It took just over an hour, but the Grass is Dead came fully alive Aug. 24 as the band launched into an instrumental version of “Dark Star,” fiddle and mandolin playing the song’s famous melody and recreating Jerry Garcia’s vocal lines while – in a gutsy and wise choice – completely disregarding the song’s signature bassline.
Stretching beyond 10 minutes, this number was the highlight of the Florida-based quintet’s two-hour, 30-minute single-set show at Woodland’s Tavern. Eschewing the formlessness that characterized so many Grateful Dead versions, Grass is Dead instead stayed close to the heart of the song as originally written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter and the musicians traded concise, tasteful solos.
Grass is Dead is more of a Jerry Garcia cover group than a Dead-centric band. The 17-song setlist was dominated by Garcia-Hunter originals, tracks the late guitarist recorded with David Grisman (“Grateful Dawg”) and tunes covered by the Jerry Garcia Band (Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”) and Old and In the Way (Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight”).
Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow were represented with “Feel Like a Stranger.” Occasionally, the group left the Dead behind and focused on the Grass, through versions of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s “How Mountain Girls Can Love” and the Dillards’ “Old Home Place.”
While tracks such as “Samson and Delilah” and “Shakedown Street” benefitted from the band’s adventurous rearrangements and tight jamming, accentuated by pulsating strobes flashing around the pocket-sized stage, others, such as “Rosalie McFall” and “Brown Eyed Women,” were rhythm-heavy, with long stretches with no discernible solo spots. In these moments, the songs just sort of lingered in the air – poised to go somewhere but never quite getting there.
The best moments were when the players went deep into the bluegrass, such as on a lengthy instrumental intro to “Friend of the Devil,” a triple-speed coda tacked onto an otherwise-shuffling “I Know You Rider” and a quick snippet of “Let it Grow” that served as a segue to the “Shakedown Street” finale.