Live Music: Warren Haynes plays Symphonic Jerry Garcia at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre

By Mike Finkelstein

Golden Colorado.  If, back in the day, you chanced to see the Grateful Dead in an outdoor and somewhat rural setting, then you know what a perfect match their music was/is with natural beauty.  Jerry Garcia, the band’s leader and soul, has been dead nearly twenty years.  But the band’s legacy and spirit lives on consistently in bands like Furthur and the String Cheese Incident.  This summer Warren Haynes’ symphonic homage to J.G.’s music is on the road. The tour rolled into the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Golden, Colorado on Tuesday for a tribal gathering of distinction.

Warren Haynes and the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks
Warren Haynes and the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks

Just an hour or so before the show started, a dramatic flurry of rain and thunder showered us and left a charming rainbow in its wake.   Walking into the Red Rocks Amphitheater is something everyone should get to do at least once.  This a venue like no other I’ve seen.   It’s a striking formation of red sandstone uplifted most recently by the Rocky Mountains. The rocks form a naturally perfect bowl for listening to music and voices.  The acoustics are incredible.  This is why the Native Americans used to hold ceremonial gatherings there.

Warren Haynes bit off a lot to chew on in the music of Jerry Garcia.  This would mean doing instrumental and vocal justice to a body of work that the loyal and still-thriving Grateful Dead community hold very dear to their hearts.   And they should.   At their peak points, Garcia’s songs are transcendental vehicles for the audience.  They know these songs inside and out and also from the many different angles they have heard them over the years.   Haynes has played with the Dead many times and is both a fan and member of the extended G.D. family.  This tour was a sharing of affection for Garcia’s song catalogue.

To keep things fresh and interesting the format called for fusing the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and a streamlined rock band (Jeff Sipe on drums and Lincoln Schleifer on bass) with two female singers (Alecia Chakour and Jasmine Muhammad).  This left ample space for improvisation … and it really wouldn’t be authentic without the improv.

Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes

The results were remarkable on Tuesday.  If anyone is the right guy to sing Jerry Garcia, Haynes would be the one.   His voice has all the richness and subtlety Garcia’s had on a good night.  At times it seemed he might actually be channeling Jerry’s voice.  Haynes’ vaunted reputation is based mainly on his guitar playing and he did not disappoint.  Having closely pegged Jerry’s sound, including the single note wah tones, Haynes basically laid his own style down through the Garcia tone.  The sweet detail was that Haynes actually played one of Jerry’s famous custom made guitars, the “Wolf,” built by Doug Irwin and a go-to axe of J.G.’s throughout the ‘70’s.

Warren Haynes with the Colorado Symphony

In culling over two hours worth of songs for this show, Haynes concentrated on songs that lend themselves to the orchestra dropping in and out, allowing the band to improvise.  As Haynes describes it, he wanted to bring out the Jerry songs that were “angular with windows of improvisation.”  And in listening to the set list develop it was a lot like watching a parade of good friends show up to visit.   The orchestra would swell and shrink with the dynamics of the original arrangement.  They captured the color and tone of the original tunes and satisfied mightily for this.  Haynes’ improv over all of this was the right blend of himself and his take on Jerry’s lines.

If the desired effect was to shine a light on the quality of Garcia’s songwriting, and I believe it must have been, then this show was a huge success.   The set list included several of the most beloved Grateful Dead songs.  Opening with “Dark Star” and moving through favorites like “China Cat Sunflower,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “ Morning Dew,” “Terrapin Station,” “High time,” and “Uncle John’s Band,” the night pulsated and glided onwards.  “Shakedown Street” may actually have sounded better in Tuesday’s form than it did years ago.  The encore gave us “China Doll,” a song so pretty it has probably made for many a great lullaby in Grateful Dead families over the years.  From the Garcia solo catalogue “Bird Song,” and “Russian Lullaby” made the cut as did the not-often-heard gem, “Standing on the Moon.” You really could feel the buzz spread through the crowd when this song spread its wings and took flight. Just beautiful.

Sitting there near the lip of the stage inside the giant red bowl and bathed in moonlight, the music seemed to transcend everything else as it ebbed and flowed.  Most people I spoke to weren’t sure what to expect going in, but were confident that Warren Haynes paying tribute to Jerry Garcia at Red Rocks is not something to miss.  We were definitely right in making it over to this show.

Photos by Mike Finkelstein.

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To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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