OK, I can do that—and what better place to do it than at the newly restored Fox Theater in Oakland? The Fox, built in 1928, had been in crumbling disrepair literally for decades—a once grand showplace that had become another eyesore in a neighborhood that was in steep decline. But a miraculous thing happened: former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown committed to redeveloping the area around the Fox so the city built hundreds of new housing units in the vicinity, and then, over the last few years, the theater itself finally got a multimillion dollar makeover. The new Fox, which opened earlier this year is now a truly stunning venue—sort of like a cross between it’s beautiful art deco neighbor a few blocks north—the Paramount Theater—and San Francisco’s Warfield (which was also once part of the Fox chain) across the bay. Like the Warfield, it has a tiered general admission downstairs, but it’s wider and deeper; same with the mezzanine and balcony, which have plush, comfortable seats beneath the intricately patterned deco ceiling that is lit in a steely blue tint at all times. Capacity is around 3,500, considerably larger than the Warfield. On either side of the stage, out a-ways on the side walls, are massive gold-painted statues of these weird, slightly angry-looking idols sitting cross-legged in front of what look a little like drums, their eyes beaming white light—we joked that it way Mickey and Bill looking down on the proceedings. It’s a weird touch—like something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—but very cool. I had been there once before, to see the Allman Brothers a few months back, and though I didn’t think the sound was great for that show, I certainly loved the venue—and its proximity to my house, which is less than ten minutes away, on the other side of Lake Merritt.
Now, I didn’t really know what to expect musically going into these shows. I had seen Dark Star Orchestra just once, at the Fillmore a year or so ago, and though I was certainly impressed with the skill of all the players—particularly lead guitarist John Kadlecik—I wasn’t knocked out by the whole presentation, for some reason. It seemed a bit too much like an amazing simulation of what the Dead sounded like, but lacking in that feeling of transmission that was so much a part of the Dead’s thing—I mean, when Jerry played, you were hearing his soul and spirit and skill and everything in him that had led him to that moment. Hearing a good approximation of that is just that—a good approximation.
And since Jerry’s demise, I think all of us have debated how much we want the guy who is filling the guitar slot in whatever post-GD band we were watching to sound like Jerry (knowing that he will never fully measure up to him), versus having his own style and approach to soloing.
Really, a lot of the evolution of Phil & Friends has been an experiment in finding what sorts of styles and timbres work with this incredible body of work that is the Grateful Dead repertoire. Some felt, for instance, that the classic PLQ, with Herring and Haynes, achieved its magical alchemy because neither player was based in the Dead tradition, so the repertoire went in some really fascinating and unexpected directions. But for every fan who loved the sheer unpredictability of that band, there were others who never had their Garcia Jones satisfied—who missed his melodic brilliance, the logic of his solos, the way he constructed his lines, etc. What’s interesting about Herring is that took on more of Garcia’s playing personality as the years went on, and the same could be said of Haynes if you’re comparing his work in the 2004 Dead and the 2009 Dead. One reason I always liked Barry Sless playing with Phil’s band is he was clearly from what I would call the “Garcia School,” but he still had a distinctive style. I think the same could be said for RatDog’s Mark Karan, who clearly “gets” Jerry, but also draws from so many more influences. (Steve Kimock, from those early P&F lineups—and the first Other Ones tour—is an example of a guy who seemed to have internalized a certain approach to playing that was reminiscent of Garcia at times.)
Which is all a long-winded way of saying I wasn’t sure if having the “Jerry” from a Dead cover band—John Kadlecik—would work. Would he just parrot this Jerry solo from ’77 or this one from ’69, as if he was reproducing some classic show with DSO. And what of the drummers? I’d never heard of Joe Russo, and I wondered if Jay Lane of RatDog—a band occasionally weighed down by sluggish tempos—would add the necessary rhythmic spark that Mickey clearly does. But hey, let’s keep an open mind… and I did. Our little group landed a great spot on the first tier, right behind some old friends who are serious DSO partisans. They were way psyched, as you can imagine, and their enthusiasm rubbed off on me.
