Still-Potent Grateful Dead Album Is Reimagined
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: January 18, 2009
A lingering acid flashback of kaleidoscope days: a benign sense of
déjà vu might describe the state of mind intermittently conjured by
the songs of the Grateful Dead as performed by the American Beauty
Project, a loosely affiliated ensemble of nine musicians, at the
Allen Room on Friday evening.
For the cheerfully scruffy middle-aged audience that attended the
90-minute concert, part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series,
collective joy welled up like spring water when the Australian
singer-songwriter Fiona McBain sang "Ripple." In this
bluegrass-flavored ballad from the Dead's 1970 album, "American
Beauty," Robert Hunter's mystical lyrics, attached to Jerry Garcia's
gently welcoming tune, evoke the stillness of ecstatic cosmic
attunement on a magical afternoon: "Ripple in still water/When there
is no pebble tossed/Nor wind to blow."
The concert focused on "American Beauty," but dipped into its
immediate forerunner, "Workingman's Dead," and went on other
sidetracks. One goal was to focus on the band's songwriting without
trying to recreate "the Grateful Dead experience," the guitarist and
singer Larry Campbell explained at the beginning of the evening.
In "American Beauty" and "Workingman's Dead," the band forsook
freer-form jamming to affirm its folk and bluegrass roots in songs as
evocative of rural Americana as those of the group's more
self-consciously stately East Coast counterpart, the Band. But until
Ms. McBain sang "Ripple" on Friday, acoustical imbalances rendered
most of Mr. Hunter's lyrics for Dead classics like "Friend of the
Devil," "Sugar Magnolia" and "Candy Man" barely intelligible.
In most cases the new arrangements were more thickly textured and the
energy more streamlined than on the original albums, where the music
ambles along, shuffling and skidding in no particular hurry, leaving
plenty of space for the sun to peek through the trees.
As the musicians took turns singing, broke up into smaller units,
then regrouped, the project reflected the Dead's casual communitarian
ethos, but without a Garcia-like guiding patriarch. The singer and
guitarist Jim Lauderdale appeared to be the co-leader along with Mr.
Campbell, its electric lead guitarist, and women dominated the vocals.
The mandolinist Catherine Russell, who sang a tough, soulful "Box of
Rain," was the closest thing to a lead vocalist, followed in
importance by Ms. McBain, Teresa Williams and Amy Helm (daughter of
Levon). Ms. McBain and Ms. Helm belong to the folk-gospel quintet
Ollabelle, which made up the nucleus of the group. Other members
included Byron Isaacs on bass, Tony Leone on drums and Glenn Patscha
on keyboards; everyone contributed vocals.
The set's rock-inflected bluegrass numbers and harder blues shuffles
were interwoven with aromatic folk songs like an exquisitely
harmonized "Attics of My Life," whose sweetly homespun music harked
back to Stephen Foster while Mr. Hunter's poetry of spiritual
yearning transported the song to a headier realm.
After the show ended, I heard some grumbling about the absence of
"Uncle John's Band" and "Casey Jones." But for most of the audience,
the chugging folk-rock anthem "Truckin' " brought the concert to a
satisfying peak. Long ago the signature phrase from "Truckin,' " one
of the rock era's most beloved road songs, took on the ring of hippie
scripture in seven words that sum up the continuing life journey of
the peace-and-love generation: "What a long strange trip it's been."