Given the format and its inherit lack of spontaneity, I was in "no spoilers" mode and had shut myself off from the flow of information about the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration featuring Warren Haynes prior to the Chicago stop on the short spring tour.
So it was a bit strange that the only bit of (anti-)hype I saw in the run-up to Tuesday night's show, was this tweet from indie-rock scribe Jesse Jarnow, the academic-leaning Dead-ologist who is also notorious for breaking up Phish.
@MikeHamad can you kindly add a trigger warning next time you post a picture of that bro using wolf to play pop-classical?
— jesse jarnow (@bourgwick) May 15, 2014
Ouch. Using the oh-so-hip "trigger warning" meme to trash Haynes, Jarnow implies that the "bro" somehow isn't worthy of playing Garcia's Wolf guitar. That's kind of an ad-hominen attack on a musician who does nothing but work his tail off.
Oh well, I've gotten used to Warren-haters, and like most differences of musical taste, can at least understand where they're coming from. But the "pop-classical" dig... that one cut a little bit deeper and I subtly started to question what exactly it was that I'd signed up for.
Arriving at my seat a bit late, I was immediately taken back by the weird "sit down" vibe of the crowd. The strings were out front and sounded great, but at least in the arrangements presented this evening on tunes like "Bird Song" and "Here Comes Sunshine", they didn't do much to quell the seed of fear planted of a "pops" concert. You know that notion that compels you to get up and move, even to a slow tune? By offering a musical palate so refined, some of that raw emotion had been shaved out of the songs. Not good.
The mood in the room altered considerably when opening notes of "Scarlet Begonias" brought the crowd up and out of their seats. On this tune, and also "Shakedown Street" later in the set, the potential of this format was finally unlocked. Setting aside the classical inspired flourishes of some of the slower material, the string section took on a cooler, more disco feel.
No, the horn section wasn't exactly funky, but it did offer a sweep and bombast that was entirely welcome on these tunes, and "West LA Fadeway" in the second act. In these moments, Haynes coaxed some excellent wah-fueled leads out of Wolf and, driven by Jeff Sipe's beats, the entire symphonic ensemble miraculously caught a groove. I wasn't sure it was possible, but when it hit, it was sure something.
During much of Garcia's career, these spaces were uncovered during the improvisation, an element essentially erased with the inclusion of the symphony. Perhaps this was the source of Jarnow's spite?
But, much like the Ratdog show I'd seen in the same venue a few months prior, the main action was concentrated into a handful of tunes, and when these arrived they paid off big.
The first was "Blues For Allah", which tossed aside the breezy style of most of the set the and went straight for sinister. The song's dark, Middle Eastern inspired chord changes offered the basis for a controlled cacophony amongst the symphony, providing a space for Haynes to run through some moody, psychedelic licks that stood in stark contrast to the rest of the program.
The triumphant version of "Terrapin Station" delivered the message in a different way. The majesty and pageantry of the song offers plenty of space for all of the instrumentation to embellish its many peak moments. Where strings and horns seems superfluous on a "Black Peter", a unrestrained reading of "Terrapin" practically begs for them. They even found some room to punctuate the few key measures of "Slipknot!" that found it's way in to the composition.
Haynes' "Patchwork Quilt" and "China Doll" dropped the energy to previous levels, but by that point the price of admission was fully recovered. While more song choices that leaned toward adventure and away from ballads could have seriously pushed this event over-the-top, the talent and work of the entire cast produced some incredible moments that I'm unlikely to experience again.
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Here Comes Sunshine
China Cat Sunflower
Uncle John's Band
West L.A. Fadeaway
Doin' That Rag
Blues for Allah
Terrapin Station >