Friday, May 29, 2015

Summer 2015 - 50th Anniversary of the Grateful Dead

The summer for us this year is built around the 50th anniversary of that great American band - the Grateful Dead. We were fortunate enough to get tickets to the "final" three shows - July 3rd, 4th and 5th at Soldier Field in Chicago and we have put together a cross country RV tour that will feature the musical celebration in the Windy City as the centerpiece.

It was a good spring for music in Tucson and despite my lack of online blogging we still caught some excellent shows in the Old Pueblo. Todd Snider did a fine solo show at the Club Congress, and we saw Lucinda Williams, the Punch Brothers, and Zappa Plays Zappa at the Rialto Theatre. We also saw Gregg Allman at the Fox Theater and we enjoyed a full days' worth of music at the Tucson Folk Festival

On May 4th we attended the annual Grateful Dead "Meet up at the Movies" event at a Tucson cinema, this year it was an excellent concert - from July 1989 at Alpine Valley Wisconsin. This was a straight up concert movie - no interviews, crowd shots, or other filler. Each member of the band was inspired and giving it their all, the highlight for me was one of the best performances of the Dylan classic "Desperation Row" that I have ever seen. The next day we piled into the RV and started our summer by heading east. 

We overnighted at Balmorhea State Park in Texas (which has the world's largest spring fed swimming pool) and at an RV park outside of Katy Texas (our normal stopping point - the Stephen F. Austin State Park - was closed due to storm damage). Then we landed at New Orleans for a weekend of fun. We stayed at the French Quarter RV Park, just a few blocks from Bourbon Street and super convenient. We were met there by a couple of our friends from Tucson and we ate and drank our way through the French Quarter. We also visited the World War II Museum, which was very interesting, well worth your time if you're ever in New Orleans. After telling our friends goodbye in New Orleans we headed north, spending the first night in Auburn, Alabama, where we were able to catch one of the Capitals' playoff games in a downtown barbecue joint. From there we went to Easley, South Carolina, staying at the Ivy Acres RV Park and visiting with cousins there. Next stop was the Claytor Lake State Park near Radford, Virginia. It is a nice park and would be worthy of a longer visit, but we were focused on getting to Maryland in time for:

On May 14th, an incredible line up of musicians came together at the Merriweather Post Pavilion to celebrate Jerry's music. It was a sold out affair, a large but very friendly crowd of DeadHeads, all united for the love of Jerry's music. It was more like a festival crammed into a four hour period, with one performer right after another, but no "flow" or dramatic narrative that you might get in a concert by a single performer. Nevertheless there were several musical highlights for me. One was "Fire on the Mountain" featuring original Dead members Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, and Bob Weir and lead vocals by Jimmy Cliff. Another was David Grisman and Sam Bush's performance of "Shady Grove". Before the song, David explained that he had met Jerry some 51 years ago only about 85 miles from Merriweather. They were both at a bluegrass festival to see the legendary Bill Monroe. David became a little choked up as he said of Jerry "He was a good guy." Their musical partnership began before the Grateful Dead and lasted until Jerry's passing, thank God David kept that tape recorder rolling in his basement all those nights they jammed together. Another high point for me was Bob Weir's rendition of "Days Between". I kept hoping for a brief reunion of the "core four" but after Phil Lesh opened the show he disappeared into the wings and did not sit in with anyone else. But it was a nice way to celebrate a great musician and to kick off the Summer of the Dead.

Dark Star Orchestra at the Hamilton

A few nights after Dear Jerry we went to downtown DC to check out the Dark Star Orchestra at the Hamilton. We've seen DSO plenty of times, they usually do a complete recreation of a Grateful Dead concert but for this venue they chose to do an all acoustic show. One of the Hamilton managers confided to me that DSO electric was a "little too loud" for them, thus the acoustic solution. That turned out to be fine with us as we were up close and personal to a very nice evening of Dead tunes done low key with the emphasis on the songs (and not so much jamming). The Hamilton is a lovely venue with a wonderful service, we hope we can get back there again soon.


Delfest is one of our favorite music festivals, we've gone to 7 out of 8 of them now. Hosted by the Del McCoury Band and located at the fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland, this festival is all about the music. This year featured David "Dawg" Grisman as the roving musical ambassador, and he was at the center of several of my favorite musical moments of the weekend. Thursday night there was some misty rain, so we took advantage of the Del Radio station, which provides a live feed from the main stage and enjoyed the Steep Canyon Rangers from the comfort of the Pinnacle living room. Then the weather lifted and we made it out to see Shovels and Rope, who turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Consisting of a husband and wife duo, they made a much more rich and complex sound than I was expecting, great way to kick off the festival! 

Ronnie McCoury, David "Dawg" Grisman, and Sierra Hull
Friday morning was the musical peak for me, as David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury and Sierra Hull sat down in the Music Hall for a mandolin "playshop". About 50% music and 50% storytelling by David, this was a wonderful session that had one of the best mandolin players out there today (McCoury) sitting with his mentor (Grisman) as well as the next generation (Hull) discussing and demonstrating technique, style and music theory. It was an amazing hour, I wish it could have been two or three.
Also on Friday we saw on the main stage Larry Keel, Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers and Railroad Earth all do fine sets.

Saturday we roamed around and finally settled in the Music Hall for what was billed as "Dre and the DelFest Collective". This was essentially a singer named Dre Anders who must have some good connections because she was able to corral the Travelin' McCoury's and several other musicians onto the stage with her. It quickly became obvious that she was the weak link in the chain and this turned into a rare DelFest disappointment. But no worries, as we went to the main stage and caught another magic musical miracle as "Del and Dawg" (just the two of them) performed a super strong set of bluegrass classics and wonderful tunes. Dawg did his usual intro's illuminating each song with personal history and context. Additional sets from Jason Isbell and the Travelin' McCoury's finished off a great Saturday at DelFest.

Sunday we made another visit to the Music Hall, this time to see the McCoury Brothers, which is basically the Del McCoury Band along with two of his brothers - Jerry and G.C.  They performed a great set, but it was nearly impossible to take our eyes off 3 year old Vassar McCoury (Rob's son), who "played" his fiddle with the band for nearly the entire set. Del told the two adult fiddle players that Vassar had rubbed all of the hair off his bow, thus explaining why there was no sound coming from the fiddle, so "he won't be showing up you boys today!" Jayson Carter calmly replied, "I think he already has." With a name like Vassar McCoury it's a safe bet that in a decade or so we'll be hearing some fine tunes from this one. We closed out Sunday with fun sets from Leftover Salmon, the Del McCoury Band, and Trampled by Turtles. Another great festival which has continued to grow over the years with out sacrificing quality (which has been a challenge for other festivals). 

We'll be fitting in some more music over the next few weeks as we tour in the RV, but the next big event will be July 3 - 5 at Soldier Field!