In an interesting move, the opening jam this time ’round was a duet played by just Bob and Phil as the other members of the group watched—a neat touch, I thought. It sort of felt to me like they were re-connecting musically, asserting themselves at the leaders of the band (true), offering a little prologue to the proceedings. I heard some definite “Wheel” teases, and the jamlet went to some other interesting spaces, as well, but it was quite a surprise to me when the duet then exploded into a full-band version of “The Other One.” Oh, I see—these guys aren’t messing around! Although that was quickly replaced with an unfounded paranoid concern by yours truly: During the first few minutes the band was getting into the “Other One” jam, John was so tentative—really barely playing anything at all—that I had this worried flash: “Oh shit, he’s the wrong guy. He can’t keep up. His playbook of thousands of Dead shows stored in his brain has shorted out and he has no idea what he’s doing. Why did I get tickets for all three nights?” (Hey, I’m just bein’ honest here!)
Needless to say, after Bob sang the first verse and the jam picked up again, this time John was right on it, carefully building his solo, darting in and out of Phil’s bass punctuation and the slashing chords Bob was laying down. Behind him, the dreadlocked Jay Lane was hurling himself around the semi-circle of drums and percussion instruments before him, sometimes using just one stick while hitting other drums and cymbals with his hand, or using a shaker in one hand, a stick in the other. (Jay also offered vocal support on many songs; usually not that distinguishable, but always on-pitch!) It took me a while to figure out exactly what Joe Russo was adding on his traps set, but soon it became clear that he was in the steadier Kreutzmann role to Jay’s more Mickey-esque ornamentation. Together they worked up a solid beat behind the front line—the music never dragged at all, the tempos seemed brisk.
In general there was an appealing airiness to the arrangements that leant a real feeling of clarity to everything they played. I’m going to take a moment here to also praise keys man Jeff Chimenti (you know I’m a huge fan)—although in all honesty I could not hear him that well where I was, dead-even with John on the right side facing the stage. (I had the same problem with the stereo spread at the Allmans show I saw there. I sure hope that folks on the left side could hear John’s guitar OK; it was crystalline and loud where I was. But I wanted more keyboard in my mix.) Anyway, Jeff continues play with great sensitivity and power, when called upon.
“The Other One” got better and better as it went along and John settled in more—he started using more different tones as he’d expand his solos, and you could just sort of feel him warming to the whole proposition. (When I talked to my DSO buddies at the break and said that I thought John seemed nervous at first, they dismissed that completely—“No way!” I say, the guy has never played a concert with Bob and Phil in a new band before a true Dead crowd—not a DSO crowd; plenty of reason for nerves.) Following “The Other One,” the teased “Wheel” came rolling out and it was a good ’un that had everyone smiling and singing along. “Jack Straw” came next and that marked one of the first songs where John “went off” (as they say)—the jam in the middle was electric and he definitely brought his own flair and ideas to it. Phil was positively beaming (as he was often last night) and Bob was at his inventive best.
When “The Music Never Stopped” reared its head, I was wondering if we were going to get a Bob Weir’s Greatest Hits show—three of his best in the first four songs! This one was well done, too (OK, I think there might have been a couple of minor blips in there—John has to learn that Bob’s cues do not always make logical sense, but are rather subject to his whim of the moment, for both better and worse). The long jam before the final instrumental coda was one of the best of the night, with John really asserting himself in ways he hadn’t before, and taking some bold chances with tonalities and solo construction. I was really impressed!
That tune then flowed into a “Bird Song” jam, followed by the song itself. And that’s when a cool thing that happened: When John stepped up to the microphone to sing the first verse (his first lead vocal of the night), there was a great roar from the crowd that must have made him feel really good—“Yes, you are among friends; we’re with you, Mr. K!” Next came another highlight—“Born Cross-Eyed” done just about perfectly, John providing the essential guitar screams, ’68-style, before the verses. See, this is where it’s great that we’ve got a Dead-savvy player in the guitar slot—he knows the elements that should be there and he clearly has no trouble accessing them.
