Wow! Trey Anastasio and Warren Haynes playing Grateful Dead with Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kruetzman, Bruce Hornsby, and many, many more! This was the promise of "Comes A Time, a celebration of the music and spirit of Jerry Garcia" marking his tenth year gone. This overstuffed evening at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley featured the current incarnation of JGB led by organ original Melvin Seals, plus Bobby’s outfit RatDog, as well as most of The String Cheese Incident and many others with personal connections to Garcia. I admit I had high expectations.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the lack of folks with a finger in the air. While this sold-out and much anticipated show had been a relatively tricky ticket in the electronic universe of the internet, in the end the ticketless masses had stayed home. Folks with extras were lucky to get full price for their tickets (perhaps because this was a benefit since there were fifty, one-hundred and even two-hundred-fifty dollar seats).
Inside it was crowded from the start. The music began on time at a surprisingly early 5 o’clock. The sun was still beating down on the colorful crowd as David Nelson, Sandy Rothman, & Brian Godchaux (Keith’s brother) took the stage. They kicked things off with some tasty if mellow acoustic tunes a la Old and In The Way, Jerry’s Bluegrass outfit from the seventies. “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie” was especially sweet.
In what would prove to be a continuing pattern we got a half hour of music followed by a half hour set break. Acoustic Cheese was up next. Their set was subdued and tasteful but a nicely drawn out “Goin’ Down The Road” got most of us moving.
Again a short break and then Melvin Seals and the rest of JGB found there way to the stage but not before a short tribute to Jerry’s old buddy Merl Saunders. A couch was brought on stage for Merl whose health has been poor lately. It was good to see Merl’s smiling face but hard to see a man having trouble walking on his own who used to take a mean keyboard solo with his butt! One of the pleasant surprises of the day was Stu Allen who handles guitar with grace and power in the current Jerry Band. His phrasing, both vocally and instrumentally is amazingly familiar and warm. He plays Jerry in that emotive 1970s Jerry Band style as accurately as Dark Star Orchestra’s John Kadlecik does Jerry (from any era). The mid-set “Rhapsody in Red” was a rare treat. Then, to end the set, not only did Merl sit in for “Deal” but we got our first taste of Warren Haynes who came out to lend a hand.
It was still light out when Bobby Weir and RatDog came out to commence the fourth set of music of the night. Bobby kicked things off with a reworked version of “Half-Step” that had a few us wondering if he really meant it to sound that way. The rest of Ratdog’s set was well played though certain songs just didn’t work with Bobby’s raspy growl. “Big Railroad Blues” was one that did work, propelled by the guitar magic of RatDog’s Mark Karan.
There were some short words from Jerry’s family and then, shortly after eight o’clock the big one began, “The Tribute” they called it. One big set, nearly three hours long with musicians rotating on and off stage throughout. It began beautifully with a group of white robed chanters (including Basketball great and Deadhead Bill Walton) led by Middle Eastern Percussionist Hamza El Din: They gave life to the exquisite number the Dead performed with Hamza on several occasions entitled “Olin Arageed.” Then the main event:. the band had RatDog as a foundation with Bobby running the show. Robin Sylvester of RatDog along with J.V. Collier of Bruce Hornsby’s band took turns holding down the low end but didn’t quite “Phil” those big shoes. Kenny Brooks added some nice notes on sax for a few songs. RatDog’s Jay Lane was relieved by Billy and Mickey on drums halfway through and the army of guitar players cycled in and out throughout the night.
One thing that made this show less than the tour de force its lineup would indicate was the format. Though improvisation has always seemed to be the key to accessing the spirit and vibration of Jerry, this event had a rigid structure more akin to a high school talent show. Songs were sung by Bobby, Trey, Warren, Bruce and Mike Kang and in most cases the singer would then retire to backstage (excepting Bobby). This didn’t allow for much deep musical exploration or momentum. Any head of steam that was created would soon dissipate as the song wound down and a new singer appeared. This was especially hard after Trey began the show with a sweet “Help>Slip” (although the PA went out just as he began his solo in “Help On The Way”). Rather than “Franklin’s Tower,” which quivered on everyone’s consciousness, Warren Haynes stepped up for a slow but solid “Sugaree.” Now don’t get me wrong; Warren is a virtuoso in his own right but his guitar tone and phrasing is a bit on the heavy side. While he shreds, on this night Warren didn’t often “lift off” into open-ended, flowing, melodic places.
The best voices of the evening almost certainly belonged to Donna Jean Godchaux and JGB back-up singers Gloria Jones and Jackie LaBranch who were on stage for most of the set in a back-up capacity. Beyond this the vocals were hit and miss. Bruce Hornsby succeeded though with an emotionally charged version of “Standing On The Moon.”
Another highlight was “Eyes of the World.” In my opinion the strongest numbers were Trey’s although it’s certainly a bit easier when you are the one singing such crowd pleasers as “Eyes” and “Franklin’s Tower” (which we did finally get at the end the set). Trey’s voice is not his strongest suit but there was an ethereal, soaring feeling in the air, especially for “Eyes,” that seemed to wrap the audience into a single unit and propel us all upwards a few hundred feet, something like the way Jerry used to do it.
There were some moments where the players meshed to find some special places. Uncle John’s Band had some inspired interplay between Trey and Warren, and both the first and second visits to the “Dark Star” were fluid and bright. The “Scarlet>Fire” was also satisfying though Mickey’s vocals on “Fire” are always a difficult adjustment. Michael Kang also did a nice job on “Brown Eyed Women.” The closing encore of “Touch Of Grey” seemed especially fitting as the remaining members of the Grateful Dead all show more than a “touch” of grey these days.
The show was on the slow side offering more of somber and reflective mood than the raging, rockin’ event it might have been. Still, overall it was special night. There were a few moments of brilliance and no real flubs. Some say they felt Jerry was in the air. If he was I don’t think he was too happy about the rigid format that was chosen but I guess he was always one to find and create beauty where he could. He certainly would have found it here on this warm Berkeley evening.