Volume 19 Issue 37 | January 26 - February 1, 2007

Unlocking the vault: Drivin’ that train

Downtown Express Photos by Jefferson Siegel

Live wireless: Evan Dove of Queens was at the Dead’s first Fillmore East show in 1969, and was also at their legendary free concert in Central Park that same weekend. Here, in a sure sign that Baby Boomers have lost their cool, he checks his e-mail on the laptop he brought to the show.

By Todd Simmons

Saturday night was the first of two concerts at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden featuring songs from the seminal Grateful Dead albums, “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” Despite frigid winds blowing off the Hudson outside, an overflow crowd came out for a free show by an eclectic lineup of musicians who put their own spin on the songs of the late psychedelic jam band pioneers. Amazingly, over a decade after the passing of Jerry Garcia, the Dead can still draw a crowd.

The first evening of the “American Beauty Project,” produced by New York Guitar Festival founder David Spelman, was a start to finish exploration of the eight songs from “Workingman’s Dead,” from “Uncle John’s Band” through “Casey Jones,” solidly performed by a variety of artists, interspersed with musical interludes featuring organizer Spelman in addition to Andy Statman, Kerryn Tolhurst and banjo whiz Tony Trischka in a space that most people are used to seeing as a shopping mall.

The format of various bands coming on and off the stage for each song made it difficult to keep the show’s momentum going at times (the musical interludes were more effective than the verbal repartee between the emcee John Schaffer and the musicians) but the strength of the players and singers gave most of these songs a vigorous reworking that underscored their significance.

The 1970 album’s concise folk/country arrangements were morphed into styles ranging from torchy blues steppers to Klezmer rave-ups. Highlights included Catherine Russell’s strutting, bluesy version of “New Speedway Boogie” and the Klezmatics exceptional rendition of “Cumberland Blues,” which was the furthest a field in the reinvention department. The song about beleaguered miners, infused with their rollicking brand of traditional Jewish folk music was a revelation and sent a charge through the big glass room. Another standout moment was Trishka’s banjo jam, with Spelman on guitar, on the lost Garcia classic “Jerry’s Breakdown.” Trischka quoted Garcia as saying that when he played the banjo the sound emerged like “a river of pearls.”

The setting itself had a surreal quality, with palm trees planted throughout the orchestra seating section and darkened shops lining the midway. Security was easygoing, however, and some Deadheads even managed a twirl in various dance-friendly sections. The crowd that lounged on the terraced shopping mall’s ascending steps had a better view of the proceedings but were shorted a little on a sound mix that became murkier the farther it drifted from the board where the palm trees ended. This was likely due to the soaring Winter Garden ceiling that absorbed a lot of the sound.

The novelty of the evening, however, was lost on no one. The idea of Deadheads gathering in a place devoted to commerce would have seemed as surprising, at the time, as the psychedelic Grateful Dead making a popular country/folk album in 1970.

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