It’s the year 23 AG (after Garcia). Dead & Co. are embarking on a stadium-centric Summer tour. Phil’s Terrapin Crossroads has a full schedule, and at 78(!), Lesh shows no signs of slowing his roll while sticking closer to home and sprinkling in some East Coast tripping (including a few recent Phil and Bobby duet dates, with Trey as a guest). And while Garcia (who would turn 75 this year), is long gone, the music really has never stopped. In steps the Bluegrass Situation for a one-night only Garcia throwdown billed as Jubilee: A Celebration of Jerry Garcia, featuring a bucketful of artists including Hiss Golden Messenger, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, Margo Price, Chris Funk of the Decemberists, mandolinist extraordinaire Sam Bush, Amos Lee and the Jubilee House Band that includes Tench and Sean and Sara Watkins among others.
Garcia is dearly missed, but the songs endure, and Jubilee was bound to be a warm embrace for anyone touched by the band and Garcia’s songs. Whether going back to Garcia’s jug band roots on banjo, his Old and in the Way album with David Grisman, Peter Rowan and fiddler Vassar Clements from 1973 or the desert island worthy Garcia/Grisman/Rice Pizza Tapes some 20 years later, bluegrass and traditional roots were always close to Garcia’s musical heart and legacy.
These all hands hootenanny affairs can be a mixed bag. Sometimes scattered or unfocused, or matching artists with material that can be eye opening or fall flat. That was not the case for the Jubilee. First off, let’s get this straight, while there was an expected abundance of twirling and tie-dye, Jubilee was not about deep musical excursions. It was a celebration of the songs, in and outside of the Dead. Songs that shaped Garcia and shaped us.
The Theatre at Ace Hotel is a pretty splendid place. Seating only 1,600, the former movie palace was built in 1927 and beautifully restored in 2014. The setting lent an even more intimate vibe to the night, despite some empty seats.
BGS co-founder Ed Helms introduced the evening, as he often does with some Situations, speaking fondly of how Garcia’s music impacted him and, especially, how Reckoning (the Dead’s double live acoustic album culled from 1980 shows at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in NYC) made a life changing impression. Oh, and he said he was trippin’, but more from lack of sleep with a new young one at home.
I was admittedly unfamiliar with some of the musicians and singers on stage throughout the three hour, two-setter. But there were plenty of moments I found touching or resonant throughout. The evening began with the easy log cabin roll of “Dire Wolf” with Josh Ritter. Garcia deepened my bluegrass affection so many years ago (okay, 1994) with one of his collaborations with mandolinist David Grisman, on the album Shady Grove, and the truly great mando-extraordinaire Sam Bush couldn’t have been a better fit for that well-worn song. Bush stuck around for “Look Up, Look Down That Long Lonesome Road”, a traditional Garcia covered in his jug band days I was hearing for the first time, and was joined by singer-guitarist Molly Tuttle, also new to me. Before Mike Campbell dug into “Loser” (with MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger on vocals), he shared “all I can say, is God bless you, Jerry”. The biting Campbell and Tench Heartbreaking interplay on this one gave me goose bumps. Billy Strings (one of Rolling Stone’s 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know) quieted things with a respectful “To Lay Me Down”, a song that just crawls inside my soul and according to the UCSC Grateful Dead archives, was written in one afternoon alongside “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace”. A loose rollicking “Bertha” followed with Stephen Malkmus and David Hidalgo, a tune Los Lobos has covered for years. Mary Richardson seemed to tap a little of Janis’ spirit when Banditos took on “New Speedway Boogie”. Chris Funk of the Decemberists joined Malkmus for another traditional, “Been All Around this World”, which also appeared on Reckoning. Kindred to Mr. Helms, my first exposure to many of these more traditional folk and Appalachia songs came from that album. Amos Lee spoke of how he wanted to cover “Brokedown Palace”, but it was already spoken for. Instead he was honored to take on “Black Muddy River” and his reading of the song with the band, and some beautiful harmonies by Sara Watkins, was another highlight of the night. The first set closed with Mike Campbell back on stage for “Sugaree”.
Set two began after an extended break and another Jubilant moment – Margo Price behind a kit for “Casey Jones” and having an absolute blast. Josh Ritter returned for “Louis Collins”, a Mississippi John Hurt number that also appeared on Shady Grove. MC Taylor was a good match for the tender “China Doll”, with some fine Benmont Tench piano accompaniment. Mike Campbell drove “Deal” down and then the set took another turn to pre-Dead Garcia and the little heard “Legend of the Johnson Boys” with Chris Funk. Willie Watson brought his high lonesome for “Jack-a-Roe”, another Appalachian folk song covered on Reckoning. David Hidalgo and Sam Bush came back for “Evangeline”, a Los Lobos tune Garcia covered (the Garcia-Los Lobos respect clearly flowed both ways). Margo Price did a gorgeous job with “Friend of the Devil”, strolling into the aisles along the way. Sara Watkins fiddle and vocals shone with “Brokedown Palace” (you always knew it was a special night when the Dead encored with the song). The harmonies that a trio of vocalists led by Jamie Blake brought to “Ripple” were soaring, before the night closed with a stage full of everyone for “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”.
This one was special. Garcia’s long gone. And so will we, eventually. But the songs will always be there to fill the air. Thanks to BGS and all those who participated in the Jubilee for reminding us.