Something very cool is happening in Marin County. At Bob Weir’s TRI Studios and Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads—a few miles apart in San Rafael—a wave of new, younger musicians has been hooking up with the old guard and reimagining the GD’s repertoire in new and exciting ways.
The ever-mutating lineup of Phil & Friends, through his monthly “Rambles” and other shows, has brought to the fore a host of talented cats from different worlds, including guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood), pedal steel ace Jon Graboff (also from the Cardinals), keyboardist Adam MacDougall (Black Crowes, CRB), guitarist Ross James, drummer Jaz Sawyer, Phil’s singing and guitar-playing sons Grahame and Brian and, of course, his buddies in Furthur, a host of others from earlier incarnations of Phil & Friends, and neighborhood pals such as Mark Karan.
Meanwhile, up at TRI, Bob has intermingled with the likes of Slightly Stoopid, Jackie Greene (a frequent visitor at Phil’s place, too), his old mates from RatDog and, in what was one of the most fascinating nights of music this year, the Brooklyn Americana group The National, along with a bunch of their musical pals, from such outfits as The Yellowbirds, The Walkmen and others.
On August 3, a Weir-organized TRI web concert honoring Jerry Garcia on his 70th birthday—dubbed “Move Me Brightly”—brought together the largest and most diverse group of musicians yet from these increasingly cross-polinated scenes. Over the course of four-and-a-half remarkable hours (with no break!), 19 players and singers in more than two dozen different combinations laid down 27 different tunes either written by or associated with Garcia.
The core band for much of the evening consisted of Furthur mates Weir, Jeff Chimenti (keys) and Joe Russo (drums), joined by Phish’s Mike Gordon on bass, Donna Godchaux-MacKay on vocals, guitarist Casal and pedal steel guitarist Graboff. But no one played on every song, and by the end of the night, the stage had also been populated by Phil (for two songs; he had to get back to Terrapin Crossroads to play with Yonder Mountain String Band); Americana singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale; Harper Simon (son of Paul); indie favorite Cass McCombs (he wrote one of the songs Weir and The Nationals performed on their TRI webcast); Yellowbirds guitarists Sam Cohen and Josh Kaufman, keyboardist MacDougall, Norah Jones band guitarist Jason Roberts, indie artist and producer Jonathan Wilson, Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson and two members of Brooklyn’s the Hold Steady, Tad Kubler and Craig Finn.
Fairly early on, Bob announced that he wasn’t going to identify the musicians—joking that even he wasn’t sure who some of them were—and I have to admit I had no idea who some of them were as they came and went. That did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the show, however, and fortunately, Scott Bernstein, editor of the always-informative music news site Hidden Track, posted who-played-on-what the following morning.
Not surprisingly, the TRI concert attracted a large number of Dead family and friends, including Mountain Girl, Trixie Garcia, Jerry’s brother Tiff, Sunshine Kesey, Manasha Matheson, Bill Walton, Stanley Mouse, Ice Nine publishing administrator Alan Trist, Rock Scully, and Furthur singer Sunshine Becker, to name just a few. Folks congregated in the hallways and sipped beverages and ate snacks in a good-sized room known as Studio 2, while a sound check and final preparations took place in the main studio room. Two large screens in Studio 2 showed the first part of the webcast, an amazing video homage to Jerry put together by in-house director Justin Kreutzmann. It wasn’t long before the cheery socializing in the room stopped and all eyes were fixed on the screens, as moving (and funny) stories and tributes flowed from Carlos Santana, Jorma Kaukonen, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Perry Ferrell and Stephen Perkins of Jane’s Addiction, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell, Keller Williams and Sammy Hagar.
