Jerry Garcia was at the Crazy Horse last Saturday night. No, not the guy who kicked the bucket 18 years ago. Actually a cute little dog named Jerry Garcia who belonged to the bass player from Totally Dead – Dave – and his partner Katie. While they did share a striking resemblance, one could be certain that the spirit of the man himself was alive and well within our hallowed walls. Anywhere there’s a band doing his music justice, you’d like to think he’s looking down and smiling with approval. We’ve had many of those nights since the return of the Crazy Horse and a few extremely notable ones within the past couple of weeks. In hindsight it couldn’t be more apropos considering what a legendary month May happens to be in Grateful Dead history.
Back on May 2, Jerry Duty made their third appearance on our stage and showed that the third time really is the charm. They have been excellent in the past but this time it was apparent they were clicking from the first notes. The first set was full of brilliant moments including a patient, spacious “Bird Song,” which fluttered through the ethers. In set two, they delved deep into the improvisational zone. Opening with “Cats Down Under the Stars,” they quickly veered from the confines of song structure. Later on, they dared to venture into the sacred realm of the “Dark Star.” It was surreal to hear such a coveted piece of music so well-represented in our intimate venue. Southpaw lead guitarist, Todd Gardner, spiraled through the sonic cosmos while bassist Marty Holland, and the rest of the band, contributed tastefully.
On Friday, May 16 San Francisco keyboardist/vocalist, Jordan Feinstein, delivered a new project to our doorstep. He and bassist Murph Murphy wowed us back in January when they performed with Stu Allen and Mars Hotel. This time they brought drummer Ezra Lipp and guitarist/vocalist Garrin Benfield into the fold. Based on the talent level of this quartet, we knew we were in for a treat. These guys have played together numerous times in the past, but get together rarely these days. In fact, Garrin lives all the way in Brooklyn. Opening with The Band’s “Ophelia,” their chemistry was undeniable. Fueled by Garrin’s electrified, acoustic twang and Jordan’s bubbling funk, they locked into a nectar-hued, timeless, barroom groove. The setlist was universally irresistible with Garrin’s lead vocals oozing with soul. They traveled from Zeppelin’s “D’yer Maker” to Radiohead’s heart-melting “High and Dry” onwards and upwards to Phish’s tour de force – “Sand.” The latter saw The R.I.G. unspooling yards of silky, yet gritty, funk with Jordan leading the way.
“We had to try not to make this about the Grateful Dead,” Jordan said during the setbreak. A thumping version of “West L.A. Fadeaway” and cleverly reimagined “On the Road Again” had been the only forays thus far. Their innate yearnings could no longer be repressed as they opened the floodgates in the second stanza. Busting out with a fiery “Hey Pocky Way,” overflowing with intuitive improv, they were an unstoppable force of nature. Several times throughout the show you had to do a double-take at Garrin because it didn’t seem possible that the effects-laden licks we were hearing were actually coming out of his innocent Martin acoustic. After closing with “Dear Mr. Fantasy” with Jordan handling the vocals, the small but adoring crowd pleaded for more. We got far more than we bargained for as they opted for “Eyes of the World.” It was so refreshing to hear it reinvented in such rootsy fashion. Jordan sealed the deal, leading it into an unexpected funk section. The Dead only played “And We Bid You Goodnight” at the most transcendent shows so it seemed only fitting when The R.I.G. signed off on the heels of this angelic hymn.
Capping off May’s Dead bonanza on Saturday, May 17 was a band with a name that leaves nothing to the imagination – Totally Dead. We knew guitarist Ned Patchett and drummer Mo Sardella from other bands and had no doubt that they would hold this project to the highest standards. This was only the fourth show the band had played but you would never have guessed. Even just from the soundcheck, their synergy was palpable. There are a lot of superb Dead cover bands out there who know the music backwards and forwards. What makes a truly special Dead cover band is the rare ability to transmit the “X-Factor” which happens between the notes and behind the music. These cats approach everything with an infectious sense of ferocity. They play the music the way most of us hardcore fans would want it to be played.
They served notice late in the first set when they tackled the slithery, ultra-complicated pairing of “Lazy Lightning>Supplication.” There’s a reason why you never hear bands cover this. We are not attesting this was on par with a May ’77 version, but you had to admire them just for giving it a go. As was often the case with the Dead, things really jelled during the set-closing “China>Rider.” The music began to play the band as everyone hit on all cylinders. Bassist Dave Gantenbein was a star throughout the night, laying the serious thunder on his six string. A Phil Lesh disciple in the truest sense, he lit a fire under the band with his aggressive flourishes. Drummers Sardella and Will McCosker churned like a riverboat turbine, co-existing in primal rhythmic harmony. Giving us another sign of their commitment to tradition and excellence, Patchett and co-lead guitarist, Matt Salata, paid homage to the glory of ’74, steering the ship into the pure catharsis of the elusive “Feelin’ Groovy” jam.
“Shakedown Street” is by far the most covered song at the Crazy Horse. Even bands that don’t gravitate towards the Dead seem to find a way to slip it into their sets. It’s always a fun song to dance to but the repetition has gotten to the point of ridiculousness. Sure enough, the tuning before the second set was a clear indication of the inevitable. Any band that plays a “Shakedown” like this is welcome to play it anytime they want. Filling the Donna Jean Godchaux role, Eileen Flynn Bell added harmonic grace around every corner. She definitely sealed the deal on the authenticity, even though this setlist played like a show from the early 80s.
Another song you don’t hear many Dead cover bands play is “Estimated Prophet.” Hearing them drop into that seductive wah-wah funk intro in the Crazy Horse was blissful. Heads shot each other knowing glances of approval. Making it even more impressive was the fact that McCosker handled vocals admirably while working his kit. Never an easy task. He sang all the Bobby tunes as far as we recall. The “Eyes of the World” that followed was the crystallization of everything one can hope for when listening to a band pay tribute to the Grateful Dead. They were channeling a bit of magic as it poured forth like lightning into a bottle. They kept pushing the envelope as they visited the brink, revisited the theme and then tumbled into the “Stronger than Dirt” jam. Here we had a ’77-style “Eyes” augmented by the finest element from ’74. Perhaps over the head of a passive listener, but shear nirvana for the faithful. Even our bouncer Jake excitedly inquired, “What song is this?”
They could do no wrong as they continued their tear, following a drum interlude with an apocalyptic “Other One” into a nifty segue-fest of “St. Stephen>Not Fade Away>Other One>St. Stephen>Going Down the Road Feeling Bad>Morning Dew.” If you really mean business as a Dead cover band, you can’t hide from the ballads and none leave you more exposed than the “Dew.” Patchett did justice to the haunting vocals. The pacing, the emotion and the subtleties were all spot on from the entire band. Speaking of prerequisites for amazing Dead cover bands, you’ve gotta have the guy who can fill the Jerry role. What really sets Totally Dead apart is that they have two exceptional guitarists. Patchett and Salata switch off taking leads and both are able to take you into the vortex. Salata delivers the effect of otherworldly awe with his liquid leads while Patchett transmits a power rooted more from the earth.
Sending us off with a stomping encore of “Sugar Magnolia” into “One More Saturday Night,” the essence of Good Old Grateful Dead was glowing strong enough to light up all of Nevada City. The dancefloor never waned as people of all ages and hair lengths let loose. If this was only their fourth show, it’s a stretch to imagine just how high Totally Dead can soar.