Article by AB Garrod
I made plans to go to New York City to see some friends and check out Alphabet Soup, a jazz/hip-hop band featuring Kenny Brooks of RatDog and Dred Scott, a pianist who plays in Brooklyn frequently. They were playing a late night show on a Tuesday, so it was easy for me to be off work and I could always use a little road trip. As the plan developed, Furthur announced a two-night stand at Radio City Music Hall. Naturally, that became part of the itinerary.
I never got a chance to see the Grateful Dead (Jerry passed when I was 15), but have become a lover of their music over the years and have seen every other incarnation of the band in various settings. I have also seen Dark Star Orchestra many times, and have always been stunned by the sincerity and reverence with which John Kadlicek channels the music and spirit of Jerry Garcia. His inclusion in this new group was a big surprise to me—it seemed strange that Phil and Bob would reach out to a player who didn’t just play the music of Garcia, but actually emulated him on a nightly basis for years.
The Dark Star Orchestra’s motto is “Raising the Dead,” and that is exactly what they have succeeded in doing. Able to play old Dead shows note for note, no one was more fit than Kadlicek to be tapped to fill the spot. Jay Lane and Jeff Chimenti of RatDog have been playing the music with Bob for a long time, and were seamless transitions into their roles.
The decision to have a second drummer, just as the Grateful Dead had for most of their career, was a bold move. Finding two drummers who could play together and feed off the energy of one another is a hard task. The announcement that the second drummer would be Joe Russo (Fat Mama, Benevento/Russo Duo, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress) was another surprise. Having seen Joe play in several of his other bands, I was familiar with his playing and I never imagined he would be in a situation where he would be playing the music of the Grateful Dead. I was in for a pleasant surprise.
The day before the show, I called my friend to confirm plans for the following day. “Dude, the show is next Tuesday, not tomorrow.” I had spaced it! Blown it! Pulled a rookie move! I told my friend I’d call him back and felt my excitement fade away. I had arranged my work schedule around a mid-week trip that week, the next week was far less feasible. So I swallowed my pride and decided not to go. I mean, it’s only the first time Phil Lesh would be playing Radio City since 1980 (Bobby played there with RatDog in 2006). And Radio City Music Hall is only one of the most luxurious and beautiful rooms in the country. It wouldn’t be a big deal. I didn’t have a ticket anyway, and it was a sold out show. I went about my normal day-to-day, silently moping. On the actual day before the show, my friend called me. I still hadn’t mustered the guts to tell him I wasn’t coming, and before I had the chance to do just that, he exclaimed:
“I procured you fifth row seats, how do you like that?”
Fifth row seats at Radio City Music Hall?
The idea of responsibility crossed my mind. I thought around corners about how to pull it off. I contemplated. I woolgathered. I bartered and juggled and, in the end, I did what so many kids of all ages have done countless times over the past 40 years—I blew off work to go to a Dead show. Tuesday morning came, I dropped the kids off at school and hit the road.
Traveling from the Shenandoah Valley to New York City in one day will provoke a case of culture shock. The mere operation of going from one place to another is so much more complicated, more steps required to get to a nearby location. Hurry up and wait, as it were. This is why I love having friends to lead me around while I take in the sights and sounds, relishing in the sensory overload that is New York.
As we came out of the subway adjacent to Radio City, the hordes of Deadheads were immediately visible. Even in the cold February drizzle, many folks paced about with fingers held high, hoping for a ticket. There were extras to be found, but overall it was a hard ticket to snag. Shoulder to shoulder under the marquee at Radio City Music Hall, you couldn’t tell it was a Tuesday night. Anticipation was high as we made our way into the building.
Classy marble statues stood majestically throughout the atrium in Radio City, a strange contrast to the tie-dye-clad, longhaired, freaky people bouncing around the halls. I headed through the silver door where I was instructed down the aisle to the floor.
Stopping in the taper section to chat with friends, I noticed the huge flowing curtains over the same stage where the Rockettes perform frequently and was once again awed by the enormity of what we were about to witness. Showtime was nigh, and I stumbled down to where I figured my seat was. Sadly, I had to leave my buddies up in a higher section and fly solo to my orchestra seat. Of course, being a Dead show, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for five years and had the pleasure of hanging with him the whole time. Wonders never cease.
My fifth row seats turned out to be about ten rows back, but I was still close enough to see the grin on Phil’s face as he the rest of the band took the stage. As has been custom recently, the band noodled around in a meandering jam that ended up in a full on “Other One” fake out before the opening notes of “Playin’ in the Band” were heard. Bob Weir was energetic as he belted out the lyrics. I got a kick out of his bushy mustache. The energy was elevated as Kadlicek led the segue into a Jerry Garcia Band favorite, JJ Cale’s “After Midnight.” I grinned as I thought about the playfulness with which Garcia sang the song and was covered in goose bumps because of the similarity to which we were hearing. Backup singers Zoe Ellis and Sunshine Garcia Becker added nice vocal flairs to the mix while swaying in the wings. Kadlicek got another chance to shine with “They Love Each Other,” and the crowd’s enormous reaction to the line “you gotta try and see a little further” earned a huge smile from the bespectacled guitarist.
