The artist whose performance I attended on Friday night studied with Luciano Berio at Mills College in the '60s, and collaborated not long after with Steve Reich to create music for a San Francisco experimental mime troupe's happening. Said artist attended the second performance of Berio's opera Un re in ascolto, took in a Ring cycle at Bayreuth soon after, then dragged some of his illustrious friends to another Ring at the San Francisco Opera. A longtime admirer of Elliott Carter, this artist most assuredly had a hand in leading a major philanthropical fund to provide partial funding for a Grammy-winning 1994 recording of Carter's Violin Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra -- not to mention recordings of music by Havergal Brian, Robert Simpson, James Dillon, Colin Matthews and others.
I was born too late for the Dead's prime years; although I did in fact live in San Francisco in 1969, I was only three years old. But more than that, I just didn't get the Dead for a long, long time. In college, I developed a taste for the most frenetic avant-garde jazz, which eventually led to the NYC downtown ferment and European free improv; for me, Naked City and Last Exit were where it was at then. The Dead's more leisurely paced vision of gradual, groove-based catharsis took much longer to take hold.
Maybe it's because I'm getting older that the band has finally grabbed me hard; perhaps it's because a genuine appreciation for American roots music, so much at the heart of what the Dead was about, came later. I also suspect the delay has to do with recreational habits I've never shared with the band and its scene. Plus, everyone knew that the Dead couldn't make studio albums, so there was no reason to catch them live, right?
When my radio-station boss in Houston gave me a tape of a Dead show with Ornette Coleman sitting in for a stretch, I began to wonder. Ultimately, David Spelman -- a friend and colleague responsible for initially conceiving the ever-more-impressive New York Guitar Festival -- introduced me to the Grateful Dead's Dick's Picks series of archival live recordings, most of which contain at least a single show in its entirety. The gigantic cache of live shows available for streaming and/or download at Internet Archive has certainly helped, as well. Finally, I was able to get a sense of the rich, complex organism the Dead was at its prime. That's perhaps an essay for another time -- or not -- but it's definitely what compelled me to catch Lesh tonight.
I'm well aware that the broader context of the Dead concert experience will never be available to me, but I definitely felt like I got at least some feel for its borders tonight. From what I've been able to gather cyber-anecdotally, Lesh seems to command the most technically exacting of the various Dead satellite bands. In including singer Joan Osborne among his resources, Lesh also introduces an element of honest-to-goodness sex appeal that the mothership never remotely approached. I'd actually expected Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson tonight, so Osborne was a surprise -- and a pleasant one, I'm happy to say. (Which was also good because, you know, I bought my ticket on the street...you can do the math, I'm sure.)
One of the two guitarists, Barry Sless, seemed able to conjure Jerry Garcia-like solo lines at will; the other, Larry Campbell, mostly played a supportive role, but proved an able soloist as well. Keyboardist Rob Barraco plays Dead material as if born to it; I admit being a little bit creeped out at his vocal resemblance to Garcia at times. Drummer Jeff Sipe played solidly, although it was clear that he was still finding his way into this particular lineup. Lesh, as always, provided playful bass lines that gamboled throughout the band's sonic range: now he's offering impossibly low rumbles; now he's winding between the guitarists with a wiry treble tone. True to everything I've read of post-'73 Dead shows, the audio tonight was a phenomenon of well-balanced clarity from my mid-loge post.
I'm truly not qualified to dissect tonight's experience to any extent greater than to report a general tone of relaxation, and perhaps slightly tentative discovery. It was probably that which led one true believer to my right to suggest that this was the worst set-list of the 300 or so Dead-related concerts he'd attended --as fascinating as I find this band, I find that a rather absurd figure, but then, I was never part of the GD community. For me, the strangest thing about tonight's show was hearing no fewer than four songs by Ryan Adams without his presence. (You can go here for deeper discussion if you like.)
Set one: "New York, New York" (Adams) > jam > "Playin' in the Band" > "Cold Roses" (Adams) / "West L.A. Fadeaway" / "No More Do I" > jam > "Love the One You're With" (CSN&Y) / "Turn on Your Lovelight"
Set two: "After Midnight" (Clapton) > jam > "Magnolia Mountain" (Adams) > "Bird Song" > "Unbroken Chain" / "The Rescue Blues" (Adams) > "Good Lovin'" / "Help on the Way" > "Slipknot!" > "Franklin's Tower"
Encore: "Casey Jones"
A good start to a weekend that will continue with Hazmat Modine, Ben Monder, Benjamin Britten and the School of Rock. I'm also excited to report that one of my favorite jazz groups of the early '90s will be playing a pair of reunion shows on February 26 and 27 -- the first time they've played together in a decade. Who? Here's a hint...
Human Feel - Human Feel (Human Use)
Human Feel - Scatter (GM Recordings)
Human Feel - Welcome to Malpesta (New World)
Human Feel - Speak to It (Songlines)