Less than a week after Shining Star helped us celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birth, Achilles Wheel was back to honor the anniversary of his passing. Still fresh off their June CD release shows, it was a treat to see a totally different side of them. Taking a break from their wealth of original material, the evening of August 8 was entirely dedicated to the music of the Grateful Dead. The band was preparing to headline the Dead on the Creek festival in Mendocino so they treated this gig as an opportunity for fine tuning. If it was anything like what happened at the Crazy Horse, we are assured that they came away from that festival with a lot of new fans.
Achilles Wheel has played the Horse far more than any other band so you’d think we know every trick up their sleeve. Well, not exactly. This time they sprung a secret weapon – guest keyboardist Dave Smith. His past alliances with some of the band members were immediately apparent through their sixth-sense synchronicity. This was not a guy who exhibited concern of stepping on anyone’s toes. From note one he was off to the races. Every song soared higher than normal on the wings of his gusto. He took lead vocals on several songs as well which gave the band more range than usual. We found ourselves contemplating, “How does this band play without a keyboardist?”
Achilles Wheel is known for doing the utmost justice to the Dead’s songbook but there was definitely a heavy dose of extra magic in the air on this night. It was crystal clear from the get-go that lead guitarist Jonny Mojo was living up to his name to the fullest extent. He is always impressive, but on this occasion his playing was the definition of otherworldly. Yes, we are prone to hyperbole, but he was like Neo at the end of The Matrix. He was the musical equivalent of Pele in the 1958 World Cup. The guy was practically levitating. Brilliance flowed out of his instrument with the ease of a fish swimming through water.
A mid first set “China Cat Sunflower”>”I Know You Rider” was a shot fired across the bow. The transition had that gritty ferocity which characterized early 80’s Dead. It seemed like the rest of the band was taking notice that Mojo was out of his mind and that they better step up or be left in his wake. All six elevated to the same plain as they rode the cosmic wave towards the end of the rainbow. The rhythm section seized hold of the room. You could feel it in your heart and loins as they locked in with that center-of-the-Earth sonic boom. Drummers Mark McCartney and Gary Campus wove their web ever thicker and complex like a double helix. Existing on an island of his own while still sharing the group mind, bassist Shelby Snow showed his strings no mercy. His focus is consistently startling. An ultra tight escapade through the beloved “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot,” “Franklin’s Tower” sequence was catnip for the raucous crowd. A sense of joy ran rampant through the air.
Things got even deeper in the second set as they challenged themselves with the complicated time signature of “Estimated Prophet” segued into “Shakedown Street.” After a bone-shaking drum solo, Mojo streaked like a Perseid meteor during a quicksilver “Eyes of the World.” The textural rhythmic licks from guitarist/vocalist Paul Kamm were essential to pushing things further into the zone. A drop into the delicate ballad “China Doll” was a bit of an ambitious move given the circumstances. Aided by Smith’s fluorescent keyboard swirls, no one was about to bemoan an opportunity to catch their breath.
The piece de la resistance near the end of the night was a majestic take on “The Other One” which showcased Achilles Wheel at terminal velocity. It was somewhat difficult to digest that the music we were hearing was actually coming off the stage in front of us. The expressions on the guy’s faces were priceless. You could understand why people have asserted that music is the ultimate drug. When you keep practicing and playing for years and years, this is the potential outcome. But even then, achieving this sort of energy and capturing the spirit of such sacred music is extraordinarily rare. We could barely take our eyes off Mojo, surging forth as an open channel for boundless creativity. When it comes to covering the Grateful Dead, it’s up to the guitarist to truly make it rain. On this night, Mojo was a human thundercloud.
As if that wasn’t enough, they had to drill us further into the ground with an utterly sublime version of “West L.A. Fadeaway.” It began unsuspectingly and then steadily evolved into a fire-breathing dragon crushing everything in its path. Might as well be a given at this point, but of course it was Mojo pouring on the gasoline. The drum skins reverberated far beyond the walls. Garcia was feeling restless beyond the grave. Shifting gears back to the old school, they wrapped up the set with a soul-quenching romp through “Turn on Your Lovelight.” Smith did Pigpen proud, carrying the song’s spirit through with the necessary lyrical zest. Bodies were flying around on the dancefloor and hands were hoisted towards the sky.
This is why people cherish a cover band at the top of their game. In that time and space, it feels as close to the original as you can get. In some cases, perhaps even better. Maybe you’re someone who saw the Dead a bunch and this helps you reconnect. Maybe you never had an opportunity to see them and now you finally understand what the fuss is all about. This was Achilles Wheel’s version of lightning-in-a-bottle. They are the kind of band people love to see frequently because of how much fun they are. That’s all fine and good, but having the ability to drop the bomb like they did on August 8 is a gift of a whole other color. They’re no spring chickens, but it seems like they are just starting to hit their prime. That’s what happens when a band is committed to pushing the envelope and always getting better. It’s exciting to imagine where they go from here.