The Dead, The Gorge, George, WA- 9/21
The Dead Heads showed up in droves at the high desert country of eastern Washington's Gorge Amphitheater and helped to provide a vibe that was almost as high and mighty as the incredible scenery that surrounds this stellar venue. There were no parking lot attendants like at past shows I've seen here so, once the camping pass was paid for, folks were on their own to park and camp wherever they pleased. Vendors vended without any hassle at all and Shakedown Street hummed with the activity of various barters and negotiations for one item or another. The crowd was made up of mostly older heads and anyone under thirty was in the minority. After a day of partying with friends in the lot, we walked along the dusty path down to the venue. Entering was simple without the hassle of an intrusive search or pat down.
Once inside I walked down to my seat on the right side of the stage in the eleventh row. The band kicked things off with an opening warm-up jam that had some darker undertones. I was struck by the power and crisp clarity of the sound system from the beginning. A fair version of Truckin' came next, but it seemed like too big of a song for the opener as the band still hadn't warmed up completely. The tension build-up before the big release part of the jam was just so-so. Then they built it up again, and the slam part was better the second time, but there was no loud and raucous energy build before the climax, as instead it was mellow with Jimmy playing high floaty notes. A cover of the Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows came next and it was interesting to hear- mellow but extremely psychedelic. Joan was doing some haunting, middle-eastern sounding chanting over sections of it. Next up was Cryptical Envelopment, which is always a treat. Phil's vocals were, well, Phil's vocals but Jimmy really shined playing some amazingly fluid and speedy guitar riffs.
Then the familiar strains of Loser washed over me through the sound system. Unfortunately, Bob "Ace" Weir botched the very first line of the tune. He sang, "If I had an ace for every…" then paused and recovered quickly. I chuckled to myself that Ace sang the lyric about an ace incorrectly. It was only a minor flub, however, and the band went on to perform a sweet version of the classic. I really enjoyed Jimmy's solo here as he played melodically at first, very reminiscent of Jerry's style, and then slowly opened it up with his signature speedy riffs to give this version a unique flavor of its own. Alligator came next and it was great to hear this dusty old reptile emerge from the sewer. The Alligator lyrics were a bit uneven because Joan and Phil try to sing it together, but have different inflections so it felt somewhat disjointed and tentative sounding. The jam really got cooking and the band was working together and wailing. It seemed like they were now starting to lose themselves in the music and just let it happen. Things got mellow and there was a strong "Sunshine of Your Love" tease before they headed into Caution. Joan rapped to the crowd, which was excellent, but perhaps a bit excessive. She was strutting all over the stage working the audience. She told Bobby that, as an artist, he is in touch with his feminine side to which he kind of shrugged and threw his hand up in the air and looked embarrassed. It was very humorous and Bob erupted into a slide guitar mini-jam fury in response. Then she asked the ladies to check out Jimmy Herring and his "mojo hand." He answered with a few signature riffs of his own in his jazzy, heavy southern jam style before the band launched off into a heated improvisation.
Must've Been the Roses was next and served as a breather for many in attendance. Joan sung this standard version of the song beautifully. Up next was Fire on the Mountain, the final song of the first set. This bouncy and up-tempo version was extremely enjoyable and danceable, but Mickey sort of barks out the lyrics and doesn't really sing them at all, which feels out of place on this otherwise beautiful and melodious little number. Joan's vocals would fit perfectly on this one (or Rob's).
The second set started off with a solid enough version of Loose Lucy with Weir handling the vocals. Next came a great Brown Eyed Women that included some fancy guitar work by Herring and some animated bass lines by Lesh. Eyes of the World and a short jam followed, and a quick, punchy pace helped to make this song quite the crowd-pleaser as everyone spun and twirled with enthusiasm. I prefer this song being longer and more jammed out, but this great little succinct version was played nearly perfectly. As the band moved into Night of a Thousand Stars, I couldn't help but think of the songs they had not yet played on their west coast run. I was yearning for St. Stephen>The Eleven, Viola Lee Blues, Mason's Children, New Speedway Boogie, or even a Morning Dew, but it was not to be. It was a nice version of the tune, however, and Joan shared vocal duties with Phil. Then they busted into Estimated Prophet. Here we go! The music was slinky, psychedelic, and funky with strong vocals from Bob all the way through before the jam got weird, twisted, and dark. Also, the vocal build up was done tastefully with cries from Weir, but no all out wailing.
The drummers then remained on stage as everyone else took off. Billy led the show with some great trap set work and was flying away with jazzy rolls and tom fills. He played and played and the crowd watched in awe. Mickey started pounding on the beam and sundry other gadgets the drummers have in the back. Suddenly the drums section became a percussive space with all sorts of loud and freaky noises coming out of the speakers. The other band members began reappearing to play a short but sweet version of space with Joan vocalizing over top of the light instrumental soundscape. Eventually the whole thing slowly meandered into the opening chords of Standing on the Moon. Bobby sang this poignant, tune by Hunter and Garcia and then stayed at the microphone for Cassidy. The vocals were great and the jam was very strong with Lesh, Herring, Kreutzmann and Hart playing well off one another. Sugaree ended the set with another solid version of a classic Dead tune and included nice keyboard work from both Jeff Chimenti and Rob Barraco.
Since it was a Sunday night at the pristine outdoor church of nature that is the Gorge, Sampson and Delilah was a fitting choice for the first encore. The vocals-and-drums-only intro to the song was a bit confusing at first. Where was that familiar ripping lead guitar intro? The whole band then slammed into it after a verse or two and the song now possessed the power I remembered. It was a loud, strong, tight version with the band really showcasing their ability to bring the serious heat at any moment. Brokedown Palace followed and the serene beauty of the song matched perfectly with the serene beauty of the venue itself as the Columbia River drifted peacefully far below the high dusty cliffs of the Gorge. It was hard to hold back a tear in honor of Jerry as the river sang us, sweet and sleepy, all the way back home.