It’s amazing that it took me so long to realize that New York City was just a mere eight hour drive from my home in Ottawa. When it occurred to me that one of the world’s biggest entertainment capitals was such a relatively painless ride away I started going at the drop of a hat. That said, the show I attended on March 3rd, 2018 was no such hat drop.
It was, in fact, the first ever duo tour featuring the surviving frontmen of The Grateful Dead, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, a momentous occasion to say the least. Add to that the venue itself: Radio City Music Hall, the largest indoor theatre in the world and a room of such historic renown that I need not mention that everyone from BB King and Liberace to David Bowie and yes, The Grateful Dead have performed there.
And even more importantly (to me, anyway): I had never been there before. So yeah, it looked like it would certainly be worth the drive, and of course it was. And then some.
Bobby and Phil had booked in for two nights, but in deference to leaving a lonely cat at home for as little time as possible m’lady and I opted just for this second night. We booked into a nice place not too far from the venue and spent the afternoon taking advantage of the hotel’s complimentary happy hour in the company of our good friend, a stand-up comedian who lives in NYC.
(It should come as no surprise to discover that stand-up comedians tear into free food and drink just as heartily and habitually as do musicians.)
After a lot of wine and peanuts we made the short walk to the venue and bid our friend goodnight. He had considered trying to find a ticket outside but I guess the stand-up business had been slow of late, so he wished us a good show and ducked into the nearest subway.
Too bad he couldn’t join us. It was a heck of a concert.
First of all, the venue is beautiful, both in the many and varied lobby areas and the vast theatre itself. The place just screams early-twentieth century classiness. Or gaudiness, depending on one’s taste. We grabbed a couple of Jack & Cokes and took our seats in the balcony, stage left.
Though Weir and Lesh were billed as a duo they did have a drummer onstage with them as well, which was great. Also great was the entire first set, which was rife with classic Dead material like West L. A. Fadeaway, Row Jimmy, and an excellent set closing Cassidy>Touch of Grey>Cassidy. Best of all was hearing all these songs stripped down to their bare bones. Just a single drummer keeping time behind Phil’s backbone bass and Bobby’s curious rhythm guitar, it was an ear-opening treat to hear these familiar motifs unadorned by lead guitar, secondary percussion, and the thick harmony of a keyboardist or two.
Throughout the set it was impossible not to notice (to me at least) that one of the amps onstage was not being used, which lent some serious credence to a rumour that had been going around about the New York stops on this very limited tour. And when the second set started we were thrilled to see the rumour come to fruition when Trey Anastasio sauntered out from the wings alongside Bobby and Phil and plugged in his Languedoc guitar.
Of course m’lady and I were thrilled, as were a good chunk of the crowd (many Deadheads had finally come around to this Trey fellow after he did such an amazing job playing with The Dead for their monstrously successful Fare Thee Well concerts three years before, but not all of them by any stretch. It’s always mystified me to know how many Dead fans have a serious hate-on for Phish. Ah well). And after all the work Trey put in to preparing to play with them at Fare Thee Well he fit in like a glove.
Playing in the Band, The Wheel, Dark Star, Jack Straw…Holy moley, it was a dream come true!
Midset I ducked out to go to the bathroom and on my return I noticed a fairly short line at the bar. It was a close call but I decided it would be worth it and got in line, and while the line moved much slower than I expected it to I became more invested with every minute and continually re-decided to stay the course, despite the beautiful muffled sounds thumping from the other side of the ornate doors leading to the balcony.
And then, finally, I was next. The dude in front of me tried to order a half-dozen drinks and got into a huge debate with the server when he was told that he could only get two at a time. Faced with this new reality he hummed and hawed over which two drinks to get and settled on something crazy and involved, like a Mai Tai and a Long Island Iced Tea or something. And then he paid with a credit card – which took forever – and then he walked away without signing the screen, forcing the barkeep to leave his post and chase him down, which took another forever.
At some point in the whole fiasco m’lady burst through the double-doors to the balcony and standing thirty feet away from me she yelled at the top of her voice, “What are you doing?!?!? They’re playing Eyes of the World in there and they’re killing it!!!!” before turning on a dime and racing back through the doors.
It was so endearing, and it garnered several “Awwww”’s from the short line behind me.
As the oaf in front of me was finishing up I promised myself I would be the very model of efficiency. The moment the bartender’s eye swung in my direction I held up two fingers. “Two double Jack and Cokes please,” I stated, loud and clear. As he handed me the two cups I handed him twenty-five dollars cash – exact change plus a small tip – with thanks and started towards my seat. My entire transaction had taken perhaps forty seconds start-to-finish and as I briskly walked away I could hear the remaining line’s applause at my obviously well-trained bar etiquette (seriously, they clapped).
By the time Eyes was done so were our drinks but there was no going back for more. Instead, we raved and raged to St. Stephen, Viola Lee Blues, Standing on the Moon, and – does it get any better? – a Ripple encore. Gosh it was so, so great.
And you know, of the six shows Bobby and Phil played on this run (with a pair in Boston and Chicago in addition to the two Radio City dates) this was the only time Trey sat in with them, and not just for a tune or three, but for the whole second set and encore. Nobody had played with them the night before (except the drummer), though Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, and Wally Ingram played the second set on the other four dates (with Jeff Chimenti on one gig as well). But with all due respect to those great players:
Sometimes we really know how to pick ‘em.