed; the last group of solos was particularly amazing.
You just knew what the encore would be, but that’s cool… it’s Saturday night! And it was a rockin’ version from the first notes all the way through the false-ending (!) followed by another round of “Hey, another a Saturday night…”
Finally, some props to the lighting designer—Groove by name; he works with RatDog. I’ve really enjoyed the subtle, slowly shifting shapes that are projected on the screen (everything from things that look like bubbles, to discs and other things) and the way what’s on the screen is offset by the colored stage lighting. It’s surprisingly psychedelic, without looking like a ’60s light show. (Though at points it reminded me of some of the more abstract moments of the old Joshua Light Show at the Fillmore East…. That’s good). And I really liked it when these slowly rotating pinwheel designs were projected above the proscenium, which is covered with incredibly intricate designs. Gorgeous!
Two down, one to go!
7/19/09, Fox Theatre, Oakland
Jam> Bertha> Good Lovin', Estimated Prophet, Friend of the Devil, Feel Like A Stranger, Brown-Eyed Women, Hell in a Bucket
Shakedown street> New Speedway Boogie> China Cat Sunflower> I Know You Rider>
Eyes of the World, Unbroken Chain, Help on the Way > Slipknot!” > Franklin’s Tower / One More Saturday Night