SHOW REVIEW: Los Lobos at the Boulder Theater (Westword 1/29/2016)

Los Lobos Boulder 1-28-2016
photo by Adam Perry

SHOW REVIEW: Los Lobos at the Boulder Theater
by Adam Perry for Westword 1/29/2016

Remember that scene in the classic ’80s bio-pic La Bamba when Ritchie Valens, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, is blowing the roof off a late-’50s party in Los Angeles with both Latinos and whites dancing their asses off to Mexican-American rock and roll? That feeling of joy, abandon and possibility—just before Ritchie’s misfit brother stumbles in and starts a brawl—is what it felt like at times last night at the Boulder Theater with Los Lobos (which provided much of the music in La Bamba) on stage and cries of te amo! filling the marijuana-tinged air.

“We’re glad to be back in the land of weed,” cool-as-ice guitarist and singer Cesar Rosas said early in the band’s two-hour (mostly) acoustic set, which traversed roots rock, blues, psychedelia, hard rock and exuberant traditional Mexican. “But my ganja days are over now. I get all paranoid and shit. I get up here, like, ‘Why are all these people staring at me?’”

Read the rest of this article at Westword.com

RIP David Bowie: Music’s Greatest Gateway Drug (Westword 1/12/2016)

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RIP David Bowie: Music’s Greatest Gateway Drug
by Adam Perry for Westword 1/12/2016

David Bowie always paid tribute to his older brother, most famously in “All the Young Dudes,” for changing his life as a teenager by turning him on to rock music and the Beat Generation. So it makes sense that Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would become a musical gateway drug for many listeners—including me. When I was fifteen, my own older brother handed me a discarded, unopened copy of the 1972 Bowie classic—a Columbia House freebie he didn’t want. And it changed my life.

Yesterday as social media overflowed with tributes to Bowie in the wake of the British music legend’s surprising death due to cancer at age 69, I wondered why—even in an age when the deaths of rock icons such as Lemmy garner much-deserved flashes of social-media attention—it appeared that the widespread reaction to Bowie’s death was the most inescapable and emotional since perhaps Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.

As I read post after post about how introductions to Bowie and his music influenced the trajectory of so many interesting people, I remembered hearing the sci-fi glam-rock of Ziggy Stardust as a teenager. Becoming a hardcore fan of Bowie, following the signposts in his lyrics and the fascinating evolution of his music from album to album and genre to genre, meant so much more than being a hardcore fan of other classic-rock musicians because it inevitably meant an education in music and literature outside of David Bowie himself. Not to mention an education in being an artist—or even a person—without limits. Read the rest of this article here. 

10 Best Unexpected Covers (Westword 1/11/2016)

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THE 10 BEST UNEXPECTED COVERS
by Adam Perry for Westword 1/11/2016

When Radiohead demanded public access to Prince’s fantabulous cover of “Creep” recently, I couldn’t help but recall falling in love with creative covers as a teenage drummer and finishing all my own shows in the clubs, bars and garages of Pittsburgh with the punk trio Falling Short by blazing through“Riverbottom Nightmare Band” from Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter. Later, with the Yawpers, I grinned through our double-time version of “Sweet Emotion.”

If you’re going to do someone else’s song, do something different with it. And if you’re going to something different with it, for God’s sake, make it fun.

We all know the most beloved covers in popular music history, from Jimi Hendrix’s timeless “All Along the Watchtower” to Nirvana’s emotive “Where Do You Sleep Last Night?” to Jeff Buckley’s immortal version of “Hallelujah.” In art, stealing is a compliment when you do something new—and, as Frank Zappa said, “Everything’s one note.”

It’s fun when a great band launches into an unexpected yet faithful cover, like the War On Drugs’ surprising “Touch of Grey” or Tool’s majestic, spot-on “No Quarter.” But the MVPs of musical tributes are usually those willing to effectively transpose a classic song for another genre, sometimes going so far out that listeners (in the case of, say, Alt-J’s 2014 cover of “Lovely Day”) don’t know it’s a cover until the vocals kick in. To be that successfully, slyly creative—paying enjoyable homage while still maintaining your own unique voice—is quite an accomplishment. Read our top 10 here.

