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Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration Featuring Warren Haynes Oakdale Theater, Wallingford, CT- 5/15

You could be forgiven for wondering whether Warren Haynes ever sleeps. The guitarist roams far and wide – Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers, his own solo outfit, guesting with everyone, the mind boggles. But the thought of Haynes fronting an orchestra to play Jerry Garcia’s music was a bit of a head-scratcher, what’s next, a Broadway salute? But the rave reviews of last year’s symphonic shows couldn’t be ignored and he decided to revisit the concept with an ever-expanding series of performances this spring and summer. Haynes personally sifted through the Grateful Dead’s and Garcia’s canon and came up with both crowd pleasers and some overlooked gems.

Suitably decked out in a black suit (no tie, let’s not push it), Haynes began with a smattering of “Dark Star,” then segued into “Bird Song,” an ode to Janis Joplin from Garcia’s first solo album. Clear plastic baffles separated the orchestra from the rock band up front, though the musicians blended nicely with each composition. In this setting the amplifiers had to be turned down somewhat to avoid blaring out the orchestra entirely. So there were times during “China Cat Sunflower” or Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” when crowd noise was a distraction, but the upside to this was Haynes didn’t need to holler to be heard, as on “Morning Dew,” which was given a breathtakingly beautiful arrangement.

Though back in 1995 Warren Haynes’ star was ascending as Garcia’s was fading out, having played on various projects with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, Warren is well-suited to interpret the late guitarist’s music without resorting to mere pastiche. Being able to borrow Garcia’s famous “Wolf” guitar from its current owner for these shows was a nice touch and Haynes had the axe soaring on “Scarlet Begonias” and “West L.A. Fadeaway.” Haynes voice is at its best when there’s an edge of darkness and desperation. And it doesn’t get much darker than “Days Between,” made towards the tail end of Garcia’s life

It was a bit odd for flutes to herald “Uncle John’s Band,” but it brought everyone up from their seats. The view of the dancing crowd from the orchestra must’ve been priceless, the smile on conductor Rich Daniel’s face could be seen twenty rows back. The backup singers, Alecia Chakour and Jasmine Muhammad filled out “Hear Comes Sunshine” and Blues For Allah’s “Crazy Fingers.” Jeff Sipe played the briefest of drum solos before an extended Terrapin Station medley. The show wrapped up with Haynes’ Garcia tribute, “Patchwork Quilt” and then segued into “Ship Of Fools”

Haynes has spoken of feeling intimidated by the concept of playing with a symphony and there is a tradeoff, but what was lost in the ability to improvise was made up for in a re-discovery of the beauty in the melodies. The two worlds merged together, they didn’t collide. One can imagine Jerry Garcia’s music presented this way fifty years from now and they’ll be dancing then too.

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