Dark Star Orchestra/Keller Williams/Pete Francis :: 07.11.09 :: Beach at Governors Island :: New York, NY
Since its transfer to the state of New York in 2003, Governors Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, has been undergoing a gradual transformation into an arts and recreation district. The former Army Post and then Coast Guard installation now hosts a National Monument, walking tours of the island, arts exhibits, film festivals, and yes, even concerts. The 2009 concert season got underway on Saturday, July 11, with a triple bill at a newly designed, man made concert site dubbed The Beach at Governors Island.
Saturday's lineup included opening act Pete Francis and Barefoot Truth performing together, as well as co-headliners Keller Williams and Dark Star Orchestra. The venue, located on the north side of the island up the East River and facing the lower Manhattan skyline, provided a spectacular view, despite the overcast skies. A unique setting, it was far more akin to a giant sandbox - with trucked in Long Island sand - than a beach, which was situated behind a paved, asphalt pit in front of the stage.
Pete Francis achieved fame as a member of the New England rock act Dispatch, between 1996 and 2004. Recently however, he's taken on a bit of a mentoring role, leading the talented Connecticut-based acoustic quartet, Barefoot Truth. Together they ran through a collection of solo Francis material and Barefoot Truth songs in an all to short but sweet set.
Barefoot Truth is a different band with Francis on electric guitar. While Francis doesn't hog the spotlight, he does augment the band's sound, amping the energy level up a notch. The mellow, reggae vibe of Eagle Front," for instance, began slow and easy but built to a rousing rocker. Broken Home" is an up-beat, acoustic sing-along, though in this setting it was a bit overdone, as the fine vocal harmonies, rolling keys and warm Weissenborn lap guitar of Barefoot Truth were scarcely audible under the amped-up electric. Nonetheless, these guys did get the crowd to bubble up, closer to the stage," with Francis' encouragement, and certainly turned on some new fans to their music. With or without Francis, Barefoot Truth is an up and coming band worth keeping your eyes and ears open for.
Keller Williams very much embodies the spirit of the Grateful Dead in his music. He's clearly a student and serious fan of the band, and in all his years of steady touring, never has he played the same song the same way. He's diversified his act by performing with any number of musicians in one musical incarnation of a band or another. Today it was Williams solo, surrounding himself with an arsenal of instruments to loop sounds and create a performance piece on the fly.
Williams has always been a personal favorite, though having seen him perform a number of times, his solo act is getting a little tired. Such as his story/song about a Doobie In My Pocket;" though it always gets a great reaction from the hippies in the crowd, and he always updates and localizes it; it's just been played out a bit.
Williams has always been a festival and jamband favorite, as well. So, when he broke out a cover of the Phish's Birds of a Feather," with looped bass and harmony guitars, it brought a huge cheer from the phans. Looping the harmony guitar, he added a solo where it sounded as though the guitar itself was singing.
With the first sprinkles of rain dropping at 8:15 p.m., Williams broke it down to a solo guitar showcase. A self-proclaimed Deadhead, his covers of the Grateful Dead's Attics of My Life" > Deep Elem Blues" was a sweet prelude to the DSO set yet to come and got the audience singing in unison and cheering along. He closed out the set with two fan favorites. On Kidney In a Cooler" he sang about purple teeth, in little America," and was joined by Rob Koritz of DSO on drums, as well as a trumpet solo from Louis Gosain, his sound man in the back. His face was quite animated as he closed his set with Celebrate Your Youth," playfully egging on a young crowd.
Whether you catch DSO recreating a specific historic Dead performance or simply playing their own original show (comprised of material from the Dead catalog), you're always in for a fond recollection of the music of the Grateful Dead. For many younger fans, DSO is as close as they'll get to a Dead show.
As a fan who considers himself dedicated to original music, I've always struggled to find an interest in seeing and hearing a cover/tribute band. However, as a fan of the Grateful Dead who has seen that band both with Jerry Garcia and after Garcia's passing, I personally get far more enjoyment from a Dark Star Orchestra show than I do from RatDog or Phil Lesh & Friends or even The Dead. While I wasn't old enough in the seventies to have taken in a Dead show at that time, I have listened to live recordings from that era, and I always walk away from a DSO performance with the distinct impression that says, Now that's the way a rock concert is supposed to be done."
Though DSO had set up its gear and instruments between sets, there was an extended break between Williams and DSO which cut into the momentum Williams had established, but DSO wasted no time in bringing it back up, singing Happy Birthday" to Sara, their merchandise booth host, as fans gathered on the asphalt in front of the stage.
With lightning and a downpour eminent, DSO choose to run though a classic set of up-beat, anthemic Dead tunes, charging straight ahead with a driving Feel Like A Stranger." From the opening notes, the music was lively and the tempo was fast paced and got the crowd moving and shaking their asses. Vocalist/guitarist Rob Eaton is, if you'll pardon the pun, a dead ringer for Bob Weir vocally. Dig out your old recordings and tell me it's not so. With vigor he sang the words, You know it's gonna get stranger/ so let's get on with the show!" bringing a rousing cheer from the crowd of roughly 2000. Ramble On Rose," sung by John Kadlecik doing the Garcia parts, created a similar effect when he sang, Just like New York City." I closed my eyes and listened to the music play as it segued seamlessly into Cassidy," where vocalist Lisa Mackey singing Donna Jean Godchaux's parts really took me on a trip. That was at least until a deep and bellowing blow horn of a ferry awoke me.
We're going to bring out our friend, Keller Williams," said Eaton, and Williams sauntered out with a guitar in hand and a beaming smile. It's no secret that Williams grew up a Deadhead, following the band from venue to venue. It was fascinating to watch him sing and play Eyes of the World" with a full band behind him, his head shaking from one side to the other as he strummed his guitar. While he's not exactly a vocal match for Garcia, what he lacked in similarity he more than made up for in a passionate delivery. It was obvious watching and listening to him that he truly was in his element. Thinking about this performance several days later, I yearn to see him line up a full time band of his own.
DSO rambled through a few more classic New York City tunes mid-set. Dancing In The Streets" had fans grooving with each other and the line Up In New York City, all we need is music, sweet, sweet music," brought a holler from the feisty crowd. Though it was a slight downer in tone, Liberty" was a fitting song choice with Lady Liberty looking on just east of the island. Women Are Smarter" and Cosmic Charlie" both got fans waving their hands in the air, while Truckin" was a sing-along favorite. After a short Drums," the rest of the band came back on stage and told us that lightning was on the way and they had to end the set a bit early. They closed the evening with a fitting, soulful and harmony rich We Bid You Goodnight."
It was a stellar evening until it wasn't. As the rain began to fall at a steady pace, fans were ushered like a herd of cattle to the ferries. The water taxis that took fans from Manhattan to the island were huge ferries that hold as many as 800 at a time. But now, with the rain and lighting, they ferried us off the island on much smaller boats. With everybody horded into one spot and the loading docks wet, security and police stood in the way and ushered us one fan at a time onto the docs and the ferry, causing a lot of pushing and shoving. The storm was eminent prior to the concert and organizers should have had a better evacuation plan in place.
Though the exit plan could have been better, the live music gave fans a few hours to shake their tale feathers and meet new and old friends. While the views from the new venue were spectacular, I think many would have rather had natural grass under our feet rather than a litter box and parking lot. Nonetheless, we were treated to a concert with three fantastic bands in a decent venue.