Wednesday, April 15, 2009

already a REVIEW!

By Melissa Ruggieri

Published: April 15, 2009

CHARLOTTESVILLE — It began in typical shambolic fashion — the disheveled-looking band ambled onstage, noodled around with instruments for a few minutes as if at sound check and then, with a few foot taps from Phil Lesh, launched into the first song of a three-hour night.

But what was atypical about tonight’s show from The Dead at John Paul Jones Arena — only the third stop on a 22-date tour — were some of the song selections and arrangements.

Obviously, once The Dead stopped being Grateful after the 1995 death of leader Jerry Garcia, the rest of the band — guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, bassist Lesh and newer recruits, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and guitarist Warren Haynes, on loan again from the Allman Brothers — would always have to distance themselves from Garcia’s iconic memory.

That meant a rare appearance of “New Speedway Boogie,” which featured Hart hammering away at his tom-toms like Gepetto in his workshop, leaving Kreutzmann to hold down the steady beat.

Likewise the Lesh-heavy “Mason’s Children,” which introduced the first sprawling jam of the concert and included some outstanding bass work from Lesh, whose instrument glowed from a blue-lighted fret board.

Haynes’ fluid guitar playing still sings — and stings — and his vocals, which are similar to Garcia’s in tone and range, also anchored many songs.

But when Weir handled lead duties, his voice was often overpowered by the live instrumentation, a hiccup that hardly mattered much to the 12,000-plus assembled, many of them older folks wrapped in tie-dye, but also plenty of Deadheads: The Next Generation.

Any generational gaps were insignificant, especially during the first notes of the peppy “Bertha,” which spurred grown men and teens to start skipping in place, play air guitar and stretch their hands skyward, as if trying to summon the spirit of Garcia.

Considering that this incarnation of The Dead hasn’t toured in more than five years, their musical instincts were impressively sharp even if the sound was spotty.

Eye contact among the members was rarely made during the extensive interludes, from Haynes’ fiery slide solo on the bluesy “Big Boss Man” (another one pulled deep from the archives) to the winding rootsy-rock-jazz epic, “Playing the Band,” which initiated the second set, yet everything melded perfectly.

After nearly an hour intermission, The Dead returned in a more classic mindset, performing songs commonly found on their much-swapped bootlegs.

The cool-at-first, unbearable-after-15-minutes “Drums” literally shook the rafters with Hart’s thunderous percussion that was really more noise than anything groove intensive.

That Dead show staple eventually segued into its usual companion, “Space,” with Haynes endlessly tinkering and the rest of the band quietly plinking in with sound fills.

But the rousing “St. Stephen” and a rollicking sing-a-long of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo” shifted the mood of the show from mellow experimentation to familiar nostalgia.

It’s a different Dead, to be sure, but one that hasn’t lost its mellow edge.

Contact Melissa Ruggieri at (804) 649-6120 or