The Dead, Warren Haynes & Barefoot Manner, Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek, Raleigh, NC- 8/17
"Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes." Heading from the final Phish shows in Vermont straight to the Dead show in Raleigh proved a curious coincidence. One band retires at the top of their game, while the other still travels the country years after making their mark, struggling against stereotype, and finally morphing into living mythology. While not for me to judge better or worse, it was indeed a strange juxtaposition.
Barefoot Manner kicked things off with their first of three sets on the side stage. Their upbeat jamgrass and progressive explorations instantly caught the ear of everyone passing by. Mixing traditional bluegrass instruments such as banjo and mandolin with a buoyant, dynamic rhythm section and propulsion-based arrangements brought a modern vibrancy to their string-band safari. Equally adept at bluegrass standards and sly psychedelic pilgrimages, the Raleigh-based quintet perfectly set the stage for the carnival-like proceedings of the night to come.
Warren Haynes opened things up on the main stage with a solo set of his singular Southern soul. (Call it a soul-o set.) Another set by Barefoot Manner followed, and then it was time for the main attraction. As the Dead appeared on stage, fans noticed an extra form lending its presence. It was none other than saxophonist par excellence (and new NC resident) Branford Marsalis. The sweet saxophone sound began to drift over the lawn as the band got their bearings with a short ambient jam. The rainbow of sound was instantly upon us as the scattered voices blended into a multi-headed beast sharing one brain.
After quickly reacquainting themselves with the eternal musical vacuum, they fell effortlessly into the perfect show-opening choice of "The Music Never Stopped." The lyrics spun the story of a band come to town, sending the kids dancing till dawn with ears a-buzzing. They followed with the jagged angles of a new song written by drummer Mickey Hart called "Strange World," which briefly turned into a funky drums-and-vocals break about nine minutes in. Hart and his coconspirator Billy Kreutzmann held down a mighty bottom end throughout the night, decorating and devastating the sound with their devious drumming.
A piercing guitar line signaled the intro to "Night of a Thousand Stars," a song written by longtime lyricist Robert Hunter and bassist Phil Lesh. With the three guitars of Bob Weir, Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring all interacting at a fever pitch, it was sometimes tough to discern just where the notes were coming from. Perhaps it's just as well, as the whole is unquestionably more than the sum of its parts with this group of musicians. The band seemed to wrap us in a warm blanket with the poignant, ethereal opening melody to "Crazy Fingers," as Jeff Chimenti's subtle barroom piano tinklings colored the neo-reggae philosophical groove.
Marsalis departed temporarily as the band grooved through "Deal" on their way to a new song written by Lesh called "All That We Are." Delicate dual-guitar lines lit up the changes as they drifted into stirring versions of "Good Lovin'" and "Gimme Some Lovin'" to wrap up the first set. Barefoot Manner once again entertained the masses during the intermission, and then it was time for the Dead's second set onslaught of musical adventurism to commence.
Marsalis re-emerged with the band, beginning again with a spacious, carefree jam to set the mood. Soon the triumphant opening notes to "Playin' in the Band" rang out, and the celebration rejuvenation was at top volume. The jam that flowed out was like a kinetic snowball, building and burbling as it rolled along under its own weight and will to life. Marsalis' saxophone mingled with the rest of the instruments as if at an otherworldly dinner party. A little small talk, a loud guffaw, and some spirited discussions can all be detected if you listen with the right kind of ear.
The magnum opus of Traffic's colossal "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" saw the depths of the band revealed, as the seemingly bottomless changes spread out like a cosmic chasm beneath. A quick keyboard tease of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm" led towards a long sax solo by Marsalis. Starting out slowly, he carefully built himself into a frenzy with a flurry of instincts and outbursts. The crowd erupted in delight to reward the intrepid brassman as Haynes' guttural growling led back into the funky chorus.
The set rolled on with the endlessly danceable "Scarlet Begonias —> Fire on the Mountain." The fast and furious guitar lines emanated with exuberant joy as the saxophone raged against the edge of the envelope like Quixote charging a windmill. The worldly wisdom of "The Wheel" featured a reworked chorus melody and a vocal tease of Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs' early soul-rock smash "Stay." Sixteen minutes of "Drums & Space" melted into a fierce rendering of "All Along the Watchtower." The Dead have so many colors in their musical palette it's hard to pick just one aspect to pay attention to. The music is made to wander the mind, and it succeeds in both illumination and conundrum.
It was with extra delight that they burst into "Eyes of the World," whose flourishing melody Marsalis lit up with roses on the Grateful Dead's epochal 1991 live album Without a Net. The resulting instrumental foray was their longest of the night, clocking in at almost fifteen minutes of intricate wanderlust and irrepressible pulsation. Slowly the drums began to change rhythm, pounding out a slower, more earthbound beat. As the audience caught on, the clapping began, and soon the massive organic thump of "Not Fade Away" was upon us. Originally penned by Buddy Holly, the Dead have reinvented it as their own anthemic paean. "Our love is real, not fade away."
The second set closed with Lesh's speech about the importance of organ donations and registering to vote. Weir switched to acoustic guitar for the encore of "Glory Road," a new song written by a friend of Haynes' from North Carolina named Ray Sisk. The slow, thick chord progression lent a celebratory air over the evening, like a victory lap after a marathon. As they always must, the lights finally came up, and the crowd slowly shuffled away, but they had a heart full of music and a song stuck in their head. "The fields are full of dancing / Full of singing and romancing / 'Cause the music never stopped."