Monday, May 04, 2009

Concert review: The Dead at Allstate Arena

The Grateful Dead has been buried and resurrected many times over the last 15 years. Still reeling from the death of its spiritual force and lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia in 1995, the band has never really gone away, but it has never really been the same.

Yet on Monday, in the first of two concerts at the Allstate Arena, the reconstituted (and no longer Grateful) Dead – with four surviving members from its legendary ‘60s incarnation – sounded surprisingly spry before a near-capacity audience.

The night did not get off to a flying start. On the contrary, the band sounded like it was still waking up as it meandered through “China Cat Sunflower” and “Born Cross-Eyed.” But things perked up considerably when guitarist Warren Haynes salted “Built to Last” with soul inflections, abetted by sharp three-part harmonies.

The band was locked in after that, drawing heavily on rarities (“Pride of Cucamonga”) and covers (Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, the traditional “Peggy-O”) to create an adventuresome set high on energy and steeped in a sense of occasion.

There was Bob Weir’s robust take on “Wang Dang Doodle,” in tribute to Chicago blues giant Howlin’ Wolf. And there was an encore of “Box of Rain,” the same song with which the Dead closed its July 9, 1995, concert at Soldier Field, Garcia’s final performance.

At its worst, the Dead can sound woozy and incoherent. And nobody self-indulges like this band. Its nightly 20-minute descent into “Drums and Space” is a tedious tradition that needs to die.

But at its best, the sextet presents an unconventional democracy, where there is no instrumental hierarchy. Drums and bass can float on top of the mix, guitars below, and then trade places. Often there is a sense of weightlessness about the songs, no ballast, the notes floating in free space. At other times, Phil Lesh’s six-string bass can drop A-bombs that shake sternums in the back rows.

As the parts interlocked and then came apart again, the band’s unique sonic architecture became a point of detailed fascination. At times drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart puttered around, barely audible. But then they played “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” with such exultant force that the song jumped.

Even at this late stage, the band still has the ability to surprise. Instead of relying on concert staples, it focused on some of the more obscure corners of its catalogue. Haynes brought a haunting beauty to Garcia’s “Standing on the Moon.” And Weir, spurred on by Hart’s vicious cymbal accents, turned “Liberty” into an unexpected anthem, easily the best version of the song I’ve heard the band perform.

The band members looked glad to be doing their jobs, and the audience responded in kind. It was only fitting that Weir turned over a section of the New Orleans party standard “Iko Iko” to the fans. Rattling his tambourine, the singer looked to the audience to sing a verse, and thousands of voices came through in passable Creole. Then Weir cued the band back in, and the song finished with musicians and fans in sync, reveling in the moment and in their shared history.

The Dead’s set list Monday at Allstate Arena

1. China Cat Sunflower
2. Born Cross-Eyed
3. Built to Last
4. Pride of Cucamonga
5. I Need a Miracle
6. Wang Dang Doodle (Howlin’ Wolf)
7. West L.A. Fadeaway
8. Liberty
9. All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

Second set
10. Mexicali Blues
11. Into the Mystic (Van Morrison)
12. Pretty Peggy-O (traditional)
13. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan)
14. Drums/Space
15. Iko Iko (New Orleans traditional)
16. Standing on the Moon
17. Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad (traditional)

18. Imagine (John Lennon)
19. Box of Rain