Any music sounds good in the Crazy Horse Saloon but when bands cover the Grateful Dead, there’s an extra element of magic circulating through the room. No band has played here more than Achilles Wheel. Lacking a local venue they could count on as a home base, the reopening of the Crazy Horse coincided perfectly with their intentions. Since February, they have played here about seven times if you include their appearances as an acoustic trio. Achilles Wheel is way too dynamic to be pigeonholed as a Dead cover band but you can be sure they’ll play at least a song or two during every show. You can also guarantee that those songs are going to be interpreted with impeccable taste, precision and fire.
Walking into their show one night, a woman remarked of their guitarist, “Watching Jonny Mojo play reminds me of seeing Jerry Garcia in the 60s.” His style is clearly different, but the open channel from heart to fingertips is certainly reminiscent. Bassist Shelby Snow attacks his six-string bass with relentless passion; low end frequency gurgling continuously over the brim. Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Paul Kamm weaves a colorful tapestry, accentuating all that surrounds him. Drummer Mark McCartney effortlessly shifts between the reggae grooves of “Stop that Train” to no-holds-barred psychedelia. Percussionist Gary Campus is always the dude having the most fun; filling out the fat sound with a childlike grin plastered on his mug.
The first time Achilles Wheel played the Horse, they dropped a thunderous version of “Shakedown Street” which launched the audience into a dance frenzy. They set some sort of precedent because that song has been covered by at least three other bands of all different genres since then. Being so well known in Nevada City and Grass Valley, Achilles Wheel always attracts a loyal following. Appealing to all ages but leaning towards the over 40 crowd, the dance floor is perpetually electrified with bodies matching the flow of the music. Their shows almost always stretch until closing time and typically include three full sets.
Occasionally they play free happy hour sets starting at 5pm with just Mojo, Kamm and Campus. A June version of “Bird Song” stands out in the pantheon as it reached what one could consider a spiritual place. Actually, that was the day the whole quintet showed up when it was just supposed to be the trio. They tapped in to the ethereal essence of the Garcia-Hunter composition and crossed into that coveted territory where the music plays the band.
Anyone around these parts who loves the Grateful Dead has to come running if The Deadbeats are playing. McCartney and Kamm are members of that band as well which focuses more exclusively on the Dead’s material. They’ve played the Horse a couple times now including a co-bill with Achilles Wheel on Jerry’s Birthday (August 1). Every song they play is a highlight but we hold their rendition of “Scarlet Begonias” in particularly high regard. There’s nothing like a loose, spiraling Scarlet jam with liquid guitar leads oozing from a cornucopia of creativity.
Deserving honorable mention in this discussion is a band called Tracorum which made its Crazy Horse debut in mid July. This younger, up-and-coming outfit from the Bay Area have their own unique sound categorized in the realm of R&B, soul and funk. It came unexpectedly when they busted out a few of the most classic Dead sequences starting with “China Cat>Rider.” Led by brilliant keyboardist and lead vocalist Fletcher Nielsen, every note came across in such heartfelt fashion. At the end of the night they closed their set with the crème de la crème of “Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower.” They had clearly spent countless hours perfecting this quintessential piece of music as every nuance was razor sharp and sprinkled with pixie dust. They even went back into one more round of the mind-bending “Slipknot” lick after “Franklin’s” for good measure. For the faithful, it was as good as it gets.