Gratefulfest Part II

Peter Rowan
photo by: David Gans
www.dgans.com

By Blair Babcock

The band Greyspoke started the festivities on Saturday.  Lead by Tommy (son of DSO’s Rob Eaton Sr) on lead guitar, the band ran into some member troubles before the show even started.  All but two members of the band were able to make it but as we’ve come to know in the Grateful Dead community, one person’s problems become everybody’s solution.  With a plethora of talented musicians willing to help, a plan was quickly devised that saw Eaton Jr and bassist Rudy Kiburis joined on stage by Eaton’s dad, Rob Sr. on rhythm guitar and vocals, DSO’s Lisa MacKay on backup vocals, DSO’s Rob Barraco on keys and Barraco’s son, Rob Barraco Jr. on drums.  The band lead the crowd along one of the musical highlights of the day with the band jamming ABB’s “Dreams” and Eaton Sr leading Marty Robin’s “Big Iron”.  Talking with Eaton Jr after the show he agreed that sometimes, in the face of adversity, opportunity will arise, “It was my first time playing with my dad in a setting like this.  It’s something I’ve always wanted.  I’ve sat in with DSO a couple of times and played around the fire but nothing like this.  It was really a special thing.”

Jemimah Puddleduck came on next lead by Mark Karan (Ratdog).  They were tight but somewhat forgettable.  I thought there jams were mostly anti-climatic and lacked direction and drive.  The highlight of the set was Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” starting off slow and bluesy and coming out a full-on rocker which in turn went into “Turn On Your Lovelight”.

Peter Rowan's Bluegrass Band
photo by: Blair Babcock

Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band came on next to the delight of the crowd.  DSO’s Rob Barraco could be seen side stage holding his phone out and smiling ear-to-ear as the band breezed their way through the “Pig in a Pen” opener.  Rowan plays a very calm, relaxed style of bluegrass.  It’s almost like he’s on a horse trotting slowly through the desert, playing and singing all the while.  The band ran through a number of old-time traditional tunes, some Rowan-penned favourites and 3 new songs from a new album the band has due out in a couple of months.  Backed by Jody Stecher on mandolin and high-tenor vocals, Keith Little on banjo and vocals and Paul Knight on bass and vocals, the band got a huge roar from the crowd after playing “Family Demon” which will be featured on their new album.  Rowan played his own “Land of Navajo” with a spacey guitar intro to start the song off, coloured with some choice mandolin notes from Seckler, and Little tapping out a percussive beat on his banjo.  Other highlights from the set included, “Hobo Song”, “In the Pines”, “I’m Lost and I’ll Never Find My Way”, “Catfish Blues”, “Panama Red”, “Little Maggie” and Bill Monroe’s “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome Too” with Stecher nailing the chorus.  Being that this is a festival that pays tribute to the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia, I asked Rowan of his time with Garcia and what came to mind when he thought of him.  “When I think of Jerry Garcia I think of his sense of encouragement.  He was a very encouraging person.  You never felt like you were doing something stupid musically.  He would always want to bring it up to a level of confidence.  His enthusiasm and confidence made everything blossom.”  He added, “Jerry was just a totally friendly guy.  You know, kind of mischievous.  Always a mischievous grin.  His eyebrows always going up and down, you know. He talked a lot with his eyebrows! (laughs)”

New Riders of the Purple Sage were the last band of the night before DSO was to take the stage to finish the night off.  And as usual they did not disappoint.  The band came out with a roaring Rocky Road Blues.  Tight and having fun, the band ran through a number of favourites that had the crowd movin’ ‘n shakin’ to each song and hootin’ ‘n hollerin’ for more after each selection.  Other notables for the set were Portland Woman, Lonesome LA Cowboy, I Don’t Know You and Last Lonely Eagle.  Buddy Cage’s pedal steel was ringing clear through the sky throughout the set and I believe could still be heard in the far off distance as the day of music came to a close.

Dark Star Orchestra with Donna
photo by: blueice313

Dark Star Orchestra finished the night off and came out swinging with an original setlist and a funky “Shakedown Street” opener.  Feet were moving and sand was flying everywhere.  There must have been 13,000lbs of happy energy danced into the ground that night.  If a best song of the weekend can be picked the “Loser” they played that night may have been tied for top spot.  Other memorables of the first set included, “Greatest Story Ever Told”, Donna Jean Godchaux joining DSO’s Lisa MacKay for stirring backup vocals on “Gomorrah”.  The second set highlights included a sweet, “I’ll Take a Melody”, “Alligator > drums > space > Alligator” and a rockin’ “I Know You Rider” to close out the set.  The band came out and delighted the crowd with a beautiful “Sing Me Back Home” to close out the night.  I asked Donna Jean Godchaux after the show when she first heard DSO and what she thought of them.  “I first heard of them in ’91.   John Kadlecik (Further, formerly with DSO) called me and asked if I’d like to come watch and maybe sit in.  I went and was blown away.  We became fast friends.  There’s no competition there, I love hearing Lisa sing my songs”

Sunday come too fast but nonetheless there was still one more day to soak up the happy all around and take in the music that lied ahead.  The day was scorching hot and we knew shade and hydration were our key words.

