Photo by Dino Perrucci

There is no shortage of Grateful Dead-related gatherings this year, as the band celebrates its fifty-year anniversary. There is no shortage of interest either, as Steve Kimock and his band of familiar faces packed Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom for the first of two New York City stops on a tour focused on the music of Jerry Garcia. Even on a rainy Tuesday night, the show attracted a legion of diverse Deadheads and Kimock devotees alike..

Steve Kimock has taken on Garcia’s material before (RatDog, The Other Ones), but seemed more willing to throw in his own signature style and musical flavors under the comfort of his own bill. Accompanying him on acoustic guitar and assuming all vocal responsibilities for the evening was Dan Lebowitz (ALO). Lebowitz is a strong guitar player in his own right and proved to be a consistently creative sideman and confident vocalist, although at moments, his acoustic sound got lost in the mix. The rhythm section was made up of Jerry Garcia Band alumni Bill Vitt and Steve Kimock’s son John Morgan Kimock on drums, as well as Bobby Vega (Zero, KVHW) on bass. Jeff Chimenti (Furthur, RatDog) assumed keyboard responsibilities, and proved his position in the lineup for this summer’s Fare Thee Well anniversary event.

As the night set out to celebrate Jerry Garcia’s musical career, the setlist was not exclusive to Grateful Dead material, which made for an underwhelming one-two punch with Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” and Chuck Willis’s “It’s Too Late (She’s Gone)” opening the show in that order. Though the songs proved to be a warm-up for the band and the audience (few of whom noticeably knew the deep cuts), they both featured markedly strong playing from Jeff Chimenti and highlighted Steve Kimock’s more blues-oriented guitar playing. It is no surprise that these tracks brought out such playing in Chimenti, as Jerry famously performed both of them with Hammond organ extraordinaire Merl Saunders. Continuing in the Saunders-related catalogue, the instrumental “Merl’s Tune” kicked the band into focus and featured some of the night’s most sophisticated jamming.

Though excitingly experimental, Steve Kimock’s playing was tastefully reminiscent of Garcia’s style. Vitt and John Kimock were a bit subdued in their double drumming, which allowed for moments of patience during moments of improvisation, but seemed to mellow the band out during composed sections of songs, particularly “Bertha.” Moving into Grateful Dead territory, the band worked through an all-instrumental, yet standard arrangement of the classic “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot,” and “Franklin’s Tower” suite. “Franklin’s Tower” saw an exceptional, yet all-too-brief lap steel solo out of Kimock.

While an energetic version of “Deal” ended the first set, the crowd seemed to lose stamina during an almost unforgivably long set break. The band returned to the stage with more Jerry Garcia Band material, moving from Jesse Stone’s “Money Honey” to JJ Cale’s “After Midnight.” In the tradition of the Jerry Garcia Band (see After Midnight: Kean College, 2/28/80), the spacious “After Midnight” jam, carried confidently by Bobby Vega, made room for an instrumental take on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” which quickly sped up in tempo, setting the band off for a touchdown segue back into “After Midnight.” After a crowd-pleasing “Scarlet Begonias,” the group gave a slightly awkward rendition of “Black Muddy River” which began with vocals but gave way to an instrumental take on the song, demonstrating the creative license that can be taken towards adapting the Grateful Dead songbook. The set came to a close with “Expressway (To Your Heart),” “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and “Like a Road,” which served as the band’s encore, although they did not leave the stage, most likely due to time constrictions. As the interplay and coordination happening on stage developed throughout the night, it is clear that the unit has incredible promise, that one hopes they will continue to explore beyond this brief tour.