On Friday night, Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir hosted a five-hour celebration entitled Move Me Brightly, in honor of what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. A stirring 30-minute documentary directed by Justin Kreutzmann, son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, kicked off the proceedings. Then a rotating group of musicians that numbered nearly 20-deep took turns performing in various configurations, under Weir’s stewardship. The event was webcast live from Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, California.
Fittingly, Garcia’s memory was honored with musical passages that sounded nothing like the licks Garcia himself would have played, but which captured his spirit by pushing the source material in new directions, and unearthing previously undiscovered territory between their beginnings and endings. As Weir told Rolling Stone during rehearsals, “You find Jerry in the songs. And he’s amply there.”
In addition to Weir and Grateful Dead singer Donna Jean Godchaux, the one-time-only group of musicians included Phish’s Mike Gordon, Furthur’s Joe Russo and Jeff Chimenti, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and Tad Kubler, Vampire Weekend’s Chris Tomson, the Yellowbirds’ Sam Cohen and Josh Kaufman, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ Neal Casal and Jon Graboff, the Black Crowes’ Adam MacDougall and Norah Jones’ Jason Abraham Roberts, as well as singer-songwriters Jim Lauderdale, Jonathan Wilson, Cass McCombs and Harper Simon.
“If you don’t know who some of these people are,” Weir told the crowd, “you’re in the same boat as me.”
That said, fans immediately recognized the unannounced starting bassist as Phil Lesh. This brought the Grateful Dead member count on stage up to three for the first two numbers, “The Wheel” and “Cumberland Blues.” As if passing some kind of torch, Lesh then handed the bass duties over to Phish’s Mike Gordon, who quickly established himself as one of the night’s MVPs.
“I’ve heard Mike Gordon play bass more than anybody else in my whole life and his playing is just engrained in me,” guitarist Jason Abraham Roberts told Rolling Stone. “To get to stand beside him and hear him play like that, instead of in front or listening on headphones, is such a crazy feeling. I actually enjoyed getting to watch him play in rehearsal as much as I enjoyed playing.”
For keyboardist Adam MacDougall, the event was a chance for him to get up close and personal with the Grateful Dead songbook as much as it was an opportunity to celebrate Garcia. MacDougall admits that he wasn’t the biggest Deadhead growing up, but he got hooked more recently during tours with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Robinson plays “a lot” of Grateful Dead on the tour bus.
“Doing this event really gets you inside the music with the people who really started it, the mindset of the cats that were there,” MacDougall told Rolling Stone. “That really helps you to get ‘in it’ instead of just playing it. You really get to understand it from the inside out.”
Joe Russo has had that exact perspective for the past few years as the drummer in the Grateful Dead spinoff band, Furthur. “Jerry Garcia was a total man of his own who just recreated an instrument in his vision, in his voice,” Russo told Rolling Stone. “It’s just so cool to see the reach of this music so far outside its genre, and the influence. Everybody’s approach to it is just very fresh and different. I think people are respecting the original recordings and original arrangements, but putting their own contemporary spin on it, coming from a completely different place – these guys aren’t jam band guys that ended up playing Grateful Dead songs.”
Even Weir was willingly taken out of his comfort zone several times throughout the proceedings, as the marathon set focused on Garcia’s show pieces – some of which were pulled from his solo bands (“Don’t Let Go”) while others were his signature tunes in the Dead proper (“Terrapin Station”).
The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn brought his unique vocal style to the mix on several numbers, turning the traditionally sing-songy “Scarlet Begonias” into one of his speak-sing rave-ups. “I have a Dancing Bear on my guitar and people ask me all the time, ‘Are you really a Dead fan?'” Finn told Rolling Stone. “I am. And I’ve been into them since I’ve been in high school. They’re one of those bands that you can keep listening to over your life, because you can get new meanings out of these songs forever – and I think lyrically they’re some of the strongest songs in rock and roll.”
Midway through the set, retired basketball star, sportscaster and Deadhead celebrity Bill Walton became animated from four rows deep in the audience. “I like this band!” Walton shouted at one point. “It’s a good band you’ve got here!”
He wasn’t wrong. And afterwards, most of the musicians as well as a large percentage of the studio audience all made their way a few miles down Highway 101 to Terrapin Crossroads, the performance space that Phil Lesh recently opened. (Lesh had retreated to Terrapin following his cameo in Move Me Brightly for a previous commitment with Yonder Mountain String Band).
As all parties reconvened at Terrapin Crossroads after the respective shows, instruments were hastily moved to the bar area. Lesh then led a loose ensemble of musicians – including Jon Graboff, Jeff Chimenti, Jason Abrahman Roberts and Jonathan Wilson – through yet another set of Dead-based jams. The spontaneity of it combined with the fact that it was a free bar show was, in some ways, the most fitting Jerry Garcia tribute of all, in a night filled with them.