BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
December 31, 2015
DEAD & COMPANY - DECEMBER 30, 2015 - LOS ANGELES FORUM - I HAD A HARD RUN
Sometimes you arrive at a place and you’re just not running on all cylinders. That was me, tonight. It was a night of little sleep, a full day of cross-country travel, complete with crowded airports, hour-long security screenings, misplaced luggage and delayed flights. I was home just long enough to unpack, play with the cat, knock back some coffee and head to the Fabulous Forum via the secret, locals-only back way. The ticket listed a 7:00 start and I was not in the car until 6:25 so this was cutting it far too close, but that’s just how it played out on a travel day.
I got to the Forum lots and parked pretty quickly, but the security screening took a lot longer than usual - it seemed there were only 8 metal detectors for the entire crowd who did not have Forum Club entry, and I lost whatever time I made up by driving the back route. It had also become cold and windy, and there were dozens of miracle-seekers and a few cash-for-your-extras people hovering around. After about 25 minutes the sleep-deprivation and the cold weather made me a little irritable, to the point where the small talk around me grated on my nerves and the idea of sitting at home sounded good. Not the greatest headspace to be in with several hours of live music with 15,000 people is staring you in the face. Sometimes this is a hard, cold town.
As I make my way into the venue, the house lights drop. I dart into the arena and see that my seat is on the exact opposite side of the arena from when I am now. Fortunately, the Forum is a revamped old-school arena where a main walkway rings the inside of the arena, so I was able to watch the band come out and start tuning. Within 30 seconds they’ve started MINGLEWOOD BLUES, and this Bob-sung blues cover goes all the way back to the earliest days of the band. Heck, they might have even played it just down the road at the Watts Acid Test in 1966. Then Bob starts singing, and for a second I think there are PA problems as his voice sounds off. Then he sings another line and I realize his voice sounds like his throat was rubbed with sandpaper. Uh-oh. Bob sounds like the gruff-but-lovable dispatcher at A&P Taxi in Concord, New Hampshire, and I wonder how much singing he actually has in him tonight. Immediately I think of those early 1978 GD shows where Jerry Garcia had no voice due to laryngitis and Weir sang every song for half of one show and all of two others. The song played out well enough as an opener as I made my way to my seat to the side of stage right, but this sounds like it could affect things tonight.
I’m still a little frazzled as HERE COMES SUNSHINE starts, but I smile as this is the first time seeing this one live in 2015. Lead guitarist / new guy John Mayer handles the vocals, and he’s going for an up-front approach that somewhat belies the early-show vibe. From my standpoint I’m just behind the guitar line and can mostly see the backs of John, Bob and bassist Oteil Burbridge, but I have fantastic views of drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and a surprisingly clear view of keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who is all the way across from me on stage left. Oddly enough, the one guy who I’m struggling to hear in the mix is Oteil, who is the closest guy to me. I’m slightly behind the main PA speakers, so that might be it. I’m trying to relax and settle in, and even as the mid-song jam hits a nice peak I’m still not fully dialed in. Eventually the primary color of the lighting changes from red to purple, and that helps, but it still feels early and the slightly trebly mix is making me feel a bit jangly. I feel like this 1973 feel-good classic is a little wasted on me at this point, but thousands of others look to be locked in by the time the song concludes after 11 minutes.
At this point I’m thinking that the show is going to rely heavily on the Garcia-penned songs sung by John Mayer. They need to protect what’s left of Bob’s voice for tomorrow’s New Year’s Eve gig - that’s the higher-profile of the two shows here, and nothing else is scheduled after that. Sure enough, John gets the nod on the easy-rocking mid-80s anthem WEST L.A. FADEAWAY and mid-paced early 80s easy-rocking ALTHEA, and then Bob steps up to handle mid-paced early 70s country-rocking LOSER. All great songs, but lining them up back-to-back-to-back unfortunately makes the vibe feel a bit samey after the 26 minutes they collectively last. Bob’s vocals are ok if he sticks to a range that’s close to his speaking voice and doesn’t overdo it, but it starts to sound rough pretty quickly if he sings too hard or goes up too many notes.
