Blame it on what you will – the economy, overpriced tickets or overextending themselves in tri-state market – the Izod Center was shockingly empty with heavy black curtains blocking off a large portion of the upper level and a seat relocation table handing out tickets to those in the effected sections. Despite empty seats, those in the lower sections and on the floor pulsed with energy as the band kicked off the show with the seemingly weather appropriate U.S. Blues that gave way to Scarlet Begonias, showing that the band wasn’t wasting anytime tonight digging in.
As Scarlet melted in the familiar strains of Fire On The Mountain, Branford Marsalis strolled onto stage ready to give the audience its monies worth establishing early on a dynamic interplay with all the members of the band dropping in jazzy fills, sparing jabs and powerful solos that would continue throughout his first almost fifty minute sit-in and the rest of the night.
After stepping off the stage for an absolutely captivating and soulful Warren Haynes-sung version of the Workingman’s Dead chestnut High Time, Marsalis returned to join the band for arguably the highlight of the night – the set closing gospel, church revival rendition of Turn On Your Lovelight that saw Haynes preaching and pleading to an audience to get a little higher. All the while Jeff Chimenti blasted heavy B3 organ riffs that would have converted the non-believers.
Instead of capitalizing on the high energy they closed out the first set with, when the band returned for the second set they opened with the Phil Lesh old-school psychedelic rarity New Potato Caboose that flatly meandered over the next ten minutes. A well received Estimated Prophet followed, with Bobby belting out one of his signature tunes. When the collective kicked into Miles Davis’ Milestones it led to a magical moment as they managed to turn the 20,000 seat arena into the small, downtown jazz club – expertly and ferociously running through the tune that had the band firing on all cylinders.
A techno, world beat infused Drums->Space interlude followed giving Mickey and Billy a chance to stretch their legs. When the rest of the band eventually trickled back onto the stage they found their way into a cover Traffic’s jazz-rock opus Dear Mr. Fantasy which slowly segued into a mellow, avant-jazz rendition of the classic exploratory jam-vehicle Dark Star.
When they finally teased the opening chords of Eyes Of The World it was evident that this was the song that most had anticipated as the crowd came back to life again after sitting through long stretches of the second set. While the Without A Net version that Branford famously appears on might be one of the definitive versions of the tune, this night’s turn served as a rousing set closer that once again showed off some tight interplay between the band and their guest.
With a commute back into the city that involved a bus and train ride, I started to head out as the opening notes of Franklin’s Tower floated through the hallways with the line “if you get confused, listen to the music play” rattling around in my head as I exited. The Dead return to the stage tonight at the Pepsi Center in Denver before finishing off the tour with a run up the West Coast.