I have chased down many a show over the years in pursuit of something approximating bliss or satisfaction. There have been moments, rare moments, where this feeling almost resides. I have been enraptured by the likes of The Grateful Dead, Stereolab and Sufjan Stevens. (Video here.) I have also been fortunate enough to happen across these moments, such as the choral chanting in Tant Kyi Taung Pagoda, Myanmar. (Video here.)However in my long and winding pursuit, I have been as equally disappointed by all of those those mentioned above, finding boredom and ennui instead. It’s not astonishing to realize that it is the sound and not the event, the journey as they say, even if it’s a recording on a drive going nowhere. (Video here.)
The two remaining pillars of The Grateful Dead – Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir – don’t play together anymore, which is an odd turn of events given the success of last summer’s reunion in Chicago.
Phil tours with “Friends” and Weir plays with “Company”, leading to the question not why are they apart but which band is better?
Band members: Dead and Company appears to have this in spades, given the inclusion of original Grateful Dead drummers, Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, along with John Mayer and, of course, Bob Weir.
That said, the focus of Phil Lesh’s bands has always been the quality of the music, with Warren Haynes, John Scofield, John Medeski as regulars, and noted guests including Melvin Seals (longtime member of the Jerry Garcia Band) and Chris Robinson from The Black Crowes. Further, given the fact that John Mayer isn’t as great as he thinks and Kretzmann and Hart are mailing it in, the Friends have it here. Advantage: Phil Lesh and Friends
Venues: Dead and Company are going for the big, fast bucks and have booked the largest venues possible; in other words, it’s all hockey arenas and baseball stadiums.
Phil Lesh plays almost exclusively at The Capital Theater (outside New York City) and Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael, California, with capacities of 1800 and 350 respectively.The question is only getting there. Advantage: Phil Lesh and Friends
Song Selection: Dead and Company draw from across The Grateful Dead catalog, showing favor to the early 1970’s, including Weir’s Country and Western gems. Phil and Friends have a similar bent, more in the 1960’s. Advantage: Draw
Overall Sound and Experience: While it’s true that Bobby is losing his touch and Phil should stop singing, both know the music. However when it comes to getting inside the sound, being carried away by the interplay between musicians – the jams, man! – Phil plays and leads best. Advantage: Phil Lesh and Friends
With all of this emotional outpouring toward Gord Downie, the musician, I thought I might give a few reasons to love the guy for things other than his music.
1. He’s got a lot of fingers scratching on his hull. I once made the mistake of telling him he’s a very sensitive guy, to which he replied, “I’m not sensitive. Why would you say that?”2. What’s this river that I’m in? I doubt he would admit to being funny, but it’s actually his reactions that are the funniest, falling over silently, choking a laugh into himself.
3. We’d climb a tree and then maybe we’d talk. Late, after a party, Gord was getting ready to go to bed and was being followed around by Bill, all through the house, up the stairs, into his bedroom, talking all the time, story after story. Gord never told him to leave, instead just turned off the light, laughing here and there, and let Bill talk on in the dark.
5. He’s not from downtown. He knows what he knows. Not what he doesn’t.6. He worked it in to look like that. He does the work, a fourth line player, the guy you want on the ice with a few seconds on the clock.
Yeah, Gord’s a good guy, all right. Angst on the planks, spittin’ from a bridge.
You know about Ziggy Stardust, Rebel Rebel and poor old Major Tom, but there is so much you don’t of the sound of David Bowie. These are the songs that you should:5. Sound and Vision (Low, 1976) Actually a song you probably do know but didn’t know you knew, sharp and compelling as anything you’ve heard..
4. Bewlay Brothers (Hunky Dory, 1971) Climbing out of earnestness with pain and delight, knowing something but not knowing what.
3. V-2 Schneider (Heroes, 1976) Space-age, new-age from a distant planet, words so close and so far.
2. Fascination (Young Americans, 1975) The rhythm and groove which every disco artist dreamed they might find.
1. Big Brother (Diamond Dogs, 1974) Magnificent, poignant and magnificent again, what the conceptual album and song are dreamed upon.
