Monday, May 18, 2009

Concert Review - The Dead at the Los Angeles Forum on May 9th, 2009

If you have read this blog much you will know that I am a really big fan of Jerry Garcia and those are some large shoes for Warren Haynes to fill. Still, I had a pretty enjoyable time at the Forum last Saturday and The Dead brought some surprising highlights and a few disappointments as well.

Viola Lee Blues>
Viola Lee Blues>
Viola Lee Blues
Black Peter
Cosmic Charlie

Shakedown Street
New Speedway Boogie
Scarlet Begonias
Fire on the Mountain
Drums >
Dark Star
Wharf Rat
Dark Star

One More Saturday Night

First Set
The Forum still seemed somewhat empty when the lights went down. The highlight for me of the first set was the crowd screaming in anticipation of the first song and seeing the beautiful lighting the band employed (reminiscent of Candace Brightman's beautiful landscapes from the Grateful Dead tours of yore).

So I guess if those were the highlights that means I was disappointed in the first set. It really seems like The Dead now is a background band for Warren Haynes. That's the way this concert felt. Of course I always thought the Grateful Dead was somewhat of a backing band for Jerry Garcia anyway. I am a bit surprised at the choice of Warren Haynes for lead guitar as I would prefer to hear any of the other players in the post Jerry era to Warren: Steve Kimock, Jimmy Herring, and even Trey Anastasio.

Viola>Bertha>Viola>Caution>Viola sounds like it would be a dream come true on paper, but it was just a little... flat. They jammed the parts out a really long time and while extended jamming also sounds like a dream come true, it was just too much Warren Haynes' bluesy repetitive noodling. Bertha is a tune that I've written about on the blog and I've stated its a rocker live, but a bit repetitive to hear on a tape. Well, this live version was also a bit trying.

Caution had some real highlights where the band started to really swell and use dynamics well together. This was the musical highlight of the first set. Phil played a short repetitive jazzy bassline that drove the song and the entire band started to really get humming. The jam had some of the energy of the old "freak out" Caution acid rock jams of old, but with all the new sounds and sophistication of the modern Dead.

As amazing as that intertwined opener looks: Viola>Bertha>Viola>Caution>Viola, The Dead did not really interconnect the songs musically by jamming them into one another but rather would kind of fade out of one and one player would forcefully lead into another.

Since that opening medley took about 40 minutes the set ended with a nice Black Peter and an anemic Cosmic Charlie. The slide guitar on Black Peter by Warren was nice I guess. Cosmic Charlie suffered from a lack of low end or it just seemed like the band wanted to get off the stage.

So yes the first set was a bit of a disappointment. I was kind of shocked that The Dead played so many songs that a lot of the audience didn't know. However, some of the best Grateful Dead shows I've ever been to started with a first set that was a snore, so I tried to keep an open mind.

During the set break, I walked around in the most crowded hallway I've ever been in and while it took me about 30 minutes to get a pretzel and a water, it was nice to feel the energy of all the people - many of whom seemed to have been partying all day in anticipation for the concert.

Second Set

The 2nd set opened with a Shakedown Street including the "built in intro jam" that the "post Jerry" Phil projects seem to always do. This was pretty good and I could feel that the band was going to try and make up for the lackluster first set.

New Speedway Boogie was not very good. It lacked the main lick that Jerry would always play. The band was merely shuffling along in a blues motif (like it seemed that they had for most of the entire night) and then Bobby started singing the lines:

Please don't dominate the rap jack...

When I heard that, instead of being excited, I was kind of disappointed to know that I would be listening to that same bluesy shuffle for another 10 minutes as they would inevitably extend the jamming as they were doing in all the songs.

Finally, at what seemed to be a "make or break" moment in the show Bobby teased the intro to Scarlet Begonias for a minute and then the band joined him gradually. It was nice to hear a Scarlet, but the way that the band gradually joined in started the song off without any power and it was also kind of anemic (like Cosmic Charlie had been). I couldn't really feel the drums on this slow version of Scarlet.

Fire on the Mountain had all the pre-requisite guitar licks from the classic Jerry versions and Warren had just been using such a heavily effects laden sound I was getting tired of all the filters and wah sounds. I was glad to be hearing a classic Grateful Dead tune even though I was still not used to the way Warren Haynes would sing Jerry's parts with a lot of extra ornamentation at the end of the phrases.

The one truly awesome part of the concert was Mickey and Billy's drums section. They incorporated nature sounds, modern sounds, classic sounds, and of course The Beast made an appearance. There was a lot of world percussion that sounded indigenous that would be juxtaposed with sounds that were modern and futuristic. "Future Primitive" is a way that I would describe the Rhythm Devils section. I have a lot of respect and love for Mickey and his passion for music and also have always greatly respected Billy Kreutzmann who has been a key player in the Grateful Dead since the very beginning.

Phil started hinting at Dark Star and just like everything else on this night it took the band an achingly long time to finally get into it. Dark Star was great though, a nice mellow slow version with Phil, Bobby, and Warren all taking turns singing. This was the best part of the concert as they jammed Dark Star (I could have sworn I heard Bobby hint at Hell in a Bucket) and they wound down into Wharf Rat.

Wharf Rat used to be a song I loved to hear although there were many other Jerry ballads I would have preferred. This song tonight was a good rendition with the guys taking turns singing the verses.

The Satisfaction closer didn't do anything for me. Maybe they were trying to play a familiar tune to make up for not playing any songs like Truckin' or Casey Jones for the LA audience with their notoriously short attention span.

The One More Saturday Night encore was another highlight. It was great to see the same song that closed my very first Dead Show -16 years ago. We boogied to this great Bobby tune and afterward everyone who I went to the show with was raving about how much fun they had. That put a smile on my face.

I saw the setlist for the next night at Shoreline and while it looks amazing (on paper)... I have to wonder if the audience had to sit through endless jams at the beginning and closing of each song and hear Warren Haynes "over sing" Jerry's lines.

Something tells me this is the last time I'll see the Dead play together and it's probably not a matter of choice anyway considering that Phil is 69 years old and on his second liver. I would like to see the band tour with another choice of guitarist. I may be in the minority but I found Warren Haynes' singing and playing to be a letdown.

Also, I think the band did too much jamming (I can't believe I just said that). During the "Jerry Years" the jams are what I would live for, but they just don't seem to be explorative or interesting in this incarnation of the band.
Disclaimer: This is just one man's opinion on the Grateful Dead experience. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so please feel free to join the dialogue and leave a comment if you disagree (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).

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