Madison Square Garden
New York, New York
April 24, 2009
Madison Square Garden is billed as “the most famous arena in the world,” and The Dead have played there 52 times before April 24, a record for any other band until broken by Elton John in 2001. This show was kind of a coming home party, as they have not performed at MSG since 1994.
The stage was set for a great comeback for devoted fans, many of whom have not seen the band together since 1995 when Jerry died.
For those of you living under a rock, the current incarnation of The Dead consists of original members Bob Weir (guitar/vocals), Phil Lesh (bass/vocals), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), and Mickey Hart (drums). Filling out the rest of the band was Warren Haynes (lead guitar/vocals – Allman Brothers Band/Gov’t Mule) and Jeff Chimenti (keys – Ratdog).
Set up on stage was a huge steal your face-like apparatus. Made to shoot out light into the crowd, it looked like a mammoth tribute to the good old days with Jerry on stage. Other lights included red and blue poker chips, as well as random other swirling colors. These all had plenty of potential but for some reason they seemed under used which was the only disappointment of the night.
The first set contained mostly late 60s and early 70s classics which was great to hear. That night The Garden was filled mostly by Deadheads, a small yet very pleasant surprise since it can tend to fill up with people who have no interest in the band performing.
Starting out with a terrific “Cosmic Charlie,” the band cruised though “China Cat Sunflower” directly into the first song sung by Warren Haynes, “Shakedown Street.” Warren sang on the next song as well, “Ship of Fools.”
Haynes really let everyone know what kind of show it was going to be when his normally rough and brittle voice took a back seat to his softer, smoother voice with just the right amount of soul tossed in which makes him so unique. Although he doesn’t sound like Jerry vocally or musically, when it comes to guitar styles he is still a perfect fit for the most famous touring band in history.
When “He’s Gone” came flowing through, the steal your face lights were moving all around the crowd, brightly shining for the lyrics “Steal your face right off your head.” By this point it seemed as though everyone around the band (there were seats completely sold out even behind the band) knew every word.
The first Bobby original came next in “Cassidy,” a soft song that picks up in tempo as it goes on. Closing out the first set was an 18 min. version of “Sugaree” which left nearly everyone speechless by the time it was over. Warren got the crowd amped up when he sang “Shake it up now, Sugaree; I’ll meet you at MSG,” backed up by a phenomenal guitar solo by the guitarist and an amazingly intense piano solo from Chiamenti.
No one knew what to expect to start the second set – the first half was just that good. Only the Rhythm Devils (aka Kreutzmann and Hart) came out and both sat down behind their respective drum sets. Watching these guys do what they do at their age is absolutely mesmerizing. With a drum set that nearly surrounded him, Bill began to pound away at the skins until he got a nice smooth groove going. Mickey jumped right in time and they became one as their hands and arms were moving faster than anyone imagined.
What was interesting about this edition of “Drums/Space” was that there seemed to be a little more technology involved. The Dead are masters when it comes to reaching new plateaus musically for themselves and their fans, and Mickey certainly reached a new level at MSG. To his left was a very large, metal object which he would strike and slide his hand up and down on to make different noises. Just before the rest of the band came on to finish out “Space” he went over to that same metal object and began hitting it over and over again, but no noise came out – it turns out he was recording it right there; when he returned to his regular drum set the arena was filled with drum beats, a little electronic, almost techno-ish keys from Jeff and the recording of that big hunk-a-metal. It really was something else.
Once the rest of the band came back on they jammed for a few minutes before blowing everyone away with two back to back tracks off 1968’s Anthem of the Sun; an amazing “Other One” and a 9 minute version of “Born Cross-eyed.” Both were terrific but when the first two plucks of “St. Steven” was heard the crowd flew into a frenzy of dancing. It didn’t matter how old or young you were, you were really groovin’ during this song and if you weren’t you should have gotten your pulse checked.
After “The Eleven” came the classic “Uncle John’s Band.” There was one lyrical mistake during this song but by no means did it take anything away from it. It was actually kind of ironic as the song contains the verse “Wo-oh, what I want to know, how does this song go?” A nice jam followed and when the song came to an end the crowd erupted with cheers.
Sporting a new black bass with a top that curls up nearly to his shoulder, Phil played one of his own songs, “Unbroken Chain.” It was evident how proud of this song he is because his voice sounds much better than on other songs and he plays it quite often when he tours by himself.
"Unbroken Chain" ended on a very soft note which set up for the most rocking song of the night, a cover of The Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” A song Warren sometimes tackles with Mule, this rockin’ cover was off the charts. Never has anyone put so much effort, stamina, guts and glory into a song as Haynes did – eyes closed as he belted out the chorus and hair flowing as he shook his head all around, people went nuts as he strummed harder than anything you have ever seen before. The rest of The Dead even looked pleasantly surprised, all obviously enjoying the moment.
The show closed with the Bobby original “One More Saturday Night.” With its funky twists and turns, the song brought everyone out of their original seats down on through the aisles and into sections they had no business being in. This fell right into the end of the set perfectly because it was Saturday at The Garden and it was Bobby singing Bobby, which made the whole thing sound that much more authentic. It was a simply stunning way to end a show – high energy and real enthusiasm. After a quick shaking of hands the band walked off the stage as the lights stayed out.
After a minute or two a few hundred lit lighters became visible all across MSG and the mood was set for a great farewell encore. The Dead came back out on stage again, did a little tuning, then went into “Brokedown Palace,” a soft ballad which calmed down the crowd and made you want to hug the world. Everyone was in true form and sounded great.
After they ended the song all the members gathered on the stage and faced the crowd, arms around each other. A few waves, points and claps came right before they took their final bow. No one knows whether this will be the last time this incarnation of The Dead takes to the road, but until then, listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock your soul.