Unlocking the vault: The songs that filled the air


By Nicole Davis

Downtown Express Photos by Jefferson Siegel

The legendary Jorma Kaukonen, of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame, performed the Dead’s “Operator.”

When emcee John Schaffer, host of WNYC’s Soundcheck, introduced the second half of the American Beauty Project on Sunday night, he was quick to let everyone in the audience know that the previous evening’s performance was the first time in years the Winter Garden had reached full capacity — in 30 minutes no less. But if Saturday was the show that packed the house, Schaffer promised the crowd that organizers had “saved the heavy artillery for tonight.”

He wasn’t kidding. Toshi Reagon took the stage first, and, true to Schaffer’s description of her as “an elemental force on stage,” the buxom guitarist got the crowd clapping almost immediately with her bluesy interpretation of “Box of Rain.” Mark Eitzel — a man so familiar with playing covers he once covered his own songs, Schaffer pointed out — followed with a stripped-down version of “Friend of the Devil.” Alone on stage with just a acoustic guitar, his dirge-like rendition was the first of many performances that hinted at the underlying darkness of “American Beauty,” whose lyrics were written by Robert Hunter, a longtime collaborator of Garcia’s. For the occasional suburban Deadhead like myself, who associates this album with adolescent fun and carefree excess, it was surprising to hear so many songs recast in such a sad, slow light. (Never mind the title — it’s a song about a man on the run who takes his time!) The Dead I remembered were brought back to life by Jim Lauderdale, backed by Ollabelle and other gifted musicians like Larry Campbell. Dressed in a flamboyant suit festooned with rhinestoned Yin and Yang signs, Lauderdale performed a spacey, sunny version of “Sugar Magnolia” packed with back-and-forth, crescendoing guitar jams. Lauderdale even forgot the lyrics at one point, giving the song an authentic oomph, considering Garcia experienced his fair share of memory lapses.

Jorma Kaukonen — a name that drew blanks from the 30 and under crowd — was another blast from the past. The former Jefferson Airplane guitarist and sometime touring member of Hot Tuna did a straightforward version of “Operator.” But the real innovators of the evening were Dan Zanes and Dar Williams, who, together with La Cumbiana eNeYe, performed a drum-filled, world music riff on “Ripple,” which called to mind an excellent version of the song by Jane’s Addiction. Two achingly sweet, pitch-perfect songs followed: Ollabelle’s “Brokedown Palace,” and a moving, hymnal “Attics of My Life,” sung by Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, and Rob Barraco, a keyboardist with Phil Lesh & Friends. In between these two performances was the one true psychedelic outfit of the night — Espers, a six-piece, freak-folk band from Philly decked out in vintage threads. The bassist Chris Smith admitted to being unhappy with the song thrust upon them — “Till the Morning Comes” — but quickly added that they rose to the challenge because they commune with the dark side of the Dead. “There’s a chill and a creepiness in those songs that we really tune into,” said Smith, who called Jerry Garcia out as a fellow “creep.” Filtered through their lens, the song became trippy, full of chimes and feedback, and as the lead singer’s ethereal voice trickled out into the atrium, a member of the press whispered “I smell pot,” drawing suspicious sniffs from those nearby. (The verdict: it was a ghost whiff.)

Still, it was as good a reminder as any that times have changed, a feeling echoed by Jen Chapin’s “Truckin.” Groovy though her take was, it was soulful and subdued, not the hip-shaking closeout song of a legendary album many members of the 2000-or-so crowd were aching to rock out to. They would have to wait for the encore, “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” which sent everyone off feeling pretty good.