Local musicians paid tribute to the ultimate jam band, the Grateful Dead for the late Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday at Blue Frog, Mumbai. What we found was too much band and too little jam.
When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, his friends carried out his last rites, as per his personal wishes, by scattering his ashes in the Ganges river. That was Jerry’s connection with India. He didn’t make the life-affirming, godman-ass-kissing trip to Rishikesh or Meherabad like The Beatles and The Who. He didn’t have to. A little research on Jerry Garcia will confirm, through a number of personal accounts too, that Jerry “found himself” right where he spent most of his life – on a stage, within the beat, one with the music. It’s a Grateful Dead thing really, and it wasn’t just as simple as chemistry between band members. It was more like alchemy. It was the coming together of base elements to create something different, something spectacular; a lead into gold kinda thing. They were at their finest, most spiritual, most inspiring when they were on stage weaving songs together, improvising, kicking out the jams. They were a jam band after all.
In 2006, at a packed YB Chavan Centre auditorium, Mumbai jam band Something Relevant played a three-hour show which included an hour-long set of Grateful Dead tunes. At that time, I believe, they were the only band capable of playing that kind of music and it was definitely one of the best Dead cover routines the city had seen. Why Something Relevant (I’m talking the whole band here) wasn’t doing this show is beyond me. They were capable of pulling it off then, and I’m pretty sure they could pull it off now. At that gig, STR’s stage presence was superior, their chemistry bang on. They were a jam band, true and proper.
Cut to the most random-ass bunch of musicians (a whole rollicking seven or so of them, PLUS guests), paying tribute to the definitive jam band of the 20th century. That said, Blue Frog played host to the absolute cream of the crop last night. The backing band had Jehangir Jehangir (Something Relevant) on drums, Kenneth Rebello (every tribute band ever) on bass, FA Talafaral on keys, Ryan Sadri (Something Relevant) on saxophone and Nicholas Vaz on minimalistic electric guitar (the notes were sparse but you couldn’t hear them anyway). If that didn’t blow your mind already, the rotating lineup of vocalists included king of song, dance, hand-spams, head-bobs and tributes (Deep Purple, Bob Dylan), Aazin Printer, I-don’t-really-know-this-song-so-I’m-reading-the-lyrics-off-my-iPhone-ON-STAGE Rachel Varghese, and Ankit and Rohan from Spud In The Box who seemed bored having to read lyrics off a sheet to songs they had probably heard just last week or the night before. And what irks me the most about these backing-band-plus-guests gigs is that they pretty much throw continuity out the window.
After a rather sluggish start, the band went into a predictable Grateful Dead medley of ‘Scarlet Begonias/Fire On The Mountain’, which actually sounded quite good. The night included more Grateful Dead concert staples like ‘Casey Jones’, ‘The Music Never Stopped’, ‘China Doll’, ‘Shakedown Street’, and even a cover of the Dead’s cover of The Rascals’ hit ‘Good Lovin’, a song that is known as one of the worst covers by the Grateful Dead ever. Even though this was an ace selection of songs and a good way to introduce people to the Grateful Dead, concertgoers were essentially robbed of a real Grateful Dead or Grateful Dead cover-band experience which usually features long, atmospheric, intertwining, psychedelic jams. The majority of songs at the tribute never clocked upwards of four or five minutes. Most of the performances had instruments that were fighting each other for attention and with the addition of contrasting vocal styles, it was a veritable clusterfuck of mismatched musicians playing songs that most people at the venue didn’t even know.
Highlights of the evening in no particular order – loud Deep Purple-esque electric piano, inaudible guitars, tight drumming, Spud In The Box dudes coming on stage to sing backup on microphones that didn’t work, bass player signaling the end of a song halfway through presumably due to boredom, Bombay rock go-to djemebe guy Anand Bhagat, vocalist’s friend blowing his lungs out into a blues harp desperately trying to compete with the soaring volume levels of two saxophones, seamless transition from one song into an explosive rendition La Bamba, a recital of Robert Hunter’s eulogy at Jerry Garcia’s funeral followed by the happy birthday song, guitar player trying to figure out chords midway through happy birthday and failing, singers reading lyrics off a music stand AND an iPhone. Can’t forget the iPhone.
If there was one thing last night’s pool of talent lacked sorely, it was chemistry. Chemistry is the backbone of a jam band. Jam bands don’t sound rehearsed and they aren’t necessarily “tight” either. In fact, they’re usually good instrumentalists, looking extremely loose but playing in an exceptionally cohesive fashion. Was that too much to ask for at a Grateful Dead Tribute show? Apparently so.