“It’s just like playing a three-hour show,” said the Dead’s Bob Weir, backstage at New York’s Angel Orensanz theater, “but it’s broken up by cab rides.” Weir wasn’t joking. To unofficially kick off their spring reunion tour, the Dead had grand plans to play a free concert in a large outdoor venue in New York City, possibly Battery Park. When both the weather and city paperwork scotched that idea, the band did the next best thing. On March 30th, the Dead played three free, back-to-back shows in the city like Prince did in L.A. Saturday night; the roughly 4,100 free tickets were distributed to fans by Internet lottery. (Check out photos of all three gigs.)
And what a long, intermittently strange day it was, beginning with Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and touring guitarist Warren Haynes playing “Friend of the Devil” on The View. (The band is longtime friends with co-host Whoopi Goldberg.) At 5 p.m. the men did a rare acoustic-trio set at the intimate Angel Orensanz, a former synagogue on the Lower East Side. The show focused on American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead classics like “Dire Wolf,” “Cumberland Blues” and “Casey Jones,” but the highlight was a largely instrumental, 20-minute version of “Bird Song,” the three men weaving guitar lines in and around each other.
At 8 p.m., Lesh, Weir and Haynes were joined by drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti at the Gramercy Theatre, where the full band played an hour of nonstop electric music. Nearly half the set was taken up by an introductory jam and “Playing in the Band,” followed by beefy renditions of “Good Lovin,'” “The Wheel” and “Franklin’s Tower” that revealed how tight the reformed band has become after lengthy rehearsals in February. (Dropped from the set list due to the one-hour time limit were planned versions of “Viola Lee Blues” and “Built to Last.”)
At 11 p.m., the day of the living Dead wound up at the largest of the three venues, the 3,000-capacity Roseland. Still in electric mode, the Dead awed an enraptured, dancing crowd with nearly two more hours of music, starting with “Althea” (on which Haynes sang Garcia’s parts, as he often did), followed by “Cassidy,” “Eyes of the World” and a typically improvisational “St. Stephen.” The set ended with a celebratory, guitar-jammy “Sugar Magnolia,” Haynes throwing in Chuck Berry riffs. “This band is interesting,” said Hart afterward, slipping into Forest Gump voice. “It’s like a box of chocolate: You never know what you’re gonna get.”
The shows served as a warm-up for the Dead’s full tour, which starts April 12th in Greensboro, North Carolina, and continues through mid-May. (The band has worked up nearly 100 songs, including rarely performed oddities like “King’s Solomon’s Marbles.”) What did the band think of the music they made on their Manhattan “cab tour”? “It still needs some work,” Weir said after the Roseland set. “We have to stratify our parts more. But hope is on the horizon.”
For much more from the Dead’s triple-gig marathon in New York, keep your eyes peeled for a full story in an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone.