We’ve never needed a special occasion for people to get excited about seeing Achilles Wheel at the Crazy Horse. On June 20 and 21st, we had two occasions to up the ante on the celebration – Summer Solstice and the release of their new album, Stones to Sand. It was also the first time they had played two consecutive nights here. The buzz had been building for quite awhile. This was a big deal for fans and band alike.
Following a six month hiatus, the Wheel and the Horse were ready to make magic again. They played here so frequently during 2013, we anointed them our house band. We were starting to miss them. Going through the recording process for the album clearly had a transformative impact. Of course they still hang their hats on improvisational prowess, but the overall presentation carried more precision than ever before.
Certain people have lazily considered Achilles Wheel a Grateful Dead cover band. No doubt they are able to represent that coveted songbook better than most, but that is only part of their identity. With Stones to Sand, they have shed their skin and emerged more confident with original material. Throughout the two nights, they played most of the songs on the album, fitting them into the repertoire with natural ease. Like most bands with such proclivity for jamming, it was in the live atmosphere that they really shone. Such is the inevitability when feeding off a crowd like the one at the Crazy Horse. Given the venue, it was especially apropos to hear “Nobody Drinks if the Bottle’s Dry.” With this album, rhythm guitarist/vocalist Paul Kamm further cements his reputation as a songwriting sage.
The place was full each night but always comfortable. The energy was different from Friday to Saturday in subtle yet notable ways. Friday seemed to have more of a psychedelic edge. A few of their jams had a way of picking up velocity as if generated from a source beyond the earthly plane. Saturday was a super-charged rocker which saw the band playing at an electrifying clip. Each night the album’s title track was an improvisational highlight, even more so than usual. During Friday’s version Jonny Mojo was levitating as he tapped in to an absolutely divine flow of creativity. It was the musical embodiment of freedom and joy. Saturday’s “Stones to Sand” put more emphasis on the drum solo break which catapulted the final section towards a rousing climax. Like all the greatest guitarists, there is a total effortlessness surrounding Mojo’s peak moments.
Each night featured a healthy dose of Dead later in the second set. On Friday they did a bunch of tunes in a row, wrapping up with a transcendent take on “Franklin’s Tower.” When the drum duo of Mark McCartney and Gary Campus get going, they drive the grooves with startling force. Such was the case on Saturday with standout versions of “Eyes of the World” and “I Know You Rider.” The latter was particularly thunderous, inspiring a scene of communal catharsis on the dance floor. It’s always so fun to watch bassist Shelby Snow completely immersed in his instrument. You can practically see the music circulating through the man’s DNA. He was born to rock.
No one can ever claim they didn’t get their money’s worth out of an Achilles Wheel show. They always play as long as possible. On Friday, they played for a total of four hours, only taking a brief setbreak. Saturday was a little shorter but not by much. Each night they left us on a heartfelt, sentimental note. On Friday, the last song on Stones to Sand, “Hallelujah One More Time,” was a sweet kiss of a goodnight lullaby. On Saturday, “Ripple” served as a warm, musical hug and expression of gratitude as Achilles Wheel reminded us yet again why they are Nevada City’s most beloved band.