Before the show, I was talking with a friend about the predictability that the Grateful Dead progressed into over the course of their career. Each show was formulaic in the way it was arranged, from the Bobby songs in the first set to the drum and space segments in the second. Furthur has changed a lot of these norms, but it’s still the first set and Bob Weir needs to sing. Bobby broke out the pink axe and I knew it was that time of the evening. Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” was performed flawlessly by Weir, who delivered the complex lyrics and had everyone in the place smiling. The band launched into “The Race is On,” getting the whole crowd hopping. Steve Winwood’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” was up next—John Kadlicek begged for salvation in a tune, something snappy. A couple tears were shed by some old Heads during this tune, feeling a longing for things gone by. Coming out of “Mr. Fantasy,” Jeff Chimenti began plugging away at his piano.
Pretty soon he had worked himself into a frenzy—it sounded like a full-on sawdust-on-the-floor honky tonk in Radio City Music Hall. The crowd was pumped and Weir carried the energy into a RatDog tune, “Two Djinn.” Breaking another rule, we got a “Samson and Delilah” to end the set, a song usually reserved for Sunday encores in the land of the Grateful Dead. Bobby flubbed the lyrics a little, but we took it as a chance to chuckle as a group while he grinned and worked his way through.
Setbreak was long and spent talking with neighbors and cracking jokes. I chatted with Sunshine Garcia Becker’s husband, who informed me that their baby had seen more shows than him on this tour and that Sunshine Flower was, in fact, his wife’s given name. You never know who you’ll run into and what funny tidbits of life they may have, that’s part of the beauty of this scene.
We refreshed our beverages and settled in for the second set.
“Viola Lee Blues” got things going at a funky pace and a big jam in the middle was reminiscent of “Caution,” but that may just be my interpretation of what was going on. “Shakedown Street” was a welcome tune in the big city, reminding us that you just have to poke around sometimes to find what you’re looking for. The jam coalesced into a wacky disco segment, complete with psychedelic disco balls spinning on the projector behind the stage.
Eventually, the band ended up at the beginning of “Hard to Handle,” an Otis Redding tune that has been covered by the Dead since the days of Pigpen. The place was rocking as the the opening notes of “Deal” were heard. A great song on any night, this particular performance was absolutely nailed by the young players on stage—Chimenti finessing his keys while Jay Lane jumped up and down in time to Russo’s drumming. The band was locked in for this tune, which was a highlight of my evening. “Mason’s Children,” another song from the 1960’s that has found its way back into rotation, followed by “Days Between” slowed things down for a moment, giving the crowd a chance to catch their collective breath. We got another Bobby tune with “Let It Grow,” featuring great guitar work by Kadlicek. Phil’s grin was huge as the beginning of “Help On the Way” was played. John Kadlicek handled the vocals flawlessly, his sometimes crackly voice curling around Garcia and Hunter’s lyrics like an old glove. We got an extended “Slipknot!” jam before Phil took the reigns for “Franklin’s Tower,” a song that carries great emotion for the band and fans of the band with its foretelling lyrics.
The music of the Grateful Dead does different things for every person. It’s mysterious poetry that can be applied to so many aspects of your life, analyzed and understood all while you stand smiling, watching a happy band and a spiffy light show.
As the band left the stage, I found myself appreciating the evolution of our musical world and the value of friends. I thought about how far this band has come in such a short time and how far it has to go. Phil Lesh is turning 70 this year and, as he informs us nightly in his Donor Rap, he is healthy thanks to a young man who decided to be an organ donor. Bob Weir’s singing and playing is as good as it has been in years, and the rest of the players in Furthur seem to have unlimited energy, as we witnessed during the “Johnny B. Goode” encore.
As a good friend so eloquently puts it, “they’re taking over”. After the show, John Kadlicek was milling about in the lobby of Radio City. I troubled him for a smile and a high-five and floated back out into the streets of New York City. We made our way to Brooklyn and caught the Alphabet Soup show, a pleasant end to a great night out on the town.
The sun was coming up when we finally called it a night. I snagged a few hours of sleep and began my long trek back to Virginia, my sensory receptors buzzing from a night of musical and social overload. I am always happy to go home, although we are all lucky enough to have more musical experiences on the horizon.
To Phil and Bob and the bunch, I want to thank you for a real good time. See you down the road.