By Mark Miller
BERKELEY, CA — The ultimate Jerry Garcia tribute concert also became a de facto Grateful Dead reunion and 40th anniversary celebration, or at least as close as anyone is going to get with the sold-out show on September 24 entitled Comes A Time: A Celebration of the Music and Spirit of Jerry Garcia. Comes A Time was held at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, one of the finest outdoor venues in the nation and a locale the Dead played many times before they got too big to fit their burgeoning fanbase within its intimate confines.
Founding GD members Bob Weir and Billy Kreutzmann were on-hand as well as longtime members Mickey Hart and Donna Jean Godchaux McKay. The only noticeable absence was bassist Phil Lesh, who begged off because of helping his son move into college that same weekend.
Conspiracy theorists in Deadhead-land suggested there were ulterior motives behind Phil’s bow-out given the alleged infighting between Phil and the others during The Dead’s 2004 tour.
That rumor begs the question that if squabbling wasn’t the issue, then why wasn’t an effort made to reschedule the event to include Lesh, the virtuoso bassist who commanded Garcia’s respect second to none?
Phil’s absence was a huge hole, yet Comes A Time was ultimately a tribute to Jerry and his incredible canon of songs written, and there were still plenty of stars to shine on this night.
The show began with a laidback tribute to Garcia’s bluegrass roots with a set featuring David Nelson, Sandy Rothman, & Brian Godchaux (son of late Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux). Their set included the traditional classic “Oh, The Wind and Rain,” a song beloved by Garcia.
The unplugged opener made a nice stylistically segue into String Cheese Incident’s set, which featured a nice jam on “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” and a set closing “Ripple,” which didn’t quite capture the emotions Jerry routinely summoned from the song.
Next up was a tribute to the solo Jerry sound with JGB, the remnants of the Jerry Garcia Band, including Melvin Seals. They opened with Garcia’s best solo piece, “Cats Down Under The Stars” and concluded with “Deal” featuring Warren Haynes on guitar, Kreutzmann on drums and Garcia’s favorite keyboardist, Merl Saunders, and they produced the first solid jam of the night, with an element of improvisation.
Next up was Bob Weir and Ratdog, opening their set with “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo,” which featured a soaring jam. Ratdog mellowed things out with “Bird Song” and “Lazy River Road.” It was a rather pedestrian set, though it did demonstrate how much Ratdog had improved over the past decade since Garcia’s passing.
In addition to celebrating his musical family, Comes A Time also celebrated Jerry’s literal family as his daughters came onstage during set break, with Annabelle Garcia, telling the crowd: “This is a conversation my father started. It’s up to you to keep the conversation going.”
The grand set of the evening began with an appearance by Nubian musical master Hamza El Din performing “Olin Arageed,” which he performed each night during the Grateful Dead’s September 1978 three-day run in front of the Egyptian Pyramids.
With that, the massive “Jerry Garcia Tribute Band” took to the stage; consisting of Weir, Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, early 90’s Grateful Dead member Bruce Hornsby on piano, organ and vocals, Donna Jean Godchaux, Garcia sound-a-like Jimmy Herring and alternating appearances from the aforementioned Haynes, Michael Kang of String Cheese Incident and Trey Anastasio
Anastasio, in his first Bay Area appearance since the demise of Phish, was in fine vocal form, a welcome change from his inconsistent 2004 voice. However, Trey’s first song, “Help On The Way” was marred when the sound cut off for a couple of minutes, forcing Weir to storm backstage. Needless to say, the sound returned moments later.
A nod to Jerry’s psychedelic era came with the performance of the first verse of “Dark Star” featuring Kang on violin for an added aural layer. It was a wistful reminder of the legendary 1984 Dark Star at the Berkeley Greek which featured the “Face of Mars” photos in the projected background.
For Comes A Time, the stage dÃ©cor was much more sublime, yet perfect; the image of an guitar pick with the renowned “negative photo” of Garcia’s hand with the missing middle finger, lost in a childhood accident.
“Standing on the Moon” was a nod to one of the best of the later-era Garcia tunes, a song that has taken on a greater significance since Garcia’s passing. This rendition was especially tasteful with only Anastasio on guitar and Hornsby on piano and vocals.
Besides the absence of Lesh and other Garcia collaborators such as David Grisman and Vince Welnick, the biggest disappointment of the evening was the lack of some of the greatest Garcia compositions; including “Comes a Time,” the ballad for which this event was named, “Terrapin Station,” perhaps Garcia’s finest moment as a writer and “U.S. Blues,” a highly appropriate choice given the current state of the union.
Just goes to show, even in a six-hour concert, the sheer number of Garcia songs potentially available meant some masterpieces were going to be left out. The sheer volume of Garcia tunes also cut into the jams for the most part, so that aspect of Garcia’s innovative style was also underrepresented, though the show as a whole was satisfying even for the pickiest Deadhead.
The three-song encore featured the soulful Dead ballad “Brokedown Palace,” the second verse of “Dark Star” and finally, the Garcia anthem “Touch of Grey,” which brought the Garcia legacy full circle in a way; “Touch” being the opening song performed at Garcia’s last show ever, July 9, 1995, exactly one month before he died.
As all the two dozen musicians joined onstage for one final bow, Mickey Hart tied it all together with a parting comment to the gathering: “Take Jerry’s spirit home with you and do something good with it. That’s what this is all about.”