“We miss Jerry!” some guy felt the need to observe loudly last night, during the quietest of last night’s three sets by the band once known as the Grateful Dead.
“You think we don’t?” shot back, Phil Lesh, the Dead’s 69-year-old beanpole bass player.
“Free the Dead,” the marquees read. Gearing up for their first tour in five years, yesterday’s three shows–5 pm at the Angel Orensanz Center, 8 pm at the un-Blendered Gramercy Theater, 11 pm at Roseland (plus an additional 11 am slot on The View)–were designed to promote late April’s still-on-sale arena gigs at Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum, and the IZOD Center. Only announced on Friday, with free web ticket lottery over the weekend, the last-minute trifecta was more for the begutted older bro with the fading dancing bear tattoos across his shirtless shoulder blades, Bud Light can aloft, presumably with $100 to spend on upcoming tickets, rather than the Animal Collective bandwagoneers and shaggy-headed indie-ites who’ve embraced the Dead lately. (Like, say, Akron/Family, who the evening before led a Brooklyn singalong on thir cover of “I Know You Rider” around the Union Pool campfire.)
The Dead, with the Allman Brothers’ Warren Haynes playing lead beard, were their usual shambolic selves, by turns delightful and horrid. The latter came mostly in a disjointed acoustic set by Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir, and guitarist Haynes at the 300-capacity Orensanz Center, a 160-year old former synagogue, on the Lower East Side. During a 20-minute “Bird Song,” the trio doddered, occasionally losing syntax entirely. But the band was most comfortable during a warm, half-hour “Playing In The Band” opener at the Gramercy, filled out by drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, along with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti (of Weir’s Ratdog). Lesh martialed the band through hard segues into “Franklin’s Tower” and others, playing an absurd (but very nice sounding) $11,000 Ritter bass with glowing blue LEDs running up the fretboard like landing lights.
Afterwards, that tatted bro (who was psyched to hear a “Touch of Grey” encore at the Gramercy) pulled his tie-dye back on as he exited onto 23rd Street, but was flexing his bare bears again two hours later and 29 blocks north. With Weir at the helm in Roseland’s cavernous hall, the sextet sounded more like their harsher arena incarnations, amid double-drummer plods and forgotten lyrics. Running through “Dark Star”–its centerpiece jam the one true test of any version of the Dead–the group sputtered to a halt after the first verse, Lesh and Kreutzmann eventually snapping into a taut jazz groove, the most compelling excursion of the late set.
The Deadhead caravan will wait until the arena gigs, but the nitrous mafia was there last night in droves. “This is so cool,” commented one American Apparel employee amid the hiss of tanks, closing up shop next door to the Gramercy to find the sidewalk littered with the balloons and spun Heads. She gaped fashionably with her co-worker, until a police officer told them to move, sweeping them and everyone else back towards the quiet thrum of Park Avenue on a Monday night. – JESSE JARNOW