The Other Ones, Pepsi Arena, Albany, NY 11/16
You never could've counted on the Grateful Dead to open with Cold, Rain and Snow.
The sleet and chill wind blowing outside the arena in Albany wiped out what has always been a fun lot scene, dating back to the first Knick shows in 1990, and even the block sectioned off right in front of the venue was barely half filled just before show time. The weather was nasty, keeping away many of the Saturday night crowd, those who come for the party, not the show, and sending music fans scurrying for shelter. The drive to and fro, while not awful, was certainly messy, too.
In short, the weather was affecting everyone’s night, but be that as it may, you could’ve never counted on the Grateful to open with Cold Rain and Snow. In the later years, the last eight years or so, the band was in their insular world, and skipped a million deft song choices that would’ve commented on location, conditions or simply that moment in time. In doing so, they also blew apart a million convoluted theories as to the wheres, whens and whys of setlists, crushing the dreams of a host of would-be hippy clairvoyants. After a few years break, however, and numerous nights of breathtaking musical adventures with solo projects, the Grateful Dead are back on the road, and they opened with Cold Rain and Snow.
It’s often noted that part of the alchemical formula for the Grateful Dead was their varied backgrounds. Each member brought something new and different to the equation, and combined, the result was something far greater than the sum of its parts. During the years since Jerry’s demise, the remaining band members have covered vast amounts of ground, both personally and musically, experiencing what amounts to a second renaissance of thought and sound. From Phil’s near total disregard for song structure in favor of the psychedelic soup, to Bobby’s jazz-based groove explorations, to Mickey’s… well Mickey’s been all over the map (remember Mystery Box?), the band has given itself a whole new set of varied musical backgrounds from which to draw. And it seems that if there is a single idea, a single skill that has developed in each band member, wherever his path has taken him, it is a new ability to listen. There is very little of the staring at one’s own hands, and little else, ! that characterized the Dead’s stage presence. With The Other Ones, everyone is moving (except, of course, for Jimmy), everyone is looking, everyone is seeing (two very different things), everyone is listening, and everyone is responding. There is a sensitivity to the others and the surroundings, and that leads to even more new ideas and, of course, inspired musical discourse- not to mention Cold Rain and Snow openers on cold rainy nights.
The bulk of the first set, however, was dominated by a snakey succession of tunes beginning with a finely sung Estimated Prophet. In fact throughout the show, Bobby’s vocals were very strong, whether in the lead, or as support. The jam out of Estimated highlighted the instrumental prowess of the band, with some impressive interplay between Jimmy and Phil that led to a deep, swampy place. But with a PLQ-style shifting of gears, the music was again bright and moving, Rob and Jeff playing complimentary riffs on piano and organ respectively. A long intro jam landed in a very pretty Crazy Fingers. The tune was slow and easy, everyone spreading out and finding his own place in the mix. The is a lot of Phil and Friends in The Other Ones, but this band can do what the Quintet seems unable to: slow down, take it easy, and let the music relax. TOO may have a bit less intensity than PLQ, but they also have a bit more grandeur. For instance, Phil’s Terrapin churns with such Latin tinged vigor that it rolls over "Inspiration" without a second thought, dulling one of the greatest musical apexes. TOO, on the other hand, play it clean, so that that moment has some weight to it, some of its intended potency. Admittedly, however, the version in Albany was a bit unfocused on the climb out of Lady with a Fan, and as such was not the best version.
The highlight of the first set was the Good Lovin’ > 11. The former sent feet a-flying. When the jam had run its natural course, Phil pounded out the opening lick again and in doing so, dislocated the jam, cracking it open for some real improvisation. Jeff and Jimmy dominated the scene. While Barraco and Jimmy complement each other with their lightning fast fingers, the conjunction of Jeff’s sustain Sunshine’s deluge of notes created a wonderful contrast. Many times throughout the night that pair shined in its interactions. The jam ended with Jimmy playing outrageously fast, even for him, and racing right back into Good Lovin’. A splice transition led to a very slow and quiet 11 jam, that evolved into a long mellow intro with everyone spacing out and rolling along. Slowly the tempo increased, in waves rather than steps, until the song was fully realized. The influence of the two drummers here cannot be overstated. Unfortunately the following segue into Rooster was garb! led and off-kilter, but not so much as to detract from the suite as a whole.
The second set Scarlet opener was a barn-burner from the first note, nothing but smiley brightness. The band was rolling and lurching as a single entity right up to the very end when Phil tagged Fire, but returned to close Scarlet, and then drop back into Fire. It was another unfortunate, clumsy transition. Be that as it may, the second song itself was very well played, Mickey singing with a gravelly growl rather than rapping, and even including the third verse which includes the Dead’s motto: "Put it down heavy, strip it down lean / Got to lay it down dirty and play it back clean." Again the drumming stood out, Mickey playing the role of percussionist more than that of drummer.
Uncle John’s Band was, like Terrapin, played in GD style, a strong rendition with a delicate tone to Jimmy’s leads. The mid-song jam swirled with more percussion work from Mickey and a loose, but steady groove from Billy. The sounds stretched and unwound, Rob and Jimmy running scales at one point, threatening to simultaneously lose control, but Phil brought the jam back home before it got too crazy. Bobby cut the end jam short, leading the group into a beautiful Lost Sailor balanced with weighty deep end and lightning crackles. Jeff and Rob swapped keyboards and Phil dropped a series of bombs that heralded a bombastic Saint.
Drumz began with all the band members on stage, watching the Rhythm Devils go to work. Billy was not long on the kit before he joined Mickey in the percussion jungle behind the drum riser. Their solo was none too long, and although it was laden with MIDI effects and Beast beats, it never really exploded. The other band members retook the stage, and before long entered the previously mentioned Terrapin.
The excellent second set finally climaxed with an excellent instrumental version of Stella Blue. Most will remember that when guitar hero Steve Kimock was a regular member of early Phil and Friends incarnations, Stella was always done as an instrumental. (Incidentally, Steve still performs it, though rarely, with SKB.) And of course Jimmy also performed it as an instrumental with Jazz Is Dead. This version benefited from the deftly placed accents from Bob, Rob and Jeff, and the delicate, though ever-rising, drums. As the song moved to its end passage, Rob rode in with triumphant, percussive playing and Phil plunged deeper into melancholy, Jimmy slicing through it all. In short, the Stella Blue closer benefited from the profound listening skills of the musicians on-stage, and made a very stylish closer.
It should come as no surprise that many fans have already noted that The Other Ones are a whole lot more like the Dead than PLQ or Ratdog. After all, with the exception of our departed brother, they are the Grateful Dead, and they are certainly worth checking out.