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Published: 2014/11/04
by Bridgid Tatlow

The Infamous Stringdusters featuring Keller Williams, Highline Ballroom, NYC- 10/30

Photo by Dino Perrucci

“Night of the Living Dead” Celebrating the songs of The Grateful Dead- The Infamous Stringdusters featuring Keller Williams with special guests Cabinet

The room was packed and the vibe relaxed. Well—as relaxed as a New York City venue filled to capacity on Mischief night can possibly be. Young and old, dread-locked and Patagonia-clad people alike have left their apartments and congregated at the Highline Ballroom to get their fix of Dead tunes. The Infamous Stringdusters and Keller Williams are at the top of the bill but to warm up the crowd, Cabinet takes to the stage.

The bluegrass licks and vibrant stage presence of this 6-piece band provides the perfect prelude to the night’s main event. They start the evening on the earlier side while the floor in the sold-out space is still easily maneuverable—perfect for those tried and true Cabinet fans to slither about and move their feet. Cabinet’s musicianship is the type that garners its own attention and although the band was fitted as the opener, their performance was regarded with serious attention, as it should be.

The Pennsylvania Bluegrass troupe’s tribute to the Dead included takes on both “Cumberland Blues” and “Easy Wind” that came out fast and strong and were punctuated by their own bluegrass music. The beauty of the evening’s show lied in the perfectly executed combination of old and new—of adhering to the backbone of these classic Dead tunes without enforcing a stringent “only Dead” policy. Later in the evening, Keller led the Stringdusters on some of his own bluegrass jams and the later fit into the “Night of the Living Dead” aesthetic just fine. That’s the beauty of these musical explorations—they are not caught up in any bullshit. It was a night of men playing music the best they can & you know what? That’s pretty damn good.

The fresh-faced collective that is The Infamous Stringdusters hit the stage a little after nine with Keller positioned at center stage. They were all dressed in differing degrees of tie dye as if—and I’m sure this is exactly what happened—they decided that was what they were all wearing and everyone had their own take. Sometimes personality shines through the most when everyone’s adhering to the same set-standard.

The Grateful Dead roots extend into the warm fertile dirt of Bluegrass as well as a plethora of other musical grounds. Over the years, the tunes have reached far into the sky of Rock, Jazz, Blues and general badass jam flavor. Musicians spanning many genres have flipped through the Dead’s extensive songbook, trying their hand at playing the songs that, for many of them, sparked their initial interest in music.

Covering the Dead is a right of passage, almost, for musicians these days and it has been done in so many interesting and vastly different ways. What was notable about The Keller / Stringdusters’ performance was the high level of musicianship and vivacious explorative nature that each and every man on the stage visibly possessed.

Banjo player Chris Pandolfi said to the crowd during a moment of pause something along the lines of “None of us would even be up here if it weren’t for The Grateful Dead” and the statement rang genuinely true. The musicians ran through innovative bluegrass takes on “Bertha,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Shakedown Street,” “Eyes of the World” and “Cold Rain and Snow”—among others, and did so with vivacity.

The happiness on the faces of the young yet wildly talented men who graced the stage was somehow tangibly exciting. They did the music justice and proved truly unafraid of letting the jams extend into some intricate and unexplored places—a treat that had as much to do with the Stringdusters’ talent as it did with their guest—Keller Williams. Keller is truly a musical innovator—with the haircut of a 14 year old boy, the voice of a man who’s 65 and the stage presence of someone who’s done it all before yet still feels the fire for playing live music burn within his soul as vivaciously as it did when he first began.

Especially noteworthy was the Stingdusters’ vocals. Everyone had something to sing—each voice had something unique and soulful and lustful to offer. “Dismiss labels. Stop trying to fit into a scene. Be true and play your songs.” These three staccato sentences open the Stringdusters’ artist bio on the Highline website—three sentences that I didn’t read until after the show and yet felt to my very core while watching the performance. I guess that means they’re doing something right.

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