INTERVIEW: Murder By Death Hunts Ghosts at the Stanley Hotel (Westword 1/6/2016)

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MURDER BY DEATH HUNTS GHOSTS AT THE STANLEY HOTEL
by Adam Perry for Westword 1/6/2016

In January 2014, the gothic-Americana band Murder by Death played the reputedly haunted Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, but singer-guitarist Adam Turla didn’t have any paranormal experiences. So when the quintet returned for three shows in early January 2015 — just before its seventh album, Big Dark Love, was released — Turla and company met with the Stanley’s resident paranormal experts, and shit got serious.

“We’re sitting in one of the most haunted rooms with them, and they’re telling us about the ghost that sometimes appears in that room, and then the door just slams shut,” recalls Turla. “I watched the door, completely by itself, slam shut. That’s crazy!

“It could have something to do with winds and drafts in an old building,” he admits, “but in that same room, later, our stage manager, after hearing that story, walked into the room and the lightbulb just immediately burned out. So she was alone in the dark in that room. She said, ‘I’m a cool-headed lady, but that scared the shit out of me.’”

When speaking with Turla in advance of Murder by Death’s three January shows at the Stanley, I shared my own brush with the paranormal from the audience perspective: When my partner, Irene, and I attended one of last year’s shows, we heard a strange voice a few steps outside the Stanley. Even stranger, after the group’s set had ended, we realized that bassist Matt Armstrong’s pick was in Irene’s coat pocket. The coat had been lying at her feet during the show.

Beyond the supernatural, Murder by Death’s now-annual residency at the Stanley is a truly distinctive concert event — a chance to hang out with the band in the bar of the hotel that inspired Stephen King’sThe Shining, after hearing Turla sing lines like “Spirits are restless/Can’t you hear them yell?” in a place where spirits are believed to reside. Turla says that such site-specific experiences are the reason that the Indiana-bred act has booked destination concerts such as the ones at the Stanley and others in a cave in Kentucky and in a Hollywood ghost-town saloon in the California desert.

“When we started this band, we talked about doing a lot of concept shows and non-traditional concerts, because being a band that’s a little weirder, that doesn’t have an automatic genre to fit into, we wanted to do something a little bit different than be a club band,” he explains. “Our aspirations were not to sell out Madison Square Garden or anything — that stuff’s never entered our minds. We celebrate the weird and the different, so the associations that people make with these shows and these places, it all kind of clicks.”

“You start to realize the opportunity for culture beyond ‘I went to a bar and saw a band,’” Turla continues. “These events link people’s lives. We get people’s imaginations stirred up a little bit. “

Murder by Death’s music is indie rock with a wicked Tim Burton edge and a smidgen of haunted antique Western rumble. Not every underground band with a cello and a macabre, deep-voiced frontman would fit as well at the Stanley, but Turla’s romantic tales of drinking, dreaming and the devil seem to raise the perfect kind of hell, one in which Jack is never a dull boy.

“I think it’s just the nature of what we’re trying to do, which is create this spooky but sing-along angle,” says Turla. “And it’s important, for instance, when you play a haunted hotel, to realize the lyrics that sort of got you to the show. I’ve read about paranormal stuff my whole life as a fun hobby, and here I am at this place that’s known for it, and I’ve created a party there, and how cool is that? Part of it is that it’s just fun for me to be in the song, doing my job, but then suddenly realize where everything came together and got me to this moment.”

Lately, Murder by Death has made an admirable habit of letting fans dictate where they want the band’s career to go. Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the quintet’s 2012 breakthrough album, was funded in part by more than $180,000 raised on Kickstarter, and Big Dark Love had a Kickstarter pre-sale of $278,000. What’s more, last month Murder by Death released As You Wish Vol. 2, the second in a series of diverse cover albums full of songs picked by fans. With such a close connection to its biggest fans, it’s not surprising that Turla initially had some reservations about doing destination concerts.

“There was this worry,” he remembers. “We’re putting all the people who like us the most in one place. Could that be a problem? We didn’t think it would be so easy. There are some nights when you feel more famous than other nights, and I feel like the more famous you get, the worse it is. I don’t want to be a famous person; I want to be able to just hang out. And it turns out that in our case, people are just being cool. These are people who know your music and want to participate. It’s a party, and we’re the house band. I’ve had all sorts of great conversations as a result.”