Musically, the day started with the Donna Jean Band.  Donna Jean and guitarist Jeff Mattson (also of DSO) shared lead on vocals while the band layed down the groove behind them.  They played a tune unknown to me but one that had some of the prettiest harmonies and lyrics.  A slow beautiful tune called, “Tomorrow is Forever”.  Then, to the delight of the crowd they launched into a smokin’ “Franklin’s Tower”.  And one of my favourites of the weekend, the band layed down a nice slow groove to The Beatles, “She Said”.  

Up next and, judging by the size of the crowd, one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend, was the Emmitt Nershi Band.  They opened with Nershi’s “Black Clouds” that had most of the crowd singing along.  Emmitt has a real sweet easy-to-listen to voice which is somehow complimented by Nershi’s rough yet adept vocals.  They were joined on bass by flatpicking champion Tyler Grant and Andy Thorn on banjo (formerly of Larry Keel and Natural Bridge).  The tunes were played as well as I’ve ever seen bluegrass played with each player listening to each other carefully and filling in the spaces nicely.  The band has a new album out and, for the most part stuck to their new material, with Emmitt and Nershi trading off the lead vocal roll.  The highlight of the set for me was when Larry Keel sat in for the final 4 songs with Keller Williams coming out to lead the final song “Rosalie McFall”.  It’s impossible to put into words what happened on that stage but the Guinness Book of World Records should have been called for the biggest and most smiles in one place at one time and for the most notes played by 6 pickers on the same stage during one song.

Emmiitt Nershi Band
photo by: Blair Babcock

Well the pickin’ was up and much to happiness of the crowd it continued with a set by Keller and the Keels. They have something really special happening with this 3-piece.  Larry Keel and Keller Williams dance around each other with ease and distinction as Jenny Keel keeps a solid beat behind them.  Due to what Keller described as a “walking pneumonia”, Keller took hold of the majority of the vocals for the night with Larry taking on one song, his own “Mountain Song”.  Other highlights included, “Don’t Cuss that Fiddle”, “Crater in the Backyard” and “Get it While You Can”.  I asked Keller why the band worked so well together and he said, “For me it’s the 3-piece.  You know, that a lot of room to go musically without things filling up the space.  I love banjos, dobros and fiddles – things like that - but the 3-piece we have, I really like that. And the harmonies,  I really love that too.”

After a short break, Keller kept the place movin’ with what was labeled “Keller’s dance set” with Nershi on guitar.  I don’t know much of Keller’s material by name but I do know that the crowd was taking in every note.  And looking out into the crowd, there was a rare and special event happening as they moved almost in synchronicity to the beat.

Now time for Dark Star’s last show of the weekend which ended up being a show from 6/28/87 - Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI.  They opened with a ruckus “Hell in a Bucket” then slowed things down with a moving “Sugaree”.  Then time to pick things up again with “Me and My Uncle” followed by “Mexicali Blues”.  “Althea” and “Bird Song” were other highlights of the set.  The band finished the set off with “Jackstraw” and the whole crowd singing along as the band sang, “Leaving Texas, 4th day of July”.  The set break featured one of the best fireworks shows I’ve ever seen with the sky doing its best impression of Joseph and the techincolour dreamcoat for what must have been 20 minutes.  Making headway a couple hundred feet back to the stage, the crowd was treated to “Mississippi Half Step Todeloo” to open the second set.  Other highlights included, “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”, “Morning Dew”, and to close the set a tasty, “Throwing Stones > Not Fade Away”.  They encored with “Quinn the Eskimo” before owner/operator Evan Kelley coaxed them back out for a beautiful and stirring “Ripple”. 

The weekend was a great success with like-minded folks meeting to celebrate the music we hold so dear to our hearts.  The event is a wonderful gift to the world and event organizer Evan Kelley deserves much congratulations for his vision and determination.  The festival is well run with all the amenities at your disposal.  The large crew Kelley has working for him is well organized and willing to help anybody in need.  Donna Jean Godchaux summarized things nicely, “Evan’s goal was to re-create, as best he could, the time we had in the ‘60s, ‘70s and so on.  He’s doing an outstanding job.  It’s the most intimate of the festivals.  I love coming here because it’s my family, my peeps.”  Added Rob Eaton Sr., “This is our 11th year here.  It’s pretty amazing.  Hopefully we’ll keep going.  This music is special to everybody.  It’s timeless.  We’re just passing it on to the next generation.”