Contrary to the song "Mission in The Rain," there is no satisfaction in the San Francisco rain when waiting for will call/doors for a general admission show. The Bay Area was soaked in heavy rains for my first trip to the legendary Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in downtown Oakland. Cold wet feet are no way to begin an evening. This could have been avoided had the venue opened will call before the 4:30pm doors time instead of a good 20 minutes after. From the outside, the building resembles a stately museum, or any number of buildings in Washington DC. Inside however, it's a mini Hampton Coliseum with a wide floor surrounded by a raised seating area. With the myriad of musical choices in the Bay Area from the 28-31st, random conversations were interesting as everyone had their own musical itineraries leading up to and including New Years.
Ratdog, the opener, wins the "most improved" award for 2001. Bob Weir’s latest sextet has had a steady line-up for the past year, and it shows. Weir now gives room for the band to open up and develop a jam as a group, as opposed to one member soloing over the others. However, he occasionally still cuts it short just as things get interesting. Tonight’s show featured DJ Logic for most of the set, and a wonderful trumpet performance from guest Willie Waldman during "Eyes of the World." The interaction between Waldman and saxophonist Kenny Brooks made the song. Brooks gives Ratdog extra muscle and energy often wailing and challenging the other members to raise the level. The highlight of the set, and perhaps the evening, was Ratdog’s second performance of Pink Floyd’s "Matilda Mother (Syd Barrett)" wrapped around the Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows." After hearing that drummer Jay Lane has been delving into early Floyd as of late, my recommendation is for the band to play "Arnold Layne."
While Phil Lesh and Friends also have a repertoire of Grateful Dead standards, covers, and new originals, the beauty of Phil Lesh and Friends is that, unlike Ratdog, the greatest moments happen spontaneously sometimes within and often outside the structure of songs. Such is the nature of improvisational music. At its creative peak, it sounds as if the musicians live inside each other’s heads. It’s absolutely wonderful. Overall, December 30th was not one of those nights. At times, the band seemed to struggle, particularly in the second set, when jams wandered aimlessly, or seemed downright perfunctory, and rarely gained momentum.
However, with the current line-up of Phil’s quintet — Jimmy Herring (guitar), Warren Haynes (guitar), Rob Barraco (keyboards), and John Molo (drums) — there are, of course, highlights. The opening jam hit the ground running with a lively rhythm similar in feel to "Scarlet Begonias." In interviews, Lesh has revealed that the band has arranged various composed instrumentals that are used between songs. This may be one, as they launched directly into the melody. With such an attentive audience, the quintet loves to tease various songs. Warren riffed "Shakedown Street." The band then got spacey somewhat reminiscent to a lengthy "Dark Star" intro. This rose in energy to the full band playing "Here Comes Sunshine" for less than 10 seconds, then Warren dropped the bomb, "Shakedown Street!" Every "Shakedown" I’ve seen with this line-up has been strong, and this one was no exception. The song fits Warren’s vocal range well, and the harmonies at the end between Phil, Rob and Warren are tight, with each singing at different intervals. After a lengthy jam that included a good minute of John Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme," I witnessed my first P&F version of "Loose Lucy." Aside from a key change during the jam, this stayed true to the Grateful Dead version.
With this band, Lesh has thrust opened the Grateful Dead catalog, and plays tunes the Dead long stopped playing or only performed a few times. "King Solomon’s Marbles" is an example of the latter. It’s a complex instrumental from the 1975 album Blues for Allah. Jimmy Herring nails the jazzy, yet rapid-fire guitar riffs. Molo’s powerful drumming heightened the energy and turned this into the first set showstopper.
Continuing in the same vein, latter day Deadheads would have given their left arm to hear "Mason’s Children." The Dead never performed this after 1971, and it was not even available on a release until the Dick’s Picks series. Unlike the Dead versions, Phil adds a lengthy improvisational section after the intro. Personally, I found tonight’s a little too spacey. "Mason’s" should be downright nasty. Warren delivers some nasty slide at the end.
"St. Stephen" is usually one of my favorite P&F tunes for the jam that follows “one man gathers what another man spills.” It always starts ferociously behind Molo’s pounding drums then either takes off into an Allmans style improv jam or shoots off into the stratosphere. Tonight’s did neither as it limped back into the lyrics. "Golden Road" suffered from the same lack of energy that the short impromptu jam could not save.
The second set opened with "Cryptical Envelopment" featuring Lesh on vocals for the first time all evening. A lengthy jam similar to the first set opener flowed seamlessly into "Strawberry Fields Forever" with Barraco singing. While it’s always a treat to hear the Beatles performed live (especially since they performed almost no material written after 1966), this version seemed lackluster, missing the wistful, dreamlike quality of the original. "The Other One," "The Eleven" and "Scarlet Begonias" all suffered a lack of energy.
Warren and Jimmy saved the remainder of the set with some brilliant interplay during "Unbroken Chain." The Chain segued seamlessly into "Night of 1000 Stars," a recent Lesh/Hunter composition that Warren Haynes sang with more conviction than in any version I have seen.
Overall, a solid first set followed by a spotty second. In hindsight, the band may have been saving the magic for the New Year’s blowout.