The first set ended with a killer “Let It Grow” that traveled miles away from the song’s usual course on the final jam, and ended up… jeez, I have no idea, really…before the concluding flutter of butterflies or birds or whatever it conjures in your mind magically materialized to bring the curtain down on the set (figuratively). Wow, quite a start. What a song list!
Set two wasted no time in getting right into “Lost Sailor” and “Saint of Circumstance,” two more of my favorite Bob tunes. It had been a while since I’d heard this played by anyone (actually, as fate would, the last time I heard it live was by DSO!), so I was thrilled, and it was a fine version, especially the “Saint.” The familiar opening of “Althea” came bubbling up after, and I wondered who would sing it, since Bob, Phil and John all tackle it in their respective bands. And the nod goes to… John! He acquitted himself very well on the song (again, the roar when he started singing!)—I give him extra points for sticking to Jerry’s impeccable phrasing and for not trying to blatantly imitate him. That said, his is not a particularly strong or memorable voice, and he lacks the authority and gravitas that someone like Warren Haynes brings so naturally to Jerry’s songs. (Needless to say, YMMV). But sincerity goes far in my book, and he’s got that for sure. The jam toward the end of “Althea” provided another highlight—smokin’!
“Scarlet” > “Fire” continued the Cavalcade of Great Song Choices, and it was pretty much a dream version, with John singing lead on both and nailing every solo—he was in full flower there, for sure. Here’s yet another example where its neat to have a guy who knows the Dead vocabulary so well: After the final vocals on the chorus—“Fire … Fire on the Mountain”—John launched into a note-perfect re-creation of that wonderful ’77-’78 Jerry line (which JG played only sporadically later)… heavenly!
Seems like every show I go to features “Saint Stephen”—not that I’m complainin’! It was big and beefy and the middle jam was masterfully constructed, then moved away from the song, then coalesced again on cue. The jam that came immediately after “What would be the answer to the answer man” was clearly pre-arranged, as they instantly switched gears and went into a different key and tempo which, it became obvious after a certain point, was still going to move us eventually to “The Eleven.” (John missed the first cue going into that jam, but quickly recovered and then sent it soaring.). There was a very brief “Foxy Lady” quotation after “The Eleven” concluded (not nearly as pronounced as the versions by The Dead with Warren in the spring), but mostly the jam went other places before ending up at “Terrapin,” again, sung by John, which was very heart-felt and well-done, especially the ending cascade.
John did some really interesting things during his solos on the concluding “Not Fade Away”—some great tonal shifts and jagged flurries followed by sustained notes. It was a short but hot version. A nice way to end a pretty awesome set.
The encore, “Touch of Gray,” was steady and sparkling, rising to the anthemic heights as you’d expect. I loved the way Phil, Bob and John all sang the “Oh, well, a touch of Gray” couplet together. Beautiful.
All in all, quite an impressive debut. A couple of minor fender-benders here and there, a few missed cues and blown words—nothin’ out of the ordinary or too serious. There were a number of times I wished John was a little less leisurely in building his solos and would instead just dive in and go for it; sometimes the energy dragged a bit as he went through his meticulous constructions (he was rather reminiscent of Steve Kimock in that regard). In fairness, though, there was always a big payoff at the end of his slow escalations. But he’ll undoubtedly become more self-assured with each show, and the band as a whole will get more comfortable.
I guess the ultimate question you want to know is, does having a true “Jerry” stylist in that slot make this group sound more like Grateful Dead than, say, The Dead? Yep. Whether that’s a good thing or not is for you to decide. Personally, I dug it a lot more than I thought I would.
The set list:
9/18/09, Fox Theatre, Oakland
Bob and Phil jam > The Other One > The Wheel > Jack Straw, The Music Never Stopped> Bird Song> Born Cross-Eyed> Let It Grow
Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance, Althea, Scarlet begonias > Fire on the Mountain, Saint Stephen> The Eleven> jam > Terrapin> Not Fade Away / Touch of Gray