Murder by Death Goes Ghost Hunting at Stanley Hotel

So far, neither Jack Nicholson nor Stephen King have shown up to any of the Murder by Death gigs at the Stanley Hotel. Not even Shelley Duvall. But the band, notes Turla, probably shows up with more energy and intention at the Stanley than at any other venue.

“It’s a way longer set than you’re normally gonna get. We’re practicing, like, 55 songs to have ready,” he says. “We thought it would be fun to pick some songs that kind of fell by the wayside. There’s gonna be some obscure stuff coming out of the woodwork, and this is the right audience to realize that’s happening. It’ll be fun. The three nights should be distinctly different. There’s not a show that I think about the setlist for more than the Stanley every year.”

Turla says that when Murder by Death played the Stanley two years ago, he drank so much whiskey that not only was he unable to tap into the legendary paranormal activity at the hotel, but “there could have been an earthquake and I wouldn’t have known it.” Now he’s got a new plan.

“I have more fun if I just really pace myself there, because there are so many people to meet and there’s so much going on. [Last year] I got kind of wrecked the first night, and then I thought, ‘You know what? This is a cool thing. I wanna be awake.’ And this time we’re doing a full-on ghost hunt with the paranormal investigator, with gear and everything. They’re gonna entertain the hell out of us.”

10 Great Albums From 2015 (Boulder Weekly 12/31/2015)

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10 Great Albums From 2015: A Look Back On the Year In Music
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly 12/31/2015

It’s been eight years since I began writing an annual year-end feature on 10 great new albums for Boulder Weekly, and the notion of what’s “best” is still far from my mind. As always, this is about sharing, tuning in and turning on, not rating.

As each winter approaches, I simply spend two months seeking out interesting, enjoyable records by rifling through the thousands of emails I receive from labels and publicity agencies all year, reading music blogs and magazines, and querying music-geek friends for their recent favorites. The result of all that listening is a list of about 100 new albums that strike me as worth your attention; that list, whittled down to 10, hopefully includes even one track that feels like a holiday gift to someone who’s yet to hear it.

So if you have time, stop whatever you’re doing, and – after indulging in some obligatory Motörhead to honor our fallen Lemmy – drop a needle on some of the following.

10. It’s kind of been Christmas all year for Nathaniel Rateliff, the Denver indie musician who hit a career jackpot over the summer with his gamble on a wondrous soul niche. After Rateliff and his large band slayed the foot-stomping “Son of a Bitch” onThe Tonight Showin early August, the near-flawless LP Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats was released to wholly deserved, worldwide acclaim. The gruff-voiced, big-hearted Rateliff is suddenly booking Red Rocks rather than little clubs. If you somehow haven’t heard the earnest, down-home soul and R&B of the album that has made him a star, go out and get a copy ASAP.

9. At 80 years old, Leonard Cohen’s darkly soothing voice is in surprisingly good shape — certainly better than Bob Dylan’s was at 60. Cohen is also staying far more creative with song selections at recent concerts than Dylan, who’s kept roughly the same setlist for years. Between that and Cohen’s vibrant, fruitful ongoing collaborations with songwriting partners, this year’s live collection Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour — with its mixture of covers, newbies and vastly underrated oldies — is a remarkably vital, interesting release from a legend who could make a million dollars every night just playing a “Leonard Cohen’s Greatest” set. Hearing the old master sing the lines “There were loved ones / but I turned them all away / now I’m living and dying / with the choices I made” on the George Jones tune “Choices” makes Can’t Forget a must-listen alone.

8. Titus Andronicus has been playing literate punk rock — sort of a more aggressive, New Jersey version of the Pogues — for the last 10 years, butThe Most Lamentable Tragedy is by far the sextet’s most ambitious, and acclaimed, release. Dubbed a rock opera in Who fashion, Tragedy is 29 diverse tracks that meander and muse as widely as the Clash’s London Calling while following a storyline that could take listeners years to digest. The sharp, emotional growl and gall of singer/multi-instrumentalist Patrick Stickles dominates Tragedy, which will move anyone who digs the sweet spot between Minor Threat and James Joyce.

