Live Review: Jerry Garcia Tribute in Berkeley, CA
September 26, 2005 by Jim Harrington liveDaily Contributor
Everything felt so familiar--the songs, the players, the venue and the crowd. But someone was clearly missing from Saturday's (9/24) "Comes a Time - A Celebration of the Music and Spirit of Jerry Garcia show at the U.C. Greek Theatre in Berkeley, CA. The missing person wasn't Garcia; the legendary guitarist seemed to be everywhere on this night, and many crowd members remarked that they could feel his presence. If that sounds ludicrous to you, then you don't own a VW Bus with a Steal Your Face decal on it.
Three of the four surviving members of the seminal Grateful Dead lineup--drummers Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and vocalist-rhythm-guitarist Bob Weir were there. But bassist Phil Lesh was elsewhere, which was a true shame, given the magnitude of this tribute to his former bandmate. In fact, it will be hard to forgive Lesh--a man who owes his spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to Garcia--for missing this show. But, walking up to the picturesque venue, one fan helped put things in proper prospective:
"This isn't about who's not playing," he said, "it's about who is."
Good point. There was certainly much for the capacity crowd to cheer about with a lineup that included Melvin Seals, Merl Saunders, Bruce Hornsby, Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, String Cheese Incident and Weir's Ratdog. The biggest name on the bill was Trey Anastasio and fans were champing at the bit to hear the former Phish frontman tear through some Garcia classics.
Unfortunately, the show--a fundraiser for the Rex Foundation, the Dead's charitable arm that provides grants and support to creative endeavors in the arts, sciences and education--didn't quite live up to its promise. The concert was plagued with sound problems and the format—-where musicians rotated through the stage—-made it hard for any ensemble to fully hit a proper jam-band stride.
The six-hour performance got underway with short sets by David Nelson, who was a member of the Garcia side-project New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Colorado's String Cheese Incident, which delivered acoustic versions of the likes of "Casey Jones" and "Friend of the Devil." The remaining members of the Jerry Garcia Band, led by Seals, put on perhaps the best full set of the night by playing such favorites as "Rhapsody in Red" and "Cats Under the Stars."
Weir's Ratdog--which currently also includes drummer Jay Layne, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, guitarist Mark Karan, saxophonist Kenny Brooks and bassist Robin Sylvester—-had a hard time matching the Jerry Garcia Band's energy level. Heck, they had a hard time matching Rip Van Winkle's energy level as they plodded through a set of "Mississippi Half-Step," "Bird Song," "Lazy River Road" and "Big Railroad Blues."
Utilizing portions of Ratdog as the house band, the main set featured an ever-rotating cast of guest musicians performing some of Garcia's best-loved tracks, beginning with the Anastasio-sung "Help on the Way." Anastasio, although he never quite took flight on guitar in a similar fashion to what he routinely did with Phish, definitely sounded great on vocals. Unfortunately, we didn't get to hear his every word, as the sound momentarily cut out midway through "Help on the Way." That was a huge letdown. Thankfully, Anastasio would have better luck later in the show during renditions of such songs as "Eyes of the World." (Side note: Anastasio's version of that Dead classic, while good, still wasn't as great as the one delivered by the Dave Matthews Band at the same venue just two days after Garcia died back in 1995.) Other vocalists didn't do as well with Jerry's material. In particular, Hornsby lost on "Loser" and Haynes wasn't sweet with "Sugaree."
The main set improved greatly in the second half as Kreutzmann and Hart took to the stage to help drum home such great numbers as "Stella Blue," "Scarlet Begonias" and "He's Gone." Lesh's bass work, however, was greatly missed on these songs.
Garcia, indeed, is gone. But these fans will never let him be forgotten.