The Dead at Verizon Center
Thursday, April 16, 2009
The Dead, recently reunited and no longer Grateful in deference to the late Jerry Garcia, is a band with many personalities. They've taken on country-rock, experimental psychedelia, bluegrass-tinged folk, even the occasional boogie blues. But mostly, they are a jam band.
And that's too bad.
Because buried underneath lots of shapeless noodling and meandering solos, the counterculture heroes played some pretty good songs Tuesday night at Verizon Center. But 40 minutes of good music out of nearly four hours (including a couple of intermissions) does not a memorable evening make.
Of course, going to see the Dead and complaining the band jams too much is like walking into Barneys and being outraged at the high prices. Stretching things out is what gives the Dead their identity, and they sprouted an entire generation of like-minded bands. There were no jam bands or bootleg-trading networks before the Dead. Now jam-band culture is an industry unto itself, one that has especially boomed as new bands picked up the slack in the wake of Garcia's 1995 death. Since then, Dead members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann have played in various groups, sometimes together.
Tuesday's concert was just the second night of the band's first tour using the classic moniker, but the spotlight was too often on Garcia's de facto replacement, Warren Haynes.
It's not that Haynes isn't a capable substitute; his guitar playing borders on virtuosic. But whereas Garcia brought an understated elegance to the table, Haynes too often dominated the mix. On the hard-driving of "Cassidy" and "Big Railroad Blues" -- the only highlights of a lackluster opening set -- his playing sounded fine. Mostly, his piercing solos were the only audible element, and they simply started to sound the same after a while. He's almost too technically proficient; the songs rarely had room to breathe.
The band managed just three tunes during a half-hour acoustic set that wasn't as long as the intermission that preceded it. Those included Haynes's "Glory Road," an uninspired bar band ballad, and the group was completely out of sync on a ramshackle version of Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." After that it was a combination of another intermission, improv space jam, unsynchronized noodling, psychedelic workout "Dark Star" and drum solos for more than an hour. (Hart's intense gong-banging was actually a highlight.) Things never picked up again until the closing trio of "Sugar Magnolia" (with longtime fan Tipper Gore on drums -- really), "Uncle John's Band" and "Ripple." Weir's voice sounded strong, the melodies were clear, there were words to sing along to. There's a reason you hear those songs on the radio to this day.
The action onstage is only half the story at a Dead show, though. Three generations of fans filled Verizon Center, but the old guard certainly dominated. Sample audience member: a 50-something with a tucked-in, button-down shirt and a BlackBerry holster on his hip slyly taking a hit off a joint and then twirling around during "Dark Star." After the band's opening set the chatter among the Deadest of the heads was in full force. "Every song was jammed so much it made the last show seem like a garage band!" one fan breathlessly exclaimed to someone over his cellphone. The audience seemed thrilled to have its heroes back and the feeling was mutual: "I didn't realize how much I missed playing with you guys," Lesh said, addressing the audience. If only it could just be more actual playing and less messing around.