7. In an interview this October, the brilliant young Boise indie-pop singer-songwriter Trevor Powers told me, “I could never do the same thing twice; I could never just regurgitate shit just to do it. If I’m gonna sit down and write an album, I’m gonna make sure it’s something worth saying.” On Savage Hills Ballroom, his third as Youth Lagoon, Powers reinvented himself again, juxtaposing Berlin-era Bowie with sensitive, deftly orchestrated pop commentary on the distancing effects of our technology-ridden age. The only thing more exciting thanSavage Hills, and Powers’ recent performance at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, is wondering what he’ll do next.

6. Not yet 30 years old but already possessing a catalog of six acclaimed releases, the Oklahoma alt-folkie Samantha Crain is what Colorado’s own Sera Cahoone might sound like with dreamier instrumentation and a fixation on magically quotidian storytelling rather than broken romance. July’s Under Branch & Thorn & Treeclocks in at less than 40 minutes but traverses tastefully dense production and tales of mystery and proletariat modern times. The album’s sometimes giant engineering and soaring arrangements are as ambitious as that of Boulder’s own Gregory Alan Isakov, but with a dusty, working-class connection to traditional American music — and her Choctaw heritage — that brings Crain and her music beautifully down to earth.

5. Kurt Vile’s twisted, head-bopping “Pretty Pimpin” was arguably indie-rock’s trademark song of 2015, but b’lieve i’m goin down…also achieved near-universal acclaim because of the prolific 35-year-old’s gentle acoustic-guitar ballads and ethereal instrumental jams. Since leaving the War On Drugs for a solo career, Vile has quickly established himself as America’s mad genius of garage rock, but there is an element of sweetness to songs like “Stand Inside,” and an intricate depth to his acoustic guitar work, that should establish him as a genius of rock, period.

4. Today’s Grammy-winning greats of pop music — for instance, Arcade Fire — are expected to release a new album approximately every three years. It only took 14 months (spanning parts of 1965 and 1966) for a young Bob Dylan to record Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, three albums that could easily be placed in the 10 most important in rock history. That era of Dylan’s career — the superhuman rock ’n’ roll poetry between his previous acoustic folk and subsequent hermetic country — represents a muse-blessed period that was not only Dylan’s greatest creative streak but perhaps ties the Beatles’ Rubber Soul-to-Let It Be period as the greatest creative streak of anyone in the history of pop music. The Cutting Edge, available in sets ranging from two discs to 16 discs, strips naked for the first time Dylan’s studio sessions for those three iconic, game-changing albums. The collection features “Like A Rolling Stone” as a waltz; “Desolation Row” as a piano ballad; “Visions of Johanna” as an up-tempo hard-rock song, and the lyrics to timeless classics such as “Just Like a Woman” in embryonic form. For some, this is like seeing drafts of Shakespeare’s plays that ended up in the trash.

3. The music heard on “country” radio these days is about as country as Poison was a metal band or Donald Trump is a humanitarian. Wholehearted, intelligent and humble songwriting like that of Alabama-native Jason Isbell might be the rightful destination that country music took from the Carter Family and Johnny Cash through Emmylou Harris, past the cheesy sheen of Garth Brooks and the absolute embarrassment of auto-tuned, xenophobic bro country back to something deep, and deeply Southern. Something More Than Free, Isbell’s fifth album, finds the 36-year-old grandson of a Pentecostal preacher peaking as a narrator, not unlike Elvis Costello circa Imperial Bedroom, crafting nearly every song as carefully as the most well-written TV drama. Isbell, formerly of Drive-By Truckers, is also finally peaking commercially too: Something More Than Free debuted no. 1 across genres on Billboard’s rock, folk and country charts.

2. When I spoke with Dr. Dog singer-bassist Toby Leaman at the beginning of this year, he was amped up for two shows at the Ogden Theatre in Denver that traversed the quirky rockers’ heralded 15-year career of juxtaposing the Band, the Beatles and the Beach Boys through unique Philadelphia shades. Leaman told me that the group’s debut live album, Live At a Flamingo Hotel, was about “purging ourselves of some of these tunes [that have] been in heavy rotation for, like, eight years… some of the songs we were beating into the ground.” That purging is one of the great live albums in recent memory, showcasing one of America’s top rock ’n’ roll performers, not to mention songwriters, at a career crossroads, somehow breathing fire into overplayed heavyweights like “The Beach” and “The Rabbit, the Bat and the Reindeer” while dusting off sadly underplayed obscurities such as “Say Ahhh” and “County Line.” When Dr. Dog plays the Boulder Theater on February 13, we’ll see what the Flamingo Hotel catharsis manifested.

1. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Pops Staples, who passed away in 2000, was the patriarch of the Staples Singers. The figure he cut in American music history was so deep that he played blues with Robert Johnson, quarterbacked a no. 1 hit with “I’ll Take You There,” jammed with the Band during its The Last Waltz concert, and even appeared in the Talking Heads’ film True Storiessinging “Papa Legba.” Don’t Lose This, completed by daughter Mavis Staples and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy from tracks Pops recorded in 1998, is as relevant and soulful as any music I heard in 2015. “Somebody Was Watching” is a funky, positive spin on mortality; “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” takes Pops back to the birth of the blues; and his cover of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” is exquisite New Orleans funk. But the highlight of Don’t Lose This is Pops posthumously dueting with his amazing daughter. Unforgettable, indeed.

“Knowing Nature”: An Interview with Phoebe Young (Boulder Weekly 12/3/2015)

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“Knowing Nature”: An Interview with Phoebe Young
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 12/3/2015

Environmental history conferences have often frustrated University of Colorado history professor Phoebe Young. She grew dissatisfied with “listening to people who had really interesting things to say but examined material nature as if culture didn’t really matter.” That frustration led to Rendering Nature: Animals, Bodies, Places, Politics.

Young edited the book along with longtime friend Marguerite Shaffer, an American studies professor at Miami University of Ohio. In the collection Shaffer, Young and 10 other writers shed light on historical instances when nature overlapped with how people relate to the physical world.

The essays cover a variety of subject matter throughout myriad time periods. For instance, one essay finds Thomas G. Andrews detailing the fascinating life of an American slave who — due to covert fishing, farming and trading — was able to find freedom by navigating his way alone from Georgia to Philadelphia. In another unforgettable piece, Connie Y. Chiang delineates the story of Asian Americans who, while stuck in internment camps during World War II, made significant scientific and agricultural contributions benefiting the very nation treating them with fear and hatred.

Young also produced the book’s final piece, on how the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon “failed to capitalize on connecting the environmental challenges that we face and the kind of social inequalities that were at the heart of that movement.”

Recently, Young talked with me over coffee about the “Anthropocene” — humanity’s ongoing profound effect on the Earth — and Rendering Nature’s portraits of natural and cultural landscapes. I was immediately surprised at the professor’s enthusiastic response to the question of whether Rendering Nature is an activist attempt to affect a society at a crossroads.

“Yeah, I think more and more,” she said. “I think originally we conceived [Rendering Nature] as talking to other scholars out of frustration with our disciplinary fields, but then we decided that was too narrow. We weren’t just trying to convince the American studies people or the environmental historians who aren’t going to change their minds, so we really pitched people who may not know about this [subject].”

Young said she believes that discussion of our planet’s danger, in the face of at least partly human-created warming, cannot be adequately discussed without connecting it to socioeconomics and the complex and important relationship between nature and culture.

She went on to explain what is unfortunately not obvious to many who write about environmental issues: “If we are going to be of any value in this kind of public discussion around [social] equity and sort of environmental crisis, we have to think about these things together.”

At first, the essays in Rendering Nature can seem disparate — in both the subject matter and the eras they touch upon — but Young believed they all point to necessary environmental action, “even if individually they may not seem to.”

One of the most fascinating essays is John Herron’s “Stuffed: Nature and Science on Display,” an in-depth history of the “Panorama,” a large multistory diorama featuring plants and more than 120 stuffed animals of North America. It was assembled for the 1891 World’s Fair in Chicago and was considered a “wonder of the world” when unveiled. Today, it is a curiously cultural, historical and artistic relic, one that Herron wrote embodies “a particular historical moment of how we see nature, but more importantly … how our renderings of nature structure how we see ourselves.”

In its early days, the panorama — originally intended as a massive trophy case of stuffed animals — was frequented by the middle class and served as “a pleasant reminder of America’s preindustrial world.” As the panorama has physically and culturally aged, it has become something closer to pop art, and it piqued the curiosity of scholars interested in its profound, and mostly accidental, juxtaposition of nature and culture. In hindsight, what’s perhaps most striking about the 120-year-old panorama is that it did not include human beings, although as many as 20 million people lived in North America before European settlers arrived.

