Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Honoring Garcia: sound could be better, but spirit is there

From Inside Bay Area:

By Jim Harrington,
CONTRIBUTOR

HOW COULD I have forgotten the smiles?

Of the many things that separated a Grateful Dead concert from other musical gatherings — the plethora of tie-dyed T-shirts, the parking-lot scene, the multi-generational audience, the ganja-goo brownies — the one thing that was truly unique was the amount of smiling faces to be seen. To be at a Grateful Dead show was to be among 20,000 folks who were absolutely beaming with the type of joy that can only come from feeling that you are at the exact center of the universe.
The smiles were back in full force on Saturday as "Comes a Time — A Celebration of the Music and Spirit of Jerry Garcia" was performed at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The tribute show to the late great vocalist, guitarist and leader of the Grateful Dead, who died in August 1995, brought together such Dead-family members as Mickey Hart, Bruce Hornsby, Bill Kreutzmann and Bob Weir; Garcia cohorts such as Melvin Seals and Merl Saunders; and direct descendants such as Phish's Trey Anastasio and the String Cheese Incident.

It was a hard show for me to be a true critic, given that, for me, as well as for basically everyone else in attendance, Garcia was far more than just another musician. Over the course of many nights at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Oakland Arena and other venues through the years, the guitarist became part of my family.

To be honest, however, the concert never really reached its potential. The show was fraught with its share of problems, most of which had to do with the sound system, and the format — where musicians constantly rotated onstage — made it impossible for any unit to fully hit a stride worthy of the best Dead shows.

But where it somewhat failed musically, it absolutely achieved in its mission to properly honor one of the most influential musicians of the rock 'n' roll era. The sold-out show also succeeded in creating an atmosphere that can only be compared to a huge family gathering.
One family member, however, was notable in his absence. And I'm not talking about Jerry.
The fact that bassist Phil Lesh — a man who owes both his fame and his fortune to Garcia — didn't show up to honor his former band mate amounts to the biggest crime of the Bay Area concert season.

I've heard rumors of fighting in The Dead camp, but I wouldn't pretend to know the real story. It must be serious, however, given that it appears that the band — now officially known as just "The Dead" — won't regroup to celebrate its 40th anniversary this year.

But the players should have been able to put aside their grievances and egos for at least one night — this night — in the name of Jerry Garcia. That's especially true given that the event was a fund-raiser for the Rex Foundation, The Dead's charitable arm that provides grants and support to creative endeavors in the arts, sciences and education.

Even without Lesh, the concert offered many delights for The Dead-icated crowd. Following a short opening set by David Nelson — who played with Garcia in the New Riders of the Purple Sage — Colorado jam-band String Cheese Incident entered the stage and delivered a winning acoustic set of some of Garcia's most beloved songs, including "Friend of the Devil," "Casey Jones" and "Ripple."

Things only got better as what's left of the Jerry Garcia Band took over and played such favorites as "Cats Under the Stars" and "Rhapsody in Red." The best moment came when Saunders and Seals shared a bench and tickled the ivory together during a great version of "Promised Land."

Weir's Ratdog group had a hard time following the Jerry Garcia Band. The vocalist-guitarist seemed to be in cruise control as he delivered lukewarm renditions of hot numbers like "Bird Song," "Lazy River Road" and "Big Railroad Blues."

Perhaps Weir was conserving his energy — and he would need it in the next set as he put forth a Herculean effort in directing an all-star band that was at times very disjointed.
The headlining set got off to a rough start as the sound cut out midway through the first tune, the Anastasio-sung "Help on the Way." To say that took the wind out of the sails for those anticipating hearing the former Phish frontman cover a Dead classic is a vast understatement.
The show wouldn't really recover for roughly the next hour. Hornsby did a poor job on "Loser," over-singing the tune in an unsuitable jazz style, and Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes couldn't quite nail "Sugaree."

Fortunately, things improved greatly in the second half as Kreutzmann and Hart took to the drum thrones and supplied the missing fuel that was needed to fire up such great songs as "Scarlet Begonias" and "Stella Blue."

The most touching song of the night was the ensemble's rendition of "He's Gone." It was a sad moment, as fans turned their eyes skyward and thought of Garcia, but it was also a joyous one as a feeling of true gratitude swelled through the venue. The musicians and the fans joined their voices together on one lyric that seemed, above all others, particularly fitting for the occasion:
"Nothin' left to do but smile, smile, smile!"

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