By Brian Ives
Over the past few years, Warren Haynes has performed “Symphonic Jerry Garcia Celebration” shows across the country, where he interprets the songs of the iconic Grateful Dead leader, backed by local symphony orchestras. Last night (August 8), he wrapped up his latest edition of the tour at New York’s Central Park Summerstage, on one of the nicest nights of the summer. The vibe would have been great, no matter what.
But adding to it was the announcement a few days ago on the official Jerry Garcia Facebook page that Haynes would be playing Garcia’s legendary “Tiger” guitar, one of the most distinct looking and sounding guitars in rock and roll history. When a roadie put the guitar on stage before the musicians came on, the guitar got its own applause. Earlier this month, Haynes played the guitar at a show in Denver; it was the first time the instrument had been played in public since Garcia’s final show in 1995.
Haynes has done a lot of time paying tribute to Garcia over the years; first, as the guitarist in Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band, and later in the Dead, the ad hoc Grateful Dead reunion group that included Lesh, Bob Weir, Billy Kreutzmann and Micky Hart. It doesn’t matter what six-stringed instrument Haynes plays though, he always sounds great. But there’s something about watching, and hearing, him play that guitar (there’s a similar effect when his former Allman Brothers Band-mate Derek Trucks plays the late Duane Allman’s gold Les Paul).
Having played with both the Dead and the Allmans, and as the leader of his own band Gov’t Mule, Haynes is a connection between the originators of the jam-band genre and the ’90s generation of improvisational rockers; he appeals to both audiences. So between the obvious appeal of Haynes playing Dead songs backed by a symphony orchestra (a great idea), the ideal weather, and the presence of “Tiger,” it was a wonderful night in NYC for Dead fans.
Haynes opened with “Bird Song,” a song which perfectly demonstrated how his singing and guitar playing worked with the symphony. He adopted a clearer guitar tone and a more laid back vocal style, a la Garcia. Grateful Dead songs always had a lot of space in them, which allowed the song to breathe and the players to jam. On this tour, the orchestra often fills the spaces, adding lush textures to the songs, without making them feel too “busy.”
When Haynes first started doing the symphonic Jerry shows, some fans might have wondered how the spirit of improvisation that is so essential to his, and Garcia’,s music, would be represented with orchestras. Haynes told Radio.com that “I felt like it was very important that we take the Grateful Dead spirit and to approach the symphonic production in a way that is different from the norm. I didn’t want it to be just like a symphony playing that music.” The improvisation lives on in this format, via Haynes’ guitar solos, which were exciting as always.
The night was filled with highlights, including “China Cat Sunflower,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Morning Dew” and “China Doll.” For me, there were two totally standout moments: one was “Terrapin Station”; the original version of which actually used an orchestra, so it was amazing to see the song come to life, as it was intended to sound.
The other was “West L.A. Fadeaway”: the orchestra gave the song a more menacing feel than the original arrangement. If Quentin Tarantino was more of a hippie, you could almost imagine this version in Jackie Brown.
After two sets with the orchestra, Haynes and his band — Jeff Sipe (drums), Lincoln Schleifer (bass), Jasmine Muhammad (vocals) and Jacklyn LaBranch (vocals, and a former member of the Jerry Garcia Band) — returned with guitarist Eric Krasno and keyboardist Marco Benevento for a more conventional set of jams, including “Fire on the Mountain,” “Roadrunner” and “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” Haynes always seems busy with all of his different projects, but this band could easily do its own tour.
Later this week, Haynes will return to his more aggressive guitar playing and his bluesier vocal style when Gov’t Mule kicks off a new string of dates. But here’s hoping Haynes carves out a few nights each summer to revisit this concept.