Live Music: Warren Haynes and The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, in a Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration at Red Rocks Amphitheater

By Mike Finkelstein

Denver, Colorado.  Last Sunday night Warren Haynes and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra picked up where they left off a year ago in their collaborative tribute to the music and spirit of Jerry Garcia. Garcia has been dead and gone for 19 years now and this show happened to fall in the middle of Jerry Week…a week of remembrance and celebration of his musical legacy, tied to the August dates of his August 1 birth and August 9 death.

Red Rocks Amphitheater

Remarkably, the older end of the Grateful Dead community is still there to rally and show up in large numbers for a tribal gathering like this. And the Red Rocks Amphitheater, for centuries, an actual sacred site for Native American tribal gatherings, is a perfect place for a labor of love gig like this.

The show was divided into two sets, the first starting at dusk in magnificent blue skies and the second under a perfect half moon.  Opening with a concise version of the GD’s usually ultra extended “Dark Star,” the ensemble next swung into “Uncle John’s Band,” a crowd pleasing opportunity to sing along and do the deadhead shuffle. By the time they got to “Shakedown Street,” the orchestra’s horn section supplied some serendipitous funk to the mix.

The orchestra is of course the wild card, the fresh element to all of these new readings of familiar songs. Mainly, the orchestra took familiar parts of the tunes and either magnified their background presence or took familiar lines and transformed them into something familiar but new with the multi-instrumental layering. “Here Comes Sunshine” got the symphonic makeover and between the harmonies of backup singers Alecia Chakur and Jasmine Muhammad, and the orchestral re-embellishment of the song’s melody, we had something very new to enjoy and sing along with on the song’s now tremendous chorus. The orchestra also pumped up the lunges, and the stops and starts of “Morning Dew,” a GD staple for many years. And similarly the prominent line in “Terrapin Station,” and “Birdsong.” A symphony orchestra does present the potential for a lot of oomph in the dynamics and it worked well for this program.

Warren Haynes and his players and singers with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra

Haynes himself has done a masterful job of staying true to the original live sound and feel of all the material, without simply recreating it. Guitar-wise, he has been given the keys to the family car by the Jerry Garcia estate … as he actually played Garcia’s mainstay guitar from the mid 70’s, the iconic Doug Irwin built, “The Wolf.” He also used a Mutron pedal to snare Garcia’s signature “auto-wah” ’70’s sound that coated each note in the wah tone. As less is often more, he didn’t overuse it, just put it out there for contrast.

Warren Haynes with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra
Warren Haynes with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra

Vocally, he evokes but doesn’t duplicate Garcia’s approach. The timbre of his voice sets him down close to Garcia’s voice but with enough distance to add his own nuances and still keep it sounding both new and familiar. And that’s a fine line worth approaching.  Compared to the rhythm sections of the Grateful Dead or even the Jerry Garcia Band, drummer Jeff Sipe and bassist Lincoln Schleifer played things close to the vest. Then again, they were playing with an orchestra. Throughout the show, the band delivered the orchestra to departure points where they or Haynes would seize on elements of each song. This worked well during “Bird Song,” as the orchestra and then the band, was riffing on Branford Marsalis’ classic horn lines from his guest appearance on a legendary 1990 version of the song.

A sweeter couple of songs than Sunday’s encore of “Ship of Fools,” and “Stella Blue,” one does not often find. “Ship of Fools,” is a gem of a tune, with an elegant mesh of chord structure, melody, and poignant lyrics. “Stella Blue,” is cut from the same melodically haunting cloth … and rumored to be Garcia’s favorite of his own songs.

After all of this, the crowd ventured home, grinning contently.

Photos by Mike Finkelstein.

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

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