Low entranced a Birmingham, Alabama audience on Friday evening with a set of music spanning their 16-year history. The set list was magical, the sound full and melodious, the visuals, the drinks, the venue, all of it so right that I thought about how great it was to be alive. It was like childhood contentment, almost knowing something to be true, turning ahead, out of nothing, more real than metal, naked, science and math and art and language, all of that in their sound. (Click here or on the picture below to hear for yourself) And so, I was pretty excited after the show and tracked all of the band members down – Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and Steve Garrington – and tried to explain it all to them.
I admit that I did go on and on and my wife tried to pull me away, realizing that I was acting like John Steinbeck’s Lenny, squeezing the beauty and truth out of a thing, but none of them seemed to mind too much. And then I wanted to thank them for that too.
We went to see Low play in Anchorage, Alaska, and hoped for the Northern Lights too. We had never been to The Last Frontier; neither had Low. The flight from New York was long – 14 hours with a change in Seattle – and we were verging on collapse by the 10 pm showtime (2 am our EDT). But the venue was great – an intimate bar, Taproot – and there with only a hundred others in attendance, all of whom were bushy and rough.
“We waited for twenty years!” Someone called out.
Allan Sparhawk gazed back. “Actually it’s been 22.” The band looked tired – or were we projecting? – starting slow with Gentle and other lullaby-like songs from their remarkably listenable 2015 release Ones and Sixes, before gradually picking up with Sparhawk’s characteristic distortion and intensity in No Comprehende and Pissing. The light show was understated – 90’s style mandalas blooming and transforming behind Mimi Parker, making her look like a weary Madonna – as was the sound, lilting in and amongst the non-stop chatter from all corners.
“Yeah, I saw you there, but I was talking with RJ!” His beard puffed out like a cartoon character’s. “I haven’t talked with him in months!”
The only exception to the swirl of drink-inspired banter was a young couple in front of us, she with short blonde hair, he with a blond streaked beard, sitting side by side at a wooden table, gazing into each other’s eyes every 15 seconds, talking quietly and mysteriously, consuming a beer with stoic regularity, not once looking at the stage.
A woman looked at my wife and asked if she was a mail order bride. “There’s a lot of them here!”
I imagined that many of these people had come in from distant logging camps and moose hunts for this magical night, and tried to forgive them their boisterous manner. The PA was louder the second night – although the feedback from some songs seemed at times beyond system’s capacity, enveloped in white noise. Sparhawk, Parker and bassist Steve Garrington were more upright and clear, and so was the crowd, almost twice as large as the night before, drunker, louder, crashing into one another, spinning my chair to and fro as they went back and forth to the bar.
“I’ve got four bands now, man!” A heavy man stroked down at his scraggly greying beard as he yelled out to his friend. “Our shortest song is seven minutes! We got one that goes over 40!”
“It was a family event!” The woman’s eyes were sharp, her hair wild. “What do you want from me?!”
I was more tired this night, so damned tired that I just stared stupidly at the spinning mandalas and let them coax me to sleep. I switched to water and then Coke, and counted the bearded men yell with their dates, while Low played on, their subtlety lost in the tumult, until Sparhawk played his guitar like Hendrix which quieted everyone for a moment.
Sparhawk announced that there would be no encore, just one more song. The band had a flight in four hours.
“Don’t wait another 20 years!” Someone pleaded.
We went out into the cold night, looking into the sky, deep and empty, searching the horizon, seeing nothing but the haze of the city lights, not knowing yet that the only Northern Lights we would see were those in Taproot, both they and Low at the center of the madding crowd.
The hype on Dead and Company, the latest Grateful Dead side project, is befuddling to say the least, although the success of 50th anniversary shows have certainly led us hereThe truth is, however, that the fall tour of this hodgepodge and questionably-named band has little to do with the concerts in Chicago. Not only is founding member Phil Lesh nowhere to be seen – indeed he is concurrently playing in his eponymous band – but neither were Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio included.
This group lacks the soul of earlier post-Jerry Garcia incarnations, The Dead and Furthur, neither of which were bedazzled by all the hype.This band, headlined by pop guitarist John Mayer who has nothing whatsoever to do with the music of the Grateful Dead, is a dubious path for Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and, if they are not careful, could lead to moments they might regret.