(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Concert review - Good Gravy,Jerry Garcia Band

9 April 2009 (Aggie Theater, Ft. Collins CO)
What an interesting night. We get a lot of good music here in Ft. Collins but this was odd. We had the Wailers at Hodi's and Jerry Garcia Band at the Aggie. Which dead guy's band do you want to hear? Bob Marley's or Jerry Garcia's? The jam band/college crowd had to decide. I'm not sure how Hodi's did but we had a decent crowd at the Aggie. I think either show had some advantage but I won tickets to see JGB, so the fates decided: if you're going to listen to the dead, pick the one that's most Dead;-)

Good Gravy
The opening act was a local bluegrass band called Good Gravy. I'd never heard them before. They had a touch of jam band in their mix, which made them a reasonable fit for JGB. They're a five piece group: bass, drums, percussion, guitar and mandolin. They bill themselves on MySpace as very eclectic, mentioning styles like hip hop and electronica. Maybe so, but for this show, they were more focused on bluegrass. They did push beyond bluegrass into simple rock jams on a few songs.

The band does a decent job. The drummer is very steady. The bass is strongest and most comfortable on the bluegrass songs. The percussion player is easy to overlook but he adds a lot of texture to the band. The band is fronted by the mandolin player and the guitar player. The mandolin is pretty competent but he needs to connect better with the crowd, he seemed a little shy or standoffish. The guitar player was a little smoother about that. What I enjoyed most about the guitarist was that he could toggle between bluegrass mode and jam band mode so clearly. On the whole, I'd like to see them work a little more on their vocals to get some stronger harmonies and pull in some of that "high lonesome" sound.

The set started out with a cover of Jonathan Edwards' Shanty Song. They also played quite a few original songs. Bluegrass really is their primary thing, even though they threw in a funky little jam early on. One of the best moments came when the mandolin player had to sit out, fixing a broken string. The band filled the time with a guitar based jam that sounded like Led Zeppelin covering Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile. The groove was a little stiff but it was still my favorite song of the set. The mando made it back in for the end of the jam, to help drive it home. They had a few songs like this that were more rock than bluegrass

Here in Ft. Collins, I've heard many bands work the bluegrass/rock mix and Good Gravy didn't seem that different except for a few sound effect touches, like the bass player using an envelope follower (listen to one here), some occasional echo on the mandolin, or the percussion player using his synth pad. This last bit caught my ear as something more interesting. While the rest of the band played a fairly traditional set of changes, he threw in some trippy sounds and some odd little textural bits that added a more modern reference. This character took them beyond the standard improvisational bluegrass band. I'll have to catch them again to see how typical this is.

Jerry Garcia Band
From the moment the Jerry Garcia Band took the stage, Jerry's ghost presided over the show. Before I can talk much about the playing and the show itself, I really need to talk through the weirdness. It's been 14 years since Jerry died. Even though Melvin Seals is a link to Jerry's old band (he played keyboards in the band when Jerry was alive), this was more like a tribute band. And I felt the same kind of surreal disorientation.

Tribute bands try to freeze a moment under glass, as a sort of a museum piece. I know a lot of people miss Jerry and appreciate the chance to relive the past and tribute bands give people a taste of what used to be. Still, I'm always uncomfortable hearing a very talented musician bury his ego to reproduce someone else's sound and performance. Stu Allen is a great guitarist and he's done an incredible job capturing Jerry's sound, both vocally and on the guitar. But I wonder what he'd sound like on his own. Stu was so immersed in his role as virtual Jerry, that he even played band leader, calling the tunes and cuing the rest of the band. Even though the band poster says "featuring Melvin Seals" and Melvin was a strong player, Stu seemed to be the driving force of the band.

But despite being close, Stu just isn't Jerry. I was talking to Steve, a guy I met there, and he said it best, "It's like the Jimi Hendrix Experience without Jimi." Of course, most of the audience was too young to have seen Jerry in his prime. That night, though, the crowd didn't care. They were more into grooving to the moment and enjoying the scene, which is closer to what made the Grateful Dead such a cultural phenomenon. Enough complaining, I think I'll follow the crowd's example and focus on the music.

The music did not disappoint at all. The band played a lot of songs straight off JGB's old setlists: Lee Dorsey's Get Out Of My Life, Woman and several Jerry/Grateful Dead songs, like Lonesome and a Long Way From Home, Cats Down Under the Stars, and Gomorrah. They also did several Eric Clapton tunes like Lay Down Sally and After Midnight. Regardless of the legacy and other mind games, the band was tight and deeply musical. Melvin's keyboard work was intense. He had a Hammond organ as well as a Roland keyboard but he favored the Hammond, which has that rich sound you've heard on so many songs from the '60s and '70s. The bass and drums fit together seamlessly, the backup singers added a classic R&B feel, and the guitar had plenty of room to take off.

I won't run through the whole setlist, but the beginning of the first set was perfectly arranged to set the mood and get the audience locked in. They led off with a smooth jam on Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come. Melvin's organ bounced in a bubbly rhythm chank on the verses. Then, on the lead, he showcased the churchy melodic sound of the Hammond. They slowed things down a little for the second song, Sugaree, played in a gospel style. This took us all straight to church. I was ready to testify. The crowd swayed and danced. All the pieces fit just so: the bass was warm and beautiful, the backup singers were soulful, the church organ pealed, and, if you shut your eyes, you could hear Jerry's voice in Stu's hesitating phrases.

From there, they launched into Get Out Of My Life, Woman, sounding like Booker T and the MGs. The keyboard solo in this was blistering and Stu and Melvin traded licks as the song built up. Then they shifted gears again to play Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Slow, emotional verses slipped into faster, reggae beat choruses, propelled by the drums. The transition was smooth, but it kept us from getting complacent.

These four songs alone were a great example of how to mold an audience: wake them up in the beginning, pull them all together, raise the energy, then whipsaw them off balance enough to hold their attention. We settled in for two full sets of beautiful music tinged with a sense of nostalgia because these were all songs we've heard many times before.

This was a night for a fruity, medium sweet rosé wine and dancing with abandon.


  1. Agreed. Jerry was Jerry and imitating him is kind of pointless. My preference is when The Dead brought in Joan Osbourne to do Jerry's side of the vocals, back in ~2003. Kept to the spirit of the music, while providing a very definite *difference*. Just my 2 cents.

  2. I agree, that's a better approach. It also means that the sound will be a new thing and less creatively sterile.