Once Loser winds down Mayer wastes no time leading the band into BERTHA, and it’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Simple, straightforward, upbeat, and direct, this early 70s Garcia-Hunter classic about an electric fan in the bands offices picks the pace up and keeps it there. John has a great time singing it, and after he energetically solos through a couple of verses, everyone is expecting the band to return to the chorus and finish the song. However, the exact opposite happens as Bob directs the band to back Mayer up for two more verses, complete with Bob and Oteil playing the “traditional” power chords on the 2nd and 3rd downbeats at the end of the one verse and 4th and 5th downbeats of the next. This extends the song out to a full 10 minutes, and all is well. The song sort of meanders into a very short, spacey jam, which quickly becomes BIRD SONG, a welcome early-70s psychedelic classic. The riff is one of Garcia’s most deadly earworms, and John and Bob trade off on the vocals, which are a memorial to Janis Joplin. The spaced-out, improvised jan after the verses peaked early with a nice wave of sound, and another one followed a couple minutes later and overall the jam was very much an “ebb and flow” thing and never hit the peak that it sometimes can. The finish was an odd one too, as Bob waved the band to a full stop after the first “snow and rain” in the final chorus and announced the intermission.
So, the quick halftime stats: after Bob’s raspy opener we got six straight Garcia-Hunter songs (four from the early 70s and two from the 80s), mostly sung by John. The set ran from 7:45 to 8:52, a solid 67 minutes.
Overall, I feel like I need to point the finger at myself here. I’m really tired, and that’s affecting everything. I’m also hungry, and the only substantive food that’s available without a long, long wait were hot dogs, which were scarfed down during Althea and are now giving me food coma. I’ve also ended up in a spot where the lower registers of the music are not coming through clearly, and that’s not helping, but this place is way sold out and I don’t want to be that guy scamming into someone else;s killer seat. On top of that, there are so many people smoking in here that the venue saw fit to open up many of its doors to the outside concourse. But it’s in the low 50s and windy outside, and my seat is about 30 feet away from open doors where cold air is blasting through, and I’m in a t-shirt and cargo shorts. Yes, I’m cold in L.A. All told, I’m working much harder to enjoy this than I should be.
By the time the lights go down for the second set, I’m in a slightly better place even if it’s a bit chilly. My mood improves further when the band is tuning to play a song in the key of D, because that means we’re going to get PLAYING IN THE BAND as the opener. Bob handles the lyrics on one of his best songs, and once the “song” portion plays out over three minutes the band head charge headlong into the jazzy improvisation section for which the song is famous. John gets any out in front of everyone and establishes a quick pace, and the band follow him. It’s dense, it’s thick, and the band are really feeling it in a Europe ’72 sort of way - at various times the music swarms, circles, dives and doubles back only to go somewhere else, and Oteil’s bass lines once again become more prominent when he plays the lower strings. The highlight of the night so far. The song glides to a full stop after 12 minutes before the band hit a loud, dissonant power chord, and for a few seconds I think that they’ve resurrected Bob’s Victim Or The Crime. I actually like this song a lot, and some major Schadenfreude kicks in as I prepare for the reactions around me.
Except it’s not Victim; it’s actually VIOLA LEE BLUES, one of the oldest songs in the repertoire and another one that could have been played at the Watts Acid Test. Sweet! This one dates back to the mid-60s and was retired in 1970 or so by the Grateful Dead, which was disappointing, but it’s received prominent and proper treatment in the post-GD incarnations of the band. Somehow John, Bob and Jeff started singing on the second verse and so the song only ran 10 minutes instead of the usual 15 to 20, but John led the way with some frenetic leads while he twitched back and forth and let the music just come through him. Billy’s drumming was also really on point - he was locked into what John was doing, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it was hot and it wound down to another full stop so people could hit pedals for the intro to SHAKEDOWN STREET. An appropriate tune for the often-heartless Los Angeles, the song nonetheless pales a bit in comparison to what came before it, and not just because Bob’s vocals sound rough. The band are getting their best jam results tonight with the passages that allow a restless, jagged, psychedelic vibe as opposed to Shakedown’s 70s disco-funk vibe, and the song’s outro jam just sort of bops along for a few minutes before winding down. I’d love to see what George Clinton’s P-Funk all stars could do with this one.
