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Dancing bears: the Dead’s Weir (foreground) and Haynes at the TU Center.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Bottle: Dusty; Liquor: Clean

By Josh Potter

The Dead

Times Union Center, April 17

Much can be determined about the health of a touring band by the size of its parking-lot scene. Four nights into a reunion tour that included a meeting with President Obama, a performance on The View, and a guest drum solo by Tipper Gore (WTF?), there was some indication that the Dead’s Albany stop would be more nostalgia and novelty than the kind of musical voyage that has kept this consummate touring band on the road for more than 40 years. From the look and smell of downtown Albany in the hours leading up to the show, though, it was clear that few shared this expectation. In a rare display of cool, the APD allowed for a classic Shakedown Street bazaar that flowed out of the lot and onto a closed-off South Pearl Street, where deadheads young and old traded stories, memorabilia, and food for the pineal gland. Even before the band went on, the “circuit” between audience and performer that bassist Phil Lesh would reference toward the end of the show had already been completed.

After a cursory run through “Casey Jones,” the band seemed to settle in with “Cold Rain and Snow,” delivering the audience the oft-sought treat of Lesh’s deep voice. Proving that the band still have command of their sizable catalog, the set touched on surprise gems from the Arista years, including a tribal “New Minglewood Blues” and a sleazy “West L.A. Fadeaway.” While the band are strongest during more wholesome numbers, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti conjured the decadent gleam of the ’80s with plenty of clavinet. With “Brown Eyed Women,” the band brought the skittering major-key boogie, which might well be the sound that separates the heads from the haters.

For the first time this night, guitarist Warren Haynes (of the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule) proved why he was called on to fill the mighty musical and spiritual void left by Jerry Garcia. While Haynes’ chops have never been suspect, his proclivities toward the blues and Southern soul have divided some fans into two T-shirt camps: “I miss Jerry” and “Warren fans are people too.” With “Brown Eyed Women” and the set- closing “Cumberland Blues,” though, Haynes traded the blues pathos (which suited a second-set “Sugaree” perfectly) for Garcia’s clean, cascading runs and haughty turns of phrase.

If the first set left any lingering expectations for light fare, the opening minutes of the second dashed them. An amorphous intro crawled into “Viola Lee Blues” and found Lesh using the full range of his sci-fi, LED-adorned bass. By the time the band found their way into “The Other One,” the set had become fully liquid and cerebral enough to drive the impatient to their seats. Between verses, they spun dense Gordian knots of meandering guitar, oscillating organ, and contrapuntal bass. The official set list (verified by some priestly Internet archivist) lists “Space” as following “Drums,” yet the proximity to abject atonality during “The Other One” was such that much of the second set felt like one extended “Space.” Without the tension-and-release-style improvisation or the tendency to skip into fully separate genres (qualities that have come to characterize second- and third-generation jam outfits), the Dead instead dissolve in and out of singular idioms, demanding that the listener find their own place in the cloud. To a degree, these moments (still challenging to the neophyte) evade positive/negative consensus by virtue of their elasticity, so what may have proven gratuitous to some in the audience no doubt proved revelatory to others. This has always been the nature of the “circuit” Lesh described.

The band emerged from “Space” with “Comes a Time” and the gorgeous “Unbroken Chain,” before climaxing with the Bob Weir-led “Throwing Stones.” Completing a traditional song sequence, “Not Fade Away” was the encore.

The set list alone might not make this one a classic, but as throngs of starry-eyed heads inundated traffic and the nitrous mafia situated along Hudson Avenue, it was clear that all is well in the land of the Dead.

Dawg in Space

The Jefferson Grisman Project

The Egg, April 16

Quite the head-scratcher of a bill, the anachronistic pairing of mandolin virtuoso David Grisman with the latest version of Jefferson Starship was a primer of sorts for a weekend full of all things heady and San Francisco, landing as it did on the night before the Dead’s latest sojourn in Albany. Touring in support of last year’s Tree of Liberty release, Paul Kantner and his charges (the only other Haight-era vet in the current band is David Freiberg) put on a show that ranged wildly in quality. Its ramshackle charm (and sometimes lack thereof) made for a strange and memorable evening.

Always a bit of the crank/visionary, due mostly to his penchant for sci-fi imagery, Kantner started the show with “When the Earth Moves Again,” a post-apocalyptic campfire tune that manages to pack in references to Hannibal, the pyramids, Moses and interplanetary space travel. With the stage backdrop of Betsy Ross and Gadsden flags, and his ambling folk-rock space operas, Kantner seemed to be saying to anyone who would bother to listen, “I got your Old Weird America, right here!” Grace Slick-surrogate Cathy Richardson then took the spotlight, surprising the half-full Hart Theatre with a bit of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” before belting an over-the-top rendition of “Somebody to Love.” Grisman was then ushered on for “Shady Grove” and Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” Initially hampered by a muddy mix that made him all but inaudible, Grisman rallied for a scintillating “Bluegrass at the Beach,” causing Starship’s guitarist Slick Aguilar and keyboardist Chris Smith to step up their game, Grisman positioned between the two and swinging back and forth between them with both his shaggy head and his darting mandolin lines.

Things ground to a halt with a Freiberg-led version of the Jesse Colin Young classic “Get Together,” then were set soaring again, Grisman embodying breakneck bluegrass perfection during the set-closing “Pigeon Roost.” Are we noticing a pattern here?

The Starship contingent fared much better in the second half of the show, with a little help from the presiding spirit of Jerry Garcia. Kantner started the remembrance with “The Mountain Song,” a song he co-wrote with Jerry, while Freiberg redeemed himself with a stirring version of “Loser” (from Garcia’s first solo album). For what was probably the highlight of the night for many, the circle was completed with Grisman returning to the stage for a sprightly “Friend of the Devil.”

Kantner also got around to showcasing some oldies like the Weavers’ “Wasn’t That a Time?” and the Underground Railroad tune “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Near the end he and his band (and a plugged-in Grisman) blew it all skyward with the psychedelic granddaddy “Wooden Ships,” and my rock-out quotient had been satiated. Grisman, for his part, seemed to be having a grand old time. I admit I was sort of weirded out by all the space-travel talk, but it wasn’t anything an encore of “Ride the Tiger” or “Miracles” couldn’t have assuaged. Marty Balin, where art thou?

—Mike Hotter

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