That said, this is the music and the scene of my adolescence and I always have a good time at these shows. As an added bonus, Branford Marsalis showed up and sat in for all but a few songs.
After a shaky start that found the band fumbling through Touch of Grey (just a touch??), they loosened up and found a groove. They played pretty well and I loved the setlist. Overall, the show struck me as Lesh-led. They played a lot of those disjointed, ambient jams that Phil tends to favor, culminating in a slow and measured meander through Terrapin>Drums>Space>Wheel>Terrapin.
Branford was, as always, an excellent addition. They should really try to snatch him up for an entire tour like Phil did with Greg Osby not too long ago. It's certainty clear that while he could play these licks in his sleep, he enjoys being up there. After all, for all the accolades tossed his way as essentially jazz royalty, Branford probably doesn't often play for 15,000 fans dancing their asses off.
That and he just adds so much to the band. My little brother, who is many times more knowledgeable about The Dead than I am, pointed out to me that their current guitarist Warren Haynes is an odd choice to fill Jerry's shoes. He's a work horse and as well-respected as anyone in this scene. He's a member of psychedelia's other band of elder statesmen, The Allman Brothers. But, probably informed by his southern rock roots, he rips through his solos, riffs when he should, but lays out much of the rest of the time. Not so with Jerry, whose constant 'noodling' was more or less the Dead's signature sound. What Branford does well is fill in a lot of that space Warren leaves open with his great melodic sensibilities. Moreover, he knows, like all great jazz soloists, exactly how much space fill.
Perhaps the highlight of the night for me was hearing Warren and Branford trading licks on Deal. Something about those bay area hippies and that prince of New Orleans jazz banging out the country-ish Deal captures a certain spirit of American music that I love. Yes -- it's an affected, stylized kind of roots music, but that's the history of American music. It's a history of borrowing, cobbling, melding, stealing...only someone still chasing the cipher of authenticity couldn't enjoy the standard bearers of two distinctly American musical traditions jamming on a third.
I especially loved seeing a Marsalis involved in that exercise in Americana, since members of the Marsalis family acted for so long as sole arbiters of what is real and what isn't and whatever. Wednesday night's show, and things like Wyton's work with Willie Nelson, are indices of a less defensive jazz elite. Jazz has long been accepted as a major -- if not the major -- American art form. More-or-less traditional, boppish jazz is thriving, if not in record sales, than in sheer talent and volume of excellent music produced. It has co-opted some elements of both free jazz and fusion, dispensed with others, and is no longer in competition with either for primacy. That all means that purists can let their guards down. Jazz can take its place alongside other American vernacular music without fear that its importance will be diminished or misapprehended. Jazz can comfortably open itself to outside influences -- surely its natural disposition -- without fear that it will be diluted or its essential art tainted. Not every experiment or electric amplifier is an affront to past masters anymore. Not every collaboration is some sort of implicit admission about where jazz falls in some imaginary musical hierarchy.
Maybe I'm setting up a straw man by assuming there is still a great debate about what is jazz and what it means, who it belongs to, etc. Maybe those days are over. Was that one three hour dead show as perfectly evocative as I'm describing it in retrospect? Probably not. Was it really a sign of anything? Definitely not (Brandford first played with The Dead two decades ago, and his stint on the tonight show proves that even back in the heyday of the jazz wars he was willing to simultaneously embody and embarrass jazz). Also, Branford is not his younger brother, whose braggadocio and self-righteousness occupies its own plane.
In any case, I enjoyed the show.