As a middle-class white person living in an affluent — and only ostensibly progressive — mountain town, it’s hard not to feel responsible for many of the negative ways in which nature and culture have overlapped. Young told me that her life as a professor and scholar is crucial in her efforts to stay inspired and forward thinking — and not so guilty — in the face of our society’s detrimental treatment of not just the Earth but also the people who inhabited our nation before it was industrialized.

“I feel like at least I’m in a profession where I get to engage with smart and interesting people,” she said. “[In the] environmental history class that I teach, an overwhelming majority are environmental studies majors. These are kids from strong science backgrounds [who] want to make change. They take culture into account and don’t believe in sort of blank-slateism or wilderness as pristine and un-peopled. To be able to communicate these perspectives to them is rewarding, and I feel like some of my burden of feeling that way is lifted through doing my job. So yeah, I feel a little guilty in Boulder, but I love living here.”

It’s easy to glean from Rendering Nature’s essays that humans are most successful as a species when our goal is survival and not power or even simply entertainment. The essay “Beasts of the Southern Wild” discusses how slave owners and overseers were “the most ferocious beasts” in the old American South. In particular, it reveals how a human who is focused solely on survival — an escaped slave — can resourcefully utilize, but not exploit, his or her surroundings to transcend a terrible situation. Today we must similarly utilize, but not further exploit, our surroundings to survive global climate change.

While in nature it seems like the more powerful a species gets the better chance it has of survival, with humans the more powerful we become — building, consuming and wasting on a mind-boggling scale — the worse our chance of survival has become as we threaten to destroy our only home. But Young feels that environmental activism is “more complicated” than the oftused slogan, “Think Global, Act Local”; she believes a better moral might be, “Act Locally, But Engage Politically.”

“It sounds more academic,” Young said, “but the thinking part is just one piece of the puzzle — in order to solve these kinds of really complex problems we have to engage properly. A lot of environmental histories like to break it down just to the material facts — ‘We only survive just because of our biology.’ Our argument would be that, no, you need culture to survive as well. Once we start thinking of ourselves as interconnected with a community of beings then, really, I think it can offer a perspective change.”

To some, Rendering Nature might sound unapproachable outside the academic audience, but its educational essays are all written with personalities and intentions that are accessible, enjoyable and even motivational.

“We are historians to study the past,” Young explained. “We want to be able to sort of point out that we have to pay attention to the interconnectedness of different places on the globe and different communities within the nation, and that you know these relationships between humans and nature have been constructed, and they’ll have to be reconstructed.”

Reconstruction no doubt begins with realization, and a book like Rendering Nature is a great start.

SHOW REVIEW: Dead & Company at 1stBank Center (Westword 11/25/2015)

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photo by Adam Perry

SHOW REVIEW:
Dead & Company at 1st Bank Center
Broomfield, Colo. 11/24/2015
by Adam Perry for Westword

Pop-rocker John Mayer fronting a band featuring three of the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead may sound like an odd, even off-putting, endeavor. But 50 years after the Dead started playing LSD-soaked improvisational electric blues at pizza shops in what’s now Facebook and Apple territory south of San Francisco, hundreds of thousands of people—including about 6,000 last night at 1stBank Center in Broomfield—are still answering the question “Shall we go / you and I / while we can?” with an enthusiastic “yes.”

Dead & Company comprises Mayer with singer-guitarist Bob Weir, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge and longtime Weir keyboardist Jeff Chimenti. Rumors of Mayer’s collaboration with the Dead, sans original bassist Phil Lesh, circulated in the lead-up to the Dead’s 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows this past summer. This was made more awkward by the outcry from some fans who thought Phish frontman Trey Anastasio was a bad pick to fill late Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia’s humongous shoes in Santa Clara and Chicago.

Rolling through Colorado this week on a cross-country arena tour, Dead & Company—which took a marijuana tourwhile in the Denver area—unveiled its blues-rock sound to the jam band audience a crowd that not only filled the 1stBank Center but made the Broomfield Park-n-Ride into a fragrant tent city of miscellaneous vendors and shenanigans. “A trained, polished musician playing with a bunch of freaks” was how one concertgoer described Dead & Company before the first set had started. However, the group mostly succeeded—with a dark, bluesy eight-song first set featuring just one selection (“Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance”) the Dead started playing after 1970—in transporting Grateful Dead music back to its grittiest era.