Alas, we missed the last few minutes of the video while we were being ushered into the studio room. There, already assembled in their places, were Bob, Phil, Donna, Jeff, Joe, Neal Casal, Jon Graboff and Jason Roberts. “Four minutes” a disembodied voice said, which prompted Phil and Bob to begin noodling, almost by instinct. The others fell into a lovely little mini-jam before it evaporated and was replaced by the opening riff of “Smoke on the Water,” to great laughter. A minute or so later, with no announcement or fanfare, the music just started and rolled easily into a lovely version of “The Wheel.” I’ve been to a few of these TRI events and it always takes me a couple of minutes to adjust to the incredible clarity of the sound—which was louder than usual in the room, thanks to a larger PA—not to mention being just a few feet from and on the same level as the musicians. It amazes me that they seem completely unfazed by having cameras practically in their faces and the crowd almost on top of them.
After a spry “Cumberland,” a smiling Phil departed, and Mike Gordon took his spot, while Adam MacDougall jumped onto the organ and Jim Lauderdale joined the group for “Loser.” We didn’t know at the time this was the beginning of a non-stop revolving door to and from the stage. We’ll spare you the song-by-song changes (you can find those details on Hidden Track), but I do want to share some highlights and observations:
1. Russo and Chimenti rule! These guys are so versatile. We love them in Furthur, we love them with Phil; in my view they can do no wrong. Joe always knows when to lay back and when to kick it, and Jeff’s adept at any style and always ready to solo. One Jeff moment I particularly liked was on the spellbinding version of “Days Between” near the end of the set. His elegant and graceful piano framed the entire song and provided Bob a dramatic backdrop to work with vocally. But in the final verse, before the line “Valentines of flesh and blood…” Jeff abruptly shifted to B-3, instantly elevating the song’s power and adding a deep gospel overtone.
2. The Mike Gordon difference. I don’t envy any bass player who has to follow Phil Lesh, especially playing Grateful Dead songs, but if there’s anyone who is up to that challenge it is Phish’s Mike Gordon. He was spectacular, playing inventively and assertively all night—a giant of both melody and rhythm. He also sounded great singing lead on “Tennessee Jed.”
3. Jon Graboff “steels” the show. Even though at one point near the end of the concert I counted nine guitarists on stage, aside from occasional flashes of tone from Neal Casal’s Les Paul or a wah-ish effect from Jonathan Wilson, nobody really sounded much like Jerry. But the guy who might have embodied Jerry’s spirit the most instrumentally was pedal steel master Jon Graboff. Over and over, his soaring lines reminded me of Jerry’s steel work with the Dead, the New Riders and on turn-of-the’70s albums by David Crosby, Paul Kantner and others. Not only did his steel sing and cry, it added wonderful drone textures to the overall sound.
4. Looking for my Donna. Donna has turned up at various Dead Family shows through the years, and toured successfully on her own with various groups, but this event really gave her a chance to shine. Her harmonies were largely spot-on all night, she did a nice job on a few lead vocals—including “They Love Each Other” and “Don’t Let Go”—and it was a joy to watch her being so into the music: clearly feeling the lyrics in her soul, dancing and swaying, smiling at and encouraging the musicians. I don’t know if it was shown on the webcast, but whenever she wasn’t onstage, she would plant herself in front of the musicians, among the fans, and join in their revelry—sometimes directing sing-alongs, other times doing that hippy-hippy shake we saw onstage in the ’70s. It was downright inspiring! I also loved her improvisational flight following “Scarlet.”
5. Jim Lauderdale is unique. For the most part, the many different singers who tackled Jerry’s songs hewed close to the master’s impeccable phrasing. One who did not was Jim Lauderdale, who sort of slid through the songs, sounding like a cross between Bill Monroe and Billie Holiday, always coming up with interesting ways to deliver Hunter’s pearls. He was dynamite on “Mississippi Half-Step,” the extra verse on “Friend of the Devil” (which has come into fashion in the post-Jerry years) and “Eyes of the World.” Next time he comes to town, I’m there!
6. Who the hell is Jonathan Wilson? The lanky, long-haired guitarist/singer looked like he stepped out of a band playing in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show—he sported the only tie-dye shirt of the night—but he had a totally commanding stage presence. His soulful voice was perfect for “Mission in the Rain” (among others that featured him), and he attacked his solos with tremendous energy. (In answer to the above question, Wilson is a well-respected artist and producer who has opened for the likes of Tom Petty and Wilco, collaborated with Jackson Browne, Chris Robinson, Jonathan Rice and many more, and put out a 2011 album called Gentle Spirit that was an indie hit in the UK and named one of Mojo magazine’s top picks of last year. He definitely made me want to hear more.)
