A sense of camaraderie and joy that is increasingly elusive pervaded Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater when Warren Haynes led the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration into town. A perfectly cool evening lent itself to a relaxed, musically invigorating experience that elicited reflection, laughter, sporadic dancing, and emotion. Haynes, playing Garcia’s iconic “Wolf” guitar, was joined by drummer Jeff Sipe and bassist Lincoln Schleifer to help create the rock foundation of the music, and Conductor Albert-George Schram led the North Carolina Symphony through surprising and sublime orchestral charts prepared for this one-of-a-kind presentation.
The audience was mostly well-aged, mellow Dead devotees – there were no ridiculous tour rat antics on the street or shady characters creeping around the venue. Though many simply couldn’t bring themselves to stop talking during the performance, an aura of respect and reverence still prevailed. There have been more Dead and Jerry-related tributes, celebrations, revivals, and splinter groups than one can count, but this was one of the most remarkable. The symphonic aspect added a regal and sophisticated touch to songs that are definitely deserving of more widespread respect, and there’s no one better equipped to get to the essence of Garcia and Robert Hunter’s songs than Haynes.
The opening notes of “Dark Star” sent a palpable rush through the crowd, and they were immediately treated to aspects of the show that Haynes discussed in a recent interview. The orchestra offered bits of bass and rhythm guitar parts that were improvised long ago and transcribed just for this project. The song selection was overwhelmingly mellow, the better to facilitate orchestral lushness. For “Bird Song”, the ensemble was joined by vocalists Alecia Chakour and Jasmine Muhammad who stuck around for loping, dramatic numbers like “Crazy Fingers”, “Standing On The Moon”, and “Morning Dew”. It wasn’t all sit-down material though – the irresistible boogie of “Shakedown Street” got the audience up and grooving to some string-enhanced disco Dead, and “China Cat Sunflower” inspired some spinning sundresses.
Set two included some expected songs, but also a few surprises. A bit of “Mission in the Rain” led into a spellbinding version of “High Time”, keeping the tempo slow to start. Then, in the most unexpected way, it picked up. “Black Peter” was performed in a New Orleans jazz funeral style, and the orchestra’s jaunty tubas helped lend an oddly celebratory air to the song. One of the Dead’s earliest touchstones, “Uncle John’s Band”, met the 80’s paranoia of “West LA Fadeaway” somewhere in the middle of the 70’s, police-chase TV theme strings and all. The “power trio” of Haynes, Sipe, and Schleifer were set free to jam between the two songs and Haynes wrung plenty of tones out of Wolf that, with eyes closed, sounded unnervingly like Garcia.
After a brief drum solo and “space” interlude by Sipe (one of the only drummers who can make a solo as interesting as the full band), Haynes crept into the intro of “Terrapin Station”, likely one of the first songs that came to mind when people heard about this project. Complete with a detour through “Slipknot” and a brief, heart-racing run through “Terrapin Flyer”, “Terrapin Station” was the highlight of this unforgettable evening. The encore was an emotional tour de force, with Haynes’ own Garcia ode “Patchwork Quilt” making many eyes misty and a triumphant “Stella Blue” sending everyone into the night with that fitting Robert Hunter lyric – “Dust off those rusty strings just one more time/Gonna make ‘em shine”.