Volume 19 Issue 35 | January 12 - 18, 2007


Bringing back the Dead to the Winter Garden

The American Beauty Project
With Jorma Kaukonen, Ollabelle, Toshi Reagon,
The Holmes Brothers, Jen Chapin,
Dar Williams, The Klezmatics,
Tim O’Reagan, Mark Eitzel, Jim Lauderale,
Larry Campbell, Catherine Russell,
Andy Statman, Tony Trischka,
and more to be announced
8 p.m., Sat. and Sun., Jan. 20-21, Free
The World Financial Center Winter Garden

Photo by C. Taylor Crothers

Dar Williams is among the 14+ musicians scheduled to perform songs from the Grateful Dead’s legendary albums, “American Beauty,” and “Workingman’s Dead,” next weekend at the Winter Garden.

By Todd Simmons

When concert organizer and New York Guitar Festival founder David Spelman unveiled the 2007 festival’s kick-off event — a tribute to jam band pioneers and legendary touring outfit, The Grateful Dead —tri-state Deadheads flooded Spelman’s inbox with enthusiastic emails. Not only is this music that thousands of people still have a hunger for, but the free entry and remarkable setting make it all the more intriguing.

“I love the Winter Garden,” Spelman said in a phone interview. “While it’s hard to ignore the retail feel it has during the day, at night, with the stage and palm trees lit up, it becomes an amazingly warm and inviting space to experience a performance. I’ve been in the audience for many concerts over the years.  There may have been a time when the acoustics were problematic for some types of music, but they’ve addressed that with an excellent sound system and a brilliant audio crew who really know what they’re doing.”

Last year’s exploration of the starkly acoustic Bruce Springsteen album, “Nebraska,” marked the beginning of what Spelman hopes will be a yearly event at the Winter Garden. A capacity crowd turned up to hear reinterpretations of those songs performed by the likes of Laura Cantrell, Chocolate Genius and Martha Wainwright to name a few. This year, from Jan. 20-21, the American Beauty Project will take over the big glass room on the Hudson River to explore songs from two classic Grateful Dead albums, “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead.”

The notorious San Francisco band that spawned countless tales of 1960s debauchery and tie-dyed bacchanalia has often been mislabeled and misunderstood. While legions of bystanders associate the Dead with sprawling, hallucinogen-fueled improvisational noodling, Spelman intends to illustrate that the band is more complex than most casual observers give them credit for.

“I think 1970 was a magical year for the Grateful Dead,” he said, referring to the year both albums were recorded in San Francisco. “I loved the experimental improvisations they were doing in the late sixties, like what made it onto ‘Live/Dead,’ recorded in 1969, but the songs that Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote for ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and ‘American Beauty’ seemed to me to represent a new level of creativity”.

Those albums, created within months of each other, contain a large number of the band’s tighter, more traditionally melodic material, including such notables as “Friend of The Devil,” “Box of Rain,” “Casey Jones” and “Truckin.” Frontman Garcia was impressed by the harmonic economy employed by Crosby, Stills and Nash and wanted to explore the roots of American music with that kind of discipline. Those two records were a structured exploration of country, blues and bluegrass music that expressed their craftsmanship, particularly Garcia’s guitar work, in ways that would influence a generation of alt-country musicians too young to remember Woodstock.

“In addition to their influence on the alt-country scene, I think the Grateful Dead’s music has also been influential in other areas of today’s music,” said Spelman. “Take a look at the number successful jam bands out there. I think Bonnaroo [an annual music festival in Tennessee] draws something like 80,000 people to hear a line-up largely of jam bands and related music,” he said, no doubt referring to Phish, Sun Volt, Wilco, Palace Music and their contemporaries. “And there are a number of other festivals out there focusing on that same scene. It’s a much broader and robust scene than some may think, though it doesn’t get a lot of play on television and mainstream radio”.

The American Beauty Project will feature a couple dozen artists and bands such as Jay Farrar (of Sun Volt and Uncle Tupelo), The Klezmatics, Mark Eitzel and Railroad Earth, who will give the Dead’s landmark songs another spin in the Winter Garden.

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