Who the Hell Do I Think I Am?
So, who the hell am I? I'm someone who listened. I completely enjoyed every nuance of what greatness came from the stage and endured every plain-Jane set list, missed vocal note, and missed lyric, knowing more greatness would follow, and danced on. For that reason, I've waited 2 years for Dead and Company to follow the mess they create nightly with some greatness. It hasn't happened yet, and I don't think it will. Today's searing post details why I think that. Honestly, if this assemblage of players toured under a name that didn't have the word "Dead" in it, they would be playing bars, not stadiums. Agree or don't, but I have to get this out of my head.
this video or this video from '78, for examples. Such sweet and powerful vocals. Sure, that was 40 years ago, and he was a much younger man, but now, he does a blend of barking, yelling and talking. He doesn't even try to make it sound like how the songs go, or to even sound like singing for that matter. So, while Phil's singing may not exactly be in tune, at least he's singing and trying to stay true to the melodies as best his voice can.
Bob's guitar work, however, remains just as interesting as it was in the 70's, only ripened with age. He voices chords and plays poly-rhythms in an extremely unusual way and he attracts players like bees to fresh flowers because of his innovative approach to the guitar. His bark-yelling the words to songs that used to have beautiful melodies, on the other hand, is just atrocious.
In their hay-day, Billy and Mickey were able to set a groove. Sometimes the songs moved their beat and other times their beat moved the songs. The early half of "Drums" was one of my favorite and arguably most consistent spots for a show. It was highly rhythmic, encouraging dance like a tribal beat does. If a show was exceptionally plain-Jane, it was often this part of the show that turned it around. You could feel a hum-drum show turn. Something great would flow out of Space, completing the show with a strong handful of songs all thanks to Drums pulling the concert out of the bin.
After not playing together for a few years (since Rhythm Devils split in '08 and The Dead stopped in 2010), I figured it would take a while before Billy and Mickey hit their stride. Unfortunately, they still haven't and it's been long enough for them to get it together. There are definitely two drummers, not two instrumentalists making one rhythm. Perhaps they can't decide or agree on what they're doing. As a listener, it doesn't matter; they are less of a cooperative unit and more like two guys banging on things in the back. There are points when it sounds like there is a team of carpenters erecting a shed or drum-riser on stage rather than a cohesive percussive rhythm driving and complimenting the music.
John can sing (yeah, that's hardly news given his Grammy's). It's on key and pure. It just sounds a little old-style crooner which makes Dead tunes sound contrived, and the lyrics less powerful. Just as Aerosmith has to be sung with a little edge in the voice, the Dead can't be sung by Mel Torme. To me, it needs an edge; it needs a little sorrow. One cover song here or there is one thing. Singing half of a show without that soul just doesn't work.
That bass work is just not the same as with Phil. Unlike Phil, Oteil plays like bass is a complimentary instrument that doesn't have much freedom. It's almost as if he had spent the last 20 years playing in a classic rock band. Oh yeah, he did. With the Allman Brothers. Yes, there are fills and runs here and there reflective of his years with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, but nothing like an old "Phil and Ned" or even some of the tasty lines Phil would drop into more straight-forward numbers like Scarlet or Music Never Stopped. But, Oteil has it in him to get out of the box. The guy can totally groove; I don't know how much freedom he has to do so in this group for two reasons. First, he is in a rhythm section comprised of him and the carpenters I described above. To keep the song together, he really can't move too far from dead-center or the shed construction could completely unravel a song while he is pushing the creative envelope. Second, Bob will need to let Oteil loose. Having watched video of Bob working with other players, I know he runs a tight ship. But having so much of the responsibility for keeping the song together may be the true barrier to Oteil really blowing some minds.
I haven't mentioned Jeff Chimenti, and I really should. He's fantastic. Really fantastic. Really really fantastic. He's been playing with members of the Dead for 20 years, and he totally gets it. I first caught him with The Dead and have enjoyed every show I've seen him play since. In my mind, he's reached, and maybe surpassed "Brent status" in terms of his keyboard. On those occasions when I gave Dead and Company a try, it was Jeff's keyboard work that kept me listening well beyond my patience would allow had he not been crushing it so hard. He is simply inspired. I hope to see the Golden Gate Wingmen one of these days to see how he and JohnK play together in their new group. And maybe hear what some of his original material is like? That would be so great. Okay, I've run out of descriptors. Let's just summarize with: he's awesome.
That's my rant for today. I'll get back to my usual car or bus work and road trips next time. Thanks for bearing with me, and if there's a jam band that you like (that's not Dead and Company), I'd love to hear them. I'll be trying on String Cheese this summer, and really want to hear whatever else is going on in the jam-band space. Have bus, will travel-