Mayer didn’t seem to have filling Garcia’s shoes in mind at all. Instead he seemed to enjoy the chance to tastefully bring his own personality to a vast catalog of music he only recently fell in love with. Mayer’s guitar style—a clean, suburban take on Albert King—and self-assured vocal style fold remarkably well into the Dead’s most down-home music, which dates back to when the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan served as the polarizing band’s third frontman. Tunes like “New Speedway Boogie” and “Candyman,” which have so often been trudged through too loosely by Dead-related ensembles, were played refreshingly close to their original versions, which can be found on the Americana classics Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, the two albums non-Deadheads generally can get into.

Mayer broke into pop stardom with songs about running through high-school halls and making love “in a deep sea of blankets”; he might be the first guitarist to play with the Dead who makes “I’m having sex right now” faces while soloing. He certainly has the biggest hair of anyone to play with the Dead. All kidding aside, Mayer—who got carried away Marty McFly-style a few times while shredding through vamps in tunes like “Bertha”—brought a much-welcomed tightness to the Dead’s notoriously hit-or-miss act. After every song that actually had an ending, Mayer turned around and stared into the drummers’ eyes, clapping out the tempo he wanted until it was serviceable for the following tune. That takes balls, considering they’ve been playing Grateful Dead music for 50 years and Mayer just a few months. Yet it was a brilliant move, as the aforementioned Anastasio—at the huge “Fare Thee Well” concerts played at NFL stadiums over the summer—may have been too respectful and tentative at times, allowing the surviving members (the youngest of whom is 68) to outright ruin many songs with disastrously slow tempos.

We’re at the point where twenty-year-old Deadheads weren’t even born when the band broke up in the wake up Garcia’s 1995 death due to the effects of substance abuse. Sometimes classic rockers need a kick in the ass and—just as much, in the case of the Dead—a shot of energy from someone whose wheelhouse is totally outside their genre.

The second set, customarily the jammy set in Garcia’s days, got weird fast with a deep, dark version of “Help On the Way > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower” that went off the rails—for better or worse—when Mayer got so lost in his “Slipknot!” solo that Kreutzmann repeatedly urged Weir to get his attention so they could move the song along. But the high points—a powerful bridge in “Estimated Prophet,” a meandering “Dark Star” that somehow worked, and “Black Peter,” another soulful take on a bluesy 1970 stalwart—made the set, and the night, a success.

The only real drawback to having a blues guitarist such as Mayer play with the Dead—that the music generally stays in safe, “with a net” territory—was mostly a boon. Mayer’s confidence and enthusiasm, and the lyrical liberties he brazenly took with his guitar and voice during songs many Deadheads see as sacred, served as an energetic boost all night. Sure, it was strange to see a handsome pop star young enough to be Bob Weir’s son standing next to him belting out some of Jerry Garcia’s most beloved vocal parts, but Mayer—who says he trained for this tour “like a boxer,” learning over a hundred songs—succeeded where few, if any, have: He brought actual grooves and harmonies back to Grateful Dead music.

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK

Random Detail: Weir, who has perhaps carried the ’60s torch more fittingly and consistently in the five decades since than anyone else, of course showed up on a freezing late-November Colorado night in a t-shirt and sandals. He dropped out of high school to join the Dead 50 years ago and isn’t fazed by anything, even the guy in a robe meditating at 1stBank Center during the show.

By The Way: The nearly hour-long break between sets last night felt unbearably long, but it made for my favorite interaction of the night: “Dude, did you see the Dead back in the day, with Jerry Garcia?” “I don’t remember.” “Then it must have been amazing!”

SETLIST:

I:
Cold Rain and Snow
New Speedway Boogie >
Smokestack Lightnin’ >
New Speedway Boogie
Me and My Uncle
Candyman
Bertha
Lost Sailor >
Saint of Circumstance

II:
Help On the Way >
Slipknot ! >
Franklin’s Tower
Estimated Prophet >
Dark Star >
Drums >
Space >
Black Peter
Good Lovin’

Encore: Touch of Grey