The Dead, Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, NY- 6/20
Standing silent on SPAC's stage, Bob Weir sure looked like Jerry Garcia. Sporting a scruffy beard, sprinkled with a touch of gray, and wearing a dark faded t-shirt that could have hung in Garcia's closet, Weir would be a good "Jerry Garcia" for Halloween. From afar he's got the persona down precisely, but up-close he's still Bob Weir; short-shorts and all.
The same could be said for the on-again, off-again Dead offspring who strolled into Saratoga just before summer solstice. Once called the Other Ones, and now known simply as the Dead, Mickey Heart, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Bill Kreutzmann have inherited an impressive legacy; yet they’re still a few letters short of authenticity.
Summer defines Saratoga Springs. Situated in upstate New York, Saratoga has three symbols printed on its welcome sign: health, history, and horses. Yet the city should amend their wooden sign to include another word: hippies. In 1986, the Grateful Dead drew SPAC’s largest audience, packing the scenic amphitheater several thousand people over normal capacity. Two years later the road warriors once again left their signatures at SPAC; breaking their own attendance record and earning a spot on SPAC’s historical timeline. Now, the Dead returned with a double agenda: reclaim their canon and leave their legacy in tact.
Packing the scenic amphitheater with an eclectic audience ages 6 to 65, the Dead drew wisely from their extensive song canon. Mixing FM radio staples such as "Sugar Magnolia," and "Ripple," and road tested concert favorites like "China Cat Sunflower," and "Eyes of the World," with old-favorites once forgotten at the Fillmore, such as "New Potato Caboose," The Dead offered a bit for everyone in their musical buffet. Dred-locked hippies smoked with well-groomed investment bankers; Deans danced with students.
Yet, despite the concert’s well-constructed set-list, The Dead’s Saratoga performance still seemed a bit contrived. Astute scholars and smart-businessmen, the Dead realize why they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of fame. They remember why 40,000 fans flocked two Saratoga fifteen-years ago and they’ve read piss-poor reviews of their final few years. Like Santa Clause on Christmas, they know what the audience wants. Yet it’s still their choice which presents the crowd will receive.
Perhaps that’s why Saratoga’s two sets seemed as different as night and day. Opening with a relaxed, Sunday-afternoon style rendition of "Here Comes Sunshine," The Dead were in no hurry to launch into psychedelic space. They included a leisurely "EL Paso," and a weather-pending "Looks Like Rain;" first set songs from the group’s 1970s heyday. With guitarist Jimmy Herring mixing Jerry Garcia lyrics with his own southern-style, the Dead didn’t seem like Dark Star Orchestra. Yet their sound didn’t pack the psychedelic punch of a peak Phil and Friends shows. As Lesh led the group’s jams through his deep bass-lines and wireless microphone, Weir flaunted his best quality: front man. Herring’s high-pierced wale was the highlight of most songs, while the keyboard duo of Rob Barraco and Jeff Chimenti scrapped the synthesizers that marred much of the group’s 1980s work. But without Garcia, the Dead lack strong leadership, hurting their collective sound, while highlighting each members’ individual abilities.
Amidst the confusion, the group let Steve Winwood steal the set’s highlights. Ripping through a guitar-rendition of his own Traffic hit "Dear. Mr. Fantasy" and playing keys on Hart’s best new song "Baba Jingo," Winwood won the Dead’s dancing audience, while still adding to their artistic tapestry. "Dear. Mr. Fantasy" rocked as if the Dead were playing an arena, while the three part keyboard jam on "Baba Jingo" reminded listeners that the ivory instrument could be a central part of the Dead’s sound. Perhaps its because they practiced hardier to include Winwood, or maybe because his inclusion focused their attention, but during these two numbers, the octet were simply on. Their songs were solid and their instruments ready for adventure.
Slim, sexy, and smiling, Joan Osborne is an odd-choice to replace fallen blues front man Pig-Pen. Yet her Joplin-esque belt has allowed the group to revisit many of its blues chestnuts; staples that symbolized the Dead’s 1960s San-Francisco childhood. Osborne and Weir exchanged vocal duties on "Turn On Your Lovelight," a coming attraction for the mellow, bluesy meat of the second set. Though "Lovelight" lingered in the Dead’s set-lists during the 1980s and 1990s, Osborne’s old-school rendition reminded the crowd that before disco, Dylan, and Garcia’s death, the Dead were essentially a psychedelic blues band; an aspect of their history that the group has reincorporated into its collective sound this summer.
Set-two started out strong. "China Cat Sunflower" is always a welcome opener, while Lesh’s baritone voice did justice to rejuvenated rarity "New Potato Caboose." The Rhythm Devils ripped through a post-millennium "Drums," with Kreutzmann adding a computer set-up to a Heart’s world-beat percussion. The inclusion of Walfredo Reyes Jr. and Edson "Cafuot; Da Silva from Winwood’s group also gave the duo some depth, perhaps improving on the Grateful Dead’s idea of a "Drums." Again spicing his set-list up, Lesh brought out Mike Gordon for a bass duel, which featured focused interplay between the two bassists akin to Phish’s 1999 Lesh-Gordon jam. Returning the crowd to the summer evening’s ambience, the Dead then jumped into an excellent "Eyes of the World," mixing the best aspects of Herring’s time in Jazz is Dead and Lesh’s solo explorations.
The rest of the set-remained on par with the Dead’s 1970s performances. A touching "He’s Gone" and slowed down "Cryptical Envelopment > The Other One > Cryptical Envelopment" allowed Weir to wail like a blues-man and the group to pretend they were still playing free-shows in the park. Osborne delivered a blues-scat, while Weir brought out his slide. They’re playing was slow, yet strong, with Herring using Garcia’s tricks to keep the crowd in-tune, without seeming stagnant. Since no show is a success without a song to hum in the parking lot, the Dead closed with their classic-rock staples "Ripple" and "Sugar Magnolia." Fun, fast and crowd-friendly, the pair of songs seemed to symbolize how the Grateful Dead will be remembered in Saratoga: the biggest shows the state park has ever seen.
After a short, yet enjoyable, encore of "And We Bid You Goodnight," the Dead departed SPAC for the third time in twenty years. As their tour trucks on, the Dead will once again, no doubt, show their face at SPAC. Perhaps one day they’ll create a new legacy altogether. Hopefully they’ll continue to honor the one they already own.