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Published: 2003/06/24
by Dan Alford

The Dead, The Meadows, Hartford, CT- 6/21

The cold and rain could not keep the revelers down. They collected in the lots just outside of Hartford, eager to celebrate the Solstice and began the party even if summer was late. As the weather oscillated between mist, light rain, heavy rain, rain showers and downpours, the denizens of Shakedown Street, mud speckled but smiling, numbed themselves to the elements, making for a well lubricated crowd long before the show began.

Inside the sold out venue Steve Winwood welcomed Bobby, Billy , Mickey and Joan Osborne to help him close his opening set, including a nice Gimme Some Lovin'. It was an auspicious start to the evening's proceedings, but when the Dead took the stage at just about sunset, their performance was airy and light- pretty enough (especially the Bobby McGee) but somehow inappropriate considering the thousands huddled and now shivering on the lawn. The energy did pick up when Steve and saxophonist Randall Bramblett joined for a lengthy rhythm beast of an Aiko. All three keyboardists stayed on stage and somehow kept the sound clean. Winwood and Bramblett remained for an inspired Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. The heavy space surged like an ice floe, slow and smooth and mesmerizing. Effects-laden saxophone strode through the glacial surroundings, calling out Sunshine's brilliant guitar. The sounds swelled between verses, drifting off to the cloudy skies, and contracted again for Steve's superb vocals. At the last verse he kept repeating "of high heeled boys," as he extended the intoxicating rhythm riff into a full groove, Jimmy using the opportunity to pull out a short, wild lead. Easily the highlight of the set, it was a number for the junkie cosmonauts and space cowboys and likely left many on the lawn still chilled- blissed out, but chilled.

The second set was an entirely different show. The band took the stage with the lights still on, delving into a short Corrina jam, Phil running up and down scales as Jimmy hinted (as he often does) at China Cat. Instead they slinked into a very hot, potent Stranger. Jimmy's virtuosity was on display as he led a fevered, volcanic jam that wouldn't ease, and then slipped in another sinister lead right at the very end of the song. This was the show they needed to play; this was the celebration.

After a weird intro featuring only Bobby, Billy and Mickey, the band flushed out Scarlet Begonias to enthusiastic applause. Again Jimmy was in the forefront, playing a nearly perfect solo around Bobby's rhythm structures. The lead guitar raged again on the jam out, slowly quieting and letting Jeff's deft piano playing shine through. The movement drifted out and out, and finally Bobby leaned towards Phil and pushed for Hard to Handle. A slick jam developed, one that hinted '71 versions, and crested, allowing Jimmy time to play the intro lick. And suddenly they were off again, on a second, more focused jam, Rob passing the leads back to the guitar. When the tune finally materialized, Joan and Bobby shared the vocals, making for a very gritty, sultry version. They finished off with an outstanding back and forth that was surging with sexual energy. The instrumentation swelled and burst the seams of the song, erupting in a crazed, threatening Meltdown.

As the band left the stage, the Rhythm Devils took over with rapid fire drumming. Mickey pointed at Billy, as though drawing energy directly from him, and stepped off to the side, allowing his partner to attack his kit alone. Drumz progressed through a heavily vibrating Beam, off into a Thai rainforest and finally into an African jungle, the music becoming more and more frightening as it continued. At the climax, Mickey dashed the Beam over and over, stepping away after each strike, and finally collapsing just off the drum riser- a heavy, if somewhat melodramatic offering.

The rest of the band returned en masse and began to explore clouds of stardust and cosmic debris. Eventually Phil established a groove and Joan took the mic from the stand, charging into Night of a Thousand Stars. Joan was perfect; no one else on that stage could handle the vocals for a Warren tune. Rob's version from Bonnaroo just doesn't work, and while Bobby's voice has grown gravelly, it's just not right. What was needed, what Warren has in spades, as does Joan, is soul- serious, serious soul. And from Space through the end of the set, it was Joan's show. The band was clearly feeding off her presence, attacking the music with increased ferocity. All eyes were on her as she prowled around the stage during Sugaree, belting out, "You still have to stand out in the pouring rain!" It's been said that one of Bobby's great strengths in the early days of the Dead was his ability to become the leader of the band when he was singing. Here Joan showed the same presence and control.

Randall Bramblett had joined for Sugaree and stayed for a crowd pleasing St. Stephen, exploding at the beginning of the jam. A William Tell Bridge, an idea, like so many of the new compositional ideas in the band, taken from Ratdog's arrangement, led to a short Eleven jamlet laden with organ and lashing guitars. The music wound down quickly though, melting into a soupy pool and reforming into a monumental Playing in the Band. A super tight jam swirled with bright flashes, both Mickey and Billy doing particularly fine work. Melting again, the music bottomed out at Midnight Hour, Bobby and Joan again sharing vocals. But as the end bluesman's rant began, Bobby asked, "What do you think of it all?" and set Joan off on long passage, where she challenged the "older men" to show her that they had superior technique. First the drummers soloed, then she actually coaxed a beautiful, lengthy solo out of Phil and a chunky, decidedly Weir'd one from Bobby as well. If there was sexual ! tension before, now there was sex. Bobby finished off his solo by drawing the band back to the song, a very slick reining in, and led the way back to a fevered Playing Reprise. An older fan sitting close by kept repeating, "That was fantastic. Sometimes you hear something and… that was fantastic."

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