by Dave Barrett
Photograph by Mike Bouchard
The various incarnations of bands incorporating the former members of the Grateful Dead have met with varying degrees of success over the years since 1995, however any doubts as to whether or not this latest assembly would prove to be the real deal were assuaged last night from the get-go. The lineup, featuring Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, John "Fake Jerry" Kadlecik of Dark Star Orchestra, Jeff Chimenti of RatDog on keyboards, and Joe Russo of the Benevento/Russo Duo on drums, is inspired and it was apparent throughout the show that they're very used to playing with one another and listen to one another very well. Kadlecik featured from the start, taking lead vocals for an Alabama Getaway opener which set the tone for the night (I thought Chimenti was a beast throughout this number). The pedigree of each band member was obvious and they made their tight, controlled virtuoso changes and jams seem effortless and natural. Russo in particular was grabbing the attention of many and his driving rhythms proved a refreshing change to the sometimes meandering approaches from some of his predecessors on older versions of the songs.
The setlist seemed to be well thought-out with the initial 4 songs segueing nicely into the fuller-bodied Bucket > Bertha > Truckin' portion of the night, giving the players plenty of warm up to get into the meatier jams. Many had mused that Bobby would be tempted to run the spectrum of his blues numbers in homage to the blues part of Bluesfest and the Smokestack Lightning provided something of a landing pad for that slice of the Grateful Dead catalog. Bobby's voice doesn't hit all the highs and lows of his earlier days but it still holds enough power and colour to hold down anything he chooses to sing. One thing that hasn't changed is his lack of mastery of the lyrics of Truckin but realistically we wouldn't want it any other way.
There seemed to be a bit of a surge in the crowd when Casey Jones started, and once again the jam showed flair and creativity. Help and Caution were again excellent vehicles for tight thoughtful jamming and Phil in particular looked like he was really enjoying himself.
It's hard not to think of Kadlecik as a walking advert for the idea of chasing your dreams– in a cover band of his all-time favourite band, listening, practicing, living the music and now touring with his heroes. He's gotta be the happiest guy on that stage! I like to think that Jerry would have a good little chuckle about the whole situation; my imagination tells me he would make some sort of quip about being able to take off time now and then with someone like Kadlecik around or perhaps that he needs to put on a few pounds to really fit in.
I loved the transition from Caution into New Speedway Boogie, it felt unforced and eased. Once again Kadlecik really channeled Garcia's vocals and the groove was unrushed but purposeful. Wharf Rat will always be a favourite of mine and the haunting mercurial feel to it was nailed perfectly.
Word on the street is that the songs that closed the set were directed at the border services folks who, rumour has it, gave Bobby a bit of a hassle– while I'm not a huge fan of I Fought the Law a positive, energetic Liberty is well worth the trade-off.
The double encore saw On The Road Again transition into a raucous Touch of Grey, Bobby taking lead vocals. The crowd participation was off the scale with waves of roaring crescendos giving the band an extra kick. For me, a perfect way to wrap up the night, leaving the crowd on a high note. This show was one of the best things I've ever seen at Bluesfest and I don't think the headier types in attendance will forget this one for quite some time.
Sign those donor cards, folks!