7. “Terrapin”! With the show called “Move Me Brightly,” I guess should have anticipated the “Terrapin” (duh), but it still caught me by surprise when it turned up—especially because Weir was not even onstage for it (until the closing jam). The little-known singer-songwriter Cass McCombs handled the lead vocal and turned in a solid and nuanced performance—as he had earlier on “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” I loved it during “Lady With a Fan” when the three guitarists—McCombs, Kauffman and Cohen, joined by Graboff’s steel—unleashed an immaculate, note-for-note replica of Garcia’s triple-overdubbed harmony solo from the album version of the song.
8. All bow to Bobby. He put together one helluva show, acted as both bandleader (most of the time) and genial master of ceremonies, and was clearly leading the way through what were, for many of the players, unfamiliar (but friendly) waters. He provided the glue and that unmistakable Grateful Dead current. He sang fantastically well all night long—my theory is there’s something about TRI and the way he can hear himself there that brings out the best in him—but he was also generous in letting others have the spotlight. The aforementioned “Days Between” was as good as it gets; the most emotion-packed song of the evening by far. Oh, and kudos on his smokin’ solo version of “Loose Lucy” with just acoustic guitar and stompbox.
9. Let’s hear it for everybody else! Neal Casal was a steady and reassuring presence and served up a spellbinding “Ship of Fools”… Harper Simon sounded great on “Dire Wolf,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Shakedown Street” (among others) and also played some wild and slinky guitar… Adam MacDougall’s organ work blended beautifully with Chimenti’s, and his clavinet funked up “Shakedown,” “Franklin’s Tower” and one or two others. I liked his relaxed but confident stage demeanor… I dig those Yellowbirds boys—Cohen and Kaufman—on their cool old axes. They added some neat touches without cluttering up the sound. The same was true for Jason Roberts, who interjected some sizzling guitar leads at different points… The Hold Steady duo—Craig Finn and Tad Kubler—brought some late-set exuberance to the proceedings, especially during Finn’s most unusual, almost Elvis Costello-like, interpretation of “Scarlet Begonias”… Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson anchored the killer “Shakedown” and added percussive accents to a few other songs… “Bird Song” > “New Speedway Boogie” was a potent combination in the first half of the show…”Franklin’s Tower,” with various folks handling the verses, felt particularly joyous near show’s end; ditto “Goin’ Down the Road.”
Considering the group was so large, changed constantly and was filled with people who had rarely, if ever, played together before, there were remarkably few calamities—a lyric slip here and there (a Grateful Dead tradition, as I like to say), a couple of musical fender-benders. But given the number of players and limited rehearsal time, it was amazing that there was so much cohesion and definition to the parts, and that the level of communication between the musicians was so consistently high.
You couldn’t miss the glow in the room when the long evening ended with the warm and reassuring strains of “Ripple.” There were smiles all around as the crew started tearing down, the musicians dissolved into the departing audience, and people shared hugs and laughs one more time. As we drove back home across the bay, we had no idea that a whole bunch of the musicians were heading over to Terrapin Crossroads to play some more with Phil and the gang over there. That went until past 2 a.m. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was enjoying a blissful and satisfied slumber in my waterbed then. But had I known…
The set: The Wheel > Cumberland Blues, Loser, Mississippi Half-Step, Dire Wolf, Dupree’s Diamond Blues, Tennessee Jed, Ship of Fools, They Love Each Other, Bird Song > New Speedway Boogie, Loose Lucy, Friend of the Devil, Mission in the Rain, Ramble On Rose, Catfish John, Shakedown Street, Terrapin, He’s Gone, Eyes of the World, Scarlet Begonias, Don’t Let Go, Days Between, Franklin’s Tower. Encore: U.S. Blues, Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad, Ripple.