Maybe Hiss Golden Messenger said it best, in a tweet after Friday night’s tribute to Jerry Garcia at downtown Los Angeles’ Theatre at Ace Hotel (at which lead singer MC Taylor was one of the performers): “Seeing Stephen Malkmus, Benmont Tench and David Hidalgo onstage together creates a hugely enjoyable cognitive dissonance.” In this particular Dead-related case, “cognitive dissonance” was not even intended as a synonym for tripping, but just the fun of seeing celebrity fans from different disciplines focus attention on some of Garcia’s under-celebrated sides. At the end of the three-hour show, you could even say: What a long trip of strange bedfellows it’s been.
The guest singers might have been the ones with their names on the souvenir poster, but the highlight of the night, for many, was a semi-reunion of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers (or Mudcrutch, take your pick), with Tench, the house keyboard player and ringmaster of the band, joined on several incendairy occasions by guitarist Mike Campbell. When they first appeared together early in the show, backing Hiss’ Taylor on a seven-minute version of “Loser,” a song from Garcia’s seminal 1972 solo album, the world felt more set aright than it has been for about five months.
Of course, a lot of Garcia fans in the house have had their hearts broken for about 23 years. Dead & Company shows fill a void, but this warm and savvy tribute show filled a different one, aimed slightly more at the kind of intelligentsia who would’ve just as easily gone to a Garcia/David Grisman side project gig as a mothership show. It wasn’t entirely clear in advance what the focus of the set would be, but it’d become more or less evident by the time house guitarist Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame) put words to it toward the end. Their intention, he explained, had been to assemble the playlist kind of in thirds, roughly equally divided between Dead staples, material from Garcia’s solo catalog, and traditionals that he’d played along the way.
The setlist math didn’t turn out to be quite as exact as Watkins suggested, since nine of the 20 selections were Garcia/Robert Hunter compositions originally recorded by the Dead. But even the part of the crowd that delighted most at the revival of deep, deep, deep cuts wasn’t exactly complaining about the imbalance… not when the slight tilt toward Dead classics after all resulted in modern country heroine Margo Price singing both “Friend of the Devil” and “Casey Jones” (while, on the latter, also taking over the drum kit), or Amos Lee doing a sublime “Black Muddy River” (which, he pointed out, Garcia sang at the very last Dead show), or house fidder Sara Watkins beautifully building “Brokedown Palace” right back up into a gospel-roots hymn.
If ever there were a show filled largely with Dead material that would appeal to a non-Deadhead, this was it, though, with a substantial focus on Garcia as both a bluegrass nut and a practitioner of the basic singer/songwriter form (with a little help from Robert Hunter, whose lyrics never rang loud and poetically clear as they did Friday night). Jam-band types couldn’t exactly feel like they were getting short shrift, though, on a night that not only had Campbell filling Garcia’s shoes and hands in some free-form-feeling solos and codas, but unlikely sights like a mandolin/guitar duel between bluegrass legend Sam Bush and Los Lobos’ Hidalgo.
Hidalgo, incidentally, was the only participant who got to sing a song he’d actually written, since Los Lobos’ 1984 track “Evangeline” became a staple of Jerry Garcia Band performances before and after it turned up on a 1991 live album.
The other “cover songs” that Garcia once did and were revived here date back a little further than the ‘80s… some of them maybe to the 1880s. Among the folk songs that Garcia played with or without the Dead that made it into the tribute set were “Shady Grove” (which Tench and Campbell also recorded, with Mudcrutch), “Jack-a-roe,” “I’ve Been All Around This World,” and the closing full-cast sing-along, “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” On top of those, there were two more picks during a bluegrass sub-set in the second half that might have stumped even most of the hardcore cultists in the crowd: “Legend of the Johnson Boys” and “Long Lonesome Road.” Those are both included on a four-CD set that’s coming in May, “Before the Dead,” which contains recordings of Garcia’s jug-band versions of those tunes from ’61-62, when he was a member of the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers. (Luckly for miracle ticket seekers in the decades to follow, they never had to hear themselves referred to Hog Stomper-heads.)
Other performances on the more rock side included Josh Ritter’s show-opening “Dire Wolf”; a slow and stately but highly crowd-rousing “To Lay Me Down” from Billy Strings; a “New Speedway Boogie” that had Mary Beth Richardson, a singer from the Alabama band Banditos, expertly channeling Janis Joplin; and Pavement’s Malkmus literally kicking out the jams — as in, putting his foot aloft every once in a while — and breaking out the boogie on “Bertha,” joined by soloist Hidalgo.
The show was co-presented as a chartiable effort by the Jerry Garcia Family (several daughters were in attendance) and the Bluegrass Situation, whose Americana-leaning shows don’t always live up quite so literally to the org’s name as this one sometimes got to, thanks to Garcia’s lifelong string-band fixation.
Bluegrass Situation founder Ed Helms introduced the show by pointing out that he was “totally tripping right now,” but only because he was sleepless from having an infant at home. The actor also pointed out the rightness of their Garcia tribute taking place at L.A.’s former United Artists Theatre, which to him, with its weird stalagmites hanging from the proescenium over a Spanish gothic interior, is “the most psychedelic theater in Los Angeles.”