Beyond extreme technical proficiency on his instrument, it’s Stu Allen’s astounding ability to channel the essence of Jerry Garcia which fuels his legendary status. Rather than strive to emulate the late icon, what he does is express a palpable sense of love and reverence through an uncanny grasp of Garcia’s musical mannerisms. He doesn’t have to try. It just happens. Unknown to practically everyone in the room, stand up bassist Justin Purtill was the evening’s mystery man. He turned out to be an old college buddy of Allen’s, a new resident of Grass Valley and one heck of a nice guy. From the first notes, the two displayed intensely focused synergy. It was evident they were picking up a conversation begun long ago.
Much to our delight, the duo incorporated influences of early 80s Jerry Garcia-John Kahn performances as well as a touch of the Garcia Acoustic Band from the late 80s. A first set highlight was the deep cut, “Love in the Afternoon;” possibly the most romantic song Garcia was known to perform. Allen’s fluttering licks pierced through the ethers, elevating the vibe in the saloon to untethered euphoria. When straying from the Garcia catalog, he had tricks up his sleeve like Van Morrison’s “Hard Nose the Highway;” a song that no one else covers and exhibit A for the guitarist’s off-the-charts musical aptitude. A romp through the classic “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” ignited many smiles and left us yearning for more.
The second set showed that the duo were capable of thinking even further out of the box as they shocked resident Phish-heads with a plunky “Get Back on the Train.” Locked and loaded, the back end of the set achieved lift off with a dream run of Garcia cream including “Russian Lullaby,” “Bird Song,” “Gomorrah” and “Dear Prudence.” Remarks were heard throughout the night agreeing that this was the finest sound quality ever experienced at the Horse. The purity of the acoustic instruments was profound. They permeated every molecule of the room. It’s so rare to hear an acoustic performance of this caliber. Both players were flaunting otherworldly chops with such effortless ease. Purtill was equally impressive to his counterpart as his fingers danced along the meaty neck of his beautiful bass. His vocals also added gorgeous harmonic depth to every song.
It wasn’t a full house this night, but it was one of those typical Crazy Horse occurrences where most people are absorbing intently, with deep respect for the musicians. It’s relatively common to hear the Grateful Dead songbook interpreted, but quite a rarity for this Garcia-centric material. Those who relished the phenomenon radiated a sense of awe. A few fellows wandered in late, not expecting much, and were visibly blown away with the magic ensuing. Wrapping things up with a soulful take on The Beatles’ “Dig a Pony” and a feisty “Deep Elem Blues,” this was far from any ordinary Friday night. Then again, is there really anything “ordinary” at the Crazy Horse?