The momentum picks right back up with one of the band’s oldest and best pairings, and the songs fits the band’s vibe tonight perfectly: CHINA CAT SUNFLOWER into I KNOW YOU RIDER. John and Bob split the vocals on China Cat, and Oteil’s bass lines bubble under everything very nicely. The jam gathers momentum and maintains it throughout the guitarists’ runs up the neck to reach the tried-and-true transition into Rider, and you can see John and Oteil grinning widely as Bob leads the band through everything. After the first verses Jeff gets his first true solo section of the night, and he makes the most of it and does some wonderful things to the keys of his piano. Bob’s voice holds up as well as it can for the “Sun Gonna Shine” and the “Headlight” verses, and as the a cappella ending winds down the guys up front yield the stage to the drummers.
As has been the case on most nights with this version of the band, as soon as Billy and Mickey have gotten up from their respective drum kits and started pounding away on the wide variety of instruments set up behind them, Oteil makes his way back out and sits at Billy’s kit to make it a to for DRUMS. The journey covers much of the “expected” ground, with a side variety of booms, bashes, beeps, loops, bloops and whatever else. The highlight comes when Mickey is left alone for several minutes with his favorite toy, The Beam, which is a long beam with the lowest strings of a grand piano strung across it. Aside from giving it a couple of kicks, he saws on the strings and makes it rumble with such an evil-sounding noise that John can be seen watching from a few feet away with a huge grin on his face. He even applauds, and so does much of the crowd. The momentum carries into the SPACE segment, and after just a couple minutes of free-form noise he guitarists establish a staccato beat and Billy soon returns to lightly anchor it. It progresses along for a couple of minutes and it sounds like it could lead into THE OTHER ONE, and eventually it does exactly that, but not before a couple more minutes of the band enjoying the moment before making the full switch into the key of E. They make the introduction more obvious, and then John and Bob take deliberate steps back to give Oteil the spotlight for the song’s much-loved rolling-thundercloud bass intro. Oteil nails it, people cheer, and the next 10 minutes of purposeful jamming is another highlight of the night, and Bob’s voice holds up on the two verses since the range is within what’s left of his voice.
As the slow, distinctive strains of WHARF RAT issue forth from John’s guitar, the house lights start to go up. Or at least I think that’s what they are for a second before looking up to the rafters to see that the newly-revamped Forum has installed twinkling lights in the rafters that are intended to mimic a starry sky. Oh, now that’s a nice touch. John handles the vocals and the pace of the song seems a little faster than usual, but not so fast that it alters the song’s impact. Everyone flies away with August West while Oteil drops a huge Lesh-style bass bomb, and John assures us that August’s girl has his been true to him before bringing it home with a soaring solo during which he is literally jumping up and down to help get those notes out. They all forget to song the last verse, but that peak was so good that it actually made better sense to just end it there and start LOVELIGHT. Since this is usually a showcase for one of Bob’s vocal rave-ups, they had to change up the delivery of this 60s classic. This time they went for a call-and-response, with Bob making the calls and John, Oteil and Jeff handling the responses. It made for a different and distinctive version, and the now-expected James Brown-style false ending was also fun.
Man, at one point I was cold, but I’d forgotten all about that until just now. That was a lot of constant motion right there.
I knew they’d already done Ripple up in San Francisco, so I wasn’t sure what was coming when John, Bob and Oteil all returned for the encore bearing acoustic instruments. It turned out to be FRIEND OF THE DEVIL, and in the faster America Beauty-style version with a couple extra verses of soloing. It felt like an odd choice, but odd is good around here. Then it was a sprint to the car to beat the traffic out, and within about half an hour I was home and in a warm bed with the cat curled up next to me.
Overall, this show progressed like most of the Grateful Dead shows I saw: the first set served as a sort of warmup for the longer songs and musical fireworks that took place in the second set. And Bob gets major props for toughing it out tonight. Thee mentality of “The Show Must Go One” has aways run as strongly in this band as any other you can name; these supposed hippies have always been tough bastards.
And now there’s one more show to go this year. Shall we go, you and I while we can?