The Dead, Red Rocks, 7/8
Not until "Happy Birthday to Joan" arose from the detritus of "Space," did the July 8th setlist at Red Rocks make sense.
Joan Osborne loves the blues, and the Dead wanted to oblige her fancy.
Both sets centered on the blues, in a heavy-handed manner approximating the Pigpen years. "Deep Elem Blues," "Staggerlee," "Turn On Your Lovelight," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," and the Europe ’72 classic "Mister Charlie" all allowed Osborne the opportunity to lead the band. With her sinewy voice front and center, she strutted with gall and sensuality. Her audience participation incantations on "Lovelight" maybe didn’t have the raunchy charm of Pigpen’s histrionic "Let’s Fuck" raps, but when she fell on her knees begging "please," it served an amusing historical footnote. All of which arguably revealed Osborne may be more akin to a penurious Janis Joplin than the Donna Jean Godchaux label that has been thrust upon her since the tour’s commencement.
But the truly effulgent moments of the Osborne laden show came late in the second set, with her performances of "Rueben and Cerise," and the lilting ballad "Comes a Time." While lacking Garcia’s latent caesuras and endearing off-kilter warble, Osborne’s clear pronunciation made the songs arguably deeper. The story of "Rueben and Cerise" had far more lucidity in Osborne’s hands, and wed with the mellifluous melody with more immediate impact. Osborne’s lachrymose emotional state during "Comes A Time," where her voice cracked with emotion, seemed entirely pertinent given a post-Garcia line-up. Likewise, it proved one of the more powerful moments of the entire evening.
As a consequence of the setlist, the entire band’s sound carried the zeitgeist of the Dead circa 1972. Even the rather disposable "Built to Last" had the puissance of early Dead. While the tight improvisational moments within "Playing in the Band," "Looks Like Rain," "New Speedway Boogie," "Uncle John’s Band," and "Friend of the Devil" only further cemented such a connection to an erstwhile sound. Throughout the evening they would enter a wormhole briefly, but they did so with instrumental lithe and sincere purpose. Never did they wander into a box they couldn’t quickly escape.
In the avoidance of excessive notes and surfeit peregrinations, the group focused on other aspects of their performances. For example they reflected a keen interest in the minute details of songs rather than the conceivable pitfalls of aleatoric excesses. From adding vocal half-steps in "Mississippi Half-Step" to the jazz dissonant undergirdings of Jeff Chimenti’s keyboard flourishes on "Uncle John’s Band," the band sounded as though they had no intention of offering a mere half-assed performance. Every note mattered, as the meanings of the songs were paramount to everything else that could conceivably transpire.
Just like in the early 70's when they focused on their then swollen songbook rather than excursions into outer space. Back when they were the Good Ol' Grateful Dead.