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Dead respects past but isn't stuck in it

September 20, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

The word "expect" was kicked around like a Hacky Sack before Thursday's concert at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater by the Dead. This was the first Southern California appearance by the group built around all four surviving core members of the Grateful Dead.

Singer-guitarist Bob Weir spoke backstage about how he didn't know what to expect when the four decided to reunite more than a year ago. They'd toured in various combinations under the name the Other Ones in the years after Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia's death from a heart attack in 1995, but never all together. And in recent years there had been a severe rift that left bassist Phil Lesh estranged from Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.

Joan Osborne, who in February was brought into the group to share lead vocal duties with Weir and Lesh, said in her dressing room that she has come to expect that each night's set list will include three or four songs she's never sung before. That's why she had an Apple iPod sitting in front of her, loaded with the entire Grateful Dead catalog of recordings as a pre-show study aid. She came to the job a casual-at-best Dead fan who knew only a handful of the songs.

"This has been my little secret weapon," she said of the device, noting that what started as a 50-song repertoire has now grown to more than 200. "I was not a Deadhead. I was not following them around in a Microbus selling grilled-cheese sandwiches in the parking lot."

Meanwhile, fans waiting for the show had various sets of expectations. Some had heard good word of mouth about the new lineup. Some weren't even aware that Osborne, best known for her mid-'90s hits "One of Us" and "St. Teresa" -- was on board.

But Karen Fleming, who saw her first Grateful Dead concert more than 30 years ago, had one clear thing in mind.

"I expect to dance," she said.

And that's exactly what happened.

The Dead kept a solid, free-flowing dance groove going through three hours of music, and in the process removed doubt as to whether it deserved to use the name. The show was entirely true to the spirit of the Grateful Dead, yet different enough to have its own identity.

The latter is thanks largely to Osborne, gifted with a lusty alto and a natural flair for the kind of blues, folk and rock roots that are the foundation of the Dead's repertoire. She anchored a harmony blend with Weir and Lesh that brought new color to old material.

Spirited versions of "Ramble on Rose" and "Bertha," a lilting "Friend of the Devil" and a powerful "The Other One" all seemed at once familiar and fresh, while Osborne also led the way on a lovely version of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever."

Osborne's not filling the Garcia singing role (she, Weir and Lesh pretty evenly split up the Garcia material) nor does she ever try to sing in his style. She's also not filling the role of Donna Jean Godchaux, the Grateful Dead's only female member, who in the '70s served primarily as background vocalist.

In fact, Osborne's hiring came about more with another departed member in mind: Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, whose bluesy growl was a central feature of the Grateful Dead from the group's mid-'60s origins until his death in 1973.

"I was curious," Weir said of the initial suggestion, by their mutual booking agent, that Osborne might join. "I knew she was a good singer, had seen her once or twice. It was apparent to me that she could fill the Pigpen slot -- though she does much more than that."

Osborne showed no qualms about merely being herself, bringing a sparkling presence not just in voice, but in personality. Her playfulness enlivened the stage, and a couple of times she even stepped to the front during guitar solos and danced, twirling and skipping like a natural-born Deadhead.

Lead guitarist Jimmy Herring, over from Lesh's side group Phil Lesh & Friends, served much the same way in his role. At times he recalled Garcia in the kind of modes he used and the dexterous fluidity of lines that carried the long jam portions in ways that elude many other current jam-band musicians. But just as often, he was closer in approach to former Allman Brothers guitarist Dickie Betts or Cream-era Eric Clapton.

There was skepticism and cynicism among some followers around the announcement that the group would be touring under the name the Dead, a move that seemed to some like a cheat on the late-1995 vow made by the members never to use the Grateful Dead name again. Weir, too, had some misgivings when it was proposed.

"I thought we should wait," Weir said. "But in retrospect, it was a leap of faith. We said we were going to be the Dead, and we actually are."

Certainly the name is a better box-office draw than the Other Ones, which didn't have a lot of marquee magic.

Whatever the name, there's certainly a revived mood.

The vibe both backstage and onstage at some Other Ones shows was a little stiff, even tense at times. The tone Thursday was lighthearted, with Weir, Osborne and Hart all joking around before the show. Key is a sense that this is a band that honors the past but also has a future.

Weir expects new songs will be written and hopes Osborne will contribute on that end along with the founders. And the old material will continue to evolve with the newly shaped unit.

"This is definitely not a walk down memory lane," Weir said. "I'm not ready for that. None of us are. I don't think we ever will be."

Making a cup of tea, Osborne chimes in, "You'd be bored out of your minds."

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