Saturday, August 08, 2009


Fresh mountain air blowing in my window. Tom Waits growling on my boom box. Reminiscent of last week's experience at the Boulder Theatre. Driving up Pearl Street, minding our own beezwax, hang a left onto 14th and glance up at the Marquee. Who's playing? Papa Mali. Never heard of him. But wait... featuring BILL KREUTZMANN?

Snap deciscion: Go.

Parking place in the next block. Of course. Meant to be. Walk back to the theatre past some straggling hippies and up to the box office. Are you sold out? No. Two please. Shirlene slaps down her plastic. I slap twenty-five bucks in her palm. Done.

We go back to the car and stash a poster I pulled off a pole. Just like the old days in San Francisco. Most weekend nights, the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore put on concerts for five bucks and you'd go from one to the other, catching the first set of Big Brother and the second set of Jefferson Airplane. Or Santana and The Grateful Dead. Or Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish.

There were posters for every "dance." Those posters sell for big bucks nowadays. Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, R.Crumb, Rick Griffin, Randy Tuten. All classic psychedelic poster and album cover artists. Think: CHEAP THRILLS by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Think: The iconic skull and roses of The Grateful Dead. Ditto Skull and Lightening Bolt, aka Steal Your Face.

Steal Your Face has a copyrighted 13-point lightening bolt. Papa Mali featuring Bill Kreutzmann got around that slight legal detail by sticking a lid and dredlocks on the skull, cutting 6 points off the lightening bolt. It ain't Kelley & Mouse, but it does the job. Now I have my first concert poster from a concert I actually went to. The tradition continues.

We head back to the theatre. Opening band, Greensky Bluegrass. Never heard of them, either. The place is practically empty. Up to the balcony and grab front row seats. Couple hippy dudes dancing, spinning unselfconsciously by themseslves, down on the floor. Mellow vibe.

Greensky finishes without fanfare and a lithe young stage hand wanders out to check the mics. She picks up a couple and carrys them away. More roadies drag stuff onstage and fiddle with it. I go downstairs when I see Bill sound-checking his drumkit. Right up to the edge of the stage to try for a decent picture with my cellphone.

Never gonna happen. Not with red lighting. But at least you can see how close I was. Last time I was this close to Bill Kreutzmann was backstage at a Grateful Dead show in San Francisco.

Of the two mind-blowing Grateful Dead drummers, Mickey Hart being the other, Bill Kreutzmann always reminded me of... America.

Blue-collar, hard-working America. A powerful, driving machine. A Harley. An F250. A Mack truck pounding down the highway.

Bill leaves the stage and people mill around. There's nothing quite like the sound of milling Deadheads. Plus plenty of Phish fans in town for the Red Rocks run. I get to talking to a guy by the stage. Billy played with Phish last night, he says. Must have been quite a show, I say, and tell him I saw Phish once. Felt like they spent the whole concert getting ready to play a song. He slaps me a solid high five, we both laugh and go our separate ways. Young and old, on the same wavelength. Great energy.

I ease back up to the balcony and sit down with Shirlene. Suddenly the band takes the stage. Snap decision: Run down the stairs, into the main hall and down the middle aisle. After the first four notes I look at her and exclaim, "Lovelight!" And we're off. All the way down in front, plenty of space to either cling to the stage or drop back a few feet and dance. Astonished glances all around: Is this really happening? Could this really be HAPPENING?

The second song is very spacey and works itself around to each musician for a solo. Guy next to me asks if I can tell what song they're building up to. I listen for clues. Ballad of a Thin Man? I finally guess. Says he thinks he hears a Neil Young song coming on. But it never comes. Instead it goes off into space. "Hendrix maybe?" says me, and he just shrugs.

Turns out it must have been one of their own. An instrumental that sinks into some deep swamp funk. Papa Mali is from New Orleans and you can hear it all over the music. It's like the Nevilles and the Dead playing together. At one point I run over to Shirlene and say, He's channeling Jerry and Pigpen! She's just like me: laughs and cries at the same time. We hug and go back to dancing.

I surrender the role of smartypants song identifier and let the music play me. Smiles and tears on faces, young and old. And the look. That knowing psychedelic look that passes among people who Know What's What. Oh. My. God. I never thought I'd feel this again.

Soon comes a classic New Orleans beat. That good ole Bo Diddley beat. I can't help but think they're working their way into Not Fade Away. Instead, they launch into Aiko, then veer off into soaring, ecstatic solos that finally find their way into Not Fade Away. The bass player is a monster, with such young, fresh, clean energy. He laughs when the music sizzles and just about weeps from the sheer beauty of it when it soars.

The piano player looks like a 20-year-old Bob Dylan, with a little Leon Russell mixed in.

And he owns that keyboard. Occasionally he pulls out a harp and makes it scream and cry and call out for its mama.

I keep trying to get a good picture of him. Damn you, Samsung! Time for an upgrade. This will not do. Forget it. There's music going on here. Dance, fool, dance!

And Papa Mali, well, like I said, a mix of Jerry, Pigpen, some Nevilles, some Hendrix, some Neil Young, even some Clapton.... Just wow. With deeply funky guitar riffs and growls, and some serious, serious preaching.

You can just feel that swamp steaming up around you.

You can just feel your mind being blown.


Then I hear the notes I'm waiting for. I lean forward on the stage and look over to Shirlene a few feet down the line and holler "RIDER!" about three times. She nods indulgently.

My song.

Big buildup.... and then

I know you, Rider, gonna miss me when I'm gone.

Everybody is maddly grinning, singing and dancing. We all know what's coming and we dance the energy higher and higher until it comes and then the whole audience shouts at the top of our voices:

I wish I was a headlight on a Northbound train!

I wish I was a headlight on a Northbound train!


The place goes nuts. Old hippies, young hippies, boomers, little kids. Sheer ecstatic joy. I never thought I'd feel this way again. Washed clean with tears and laughter.

And that's just the first set. Time to head out front for a smoke and some fresh air. And to talk to the people we connected with on the dance floor. A guy in from Wisconsin who owns three funeral parlors and runs a concert production company. An artist down from New England who came to sell his stuff at the Phish concert, but got turned away by the cops before he even got out of his car. Funeral parlor guy buys three of his posters, one for each of us. Another souvenir from a serendipitous night of musical magic.

Time to go back in. I'm almost too spent to imagine a second set. Indeed, I barely remember anything about it except for a heart-wrenching yet uplifting and joyous He's Gone.

Many of us shed a tear over the passing of Jerry Garcia. It was, after all, JERRY WEEK: A term coined by the great Patti Smith to mark the time between Jerry's birthday on August 1st and his death on August 9th.

He's gone.
Nothin's gonna bring him back.
He's gone.
Gone, gone. gone.

A beautiful young man passes the peace pipe. We move to the music and celebrate Jerry to a song he poured his own heart into a hundred million times.

Then they play Death Don't Have No Mercy In This Land, a song Pigpen poured his heart into a hundred million times.

Somewhere along the way the piano player picks up a horn and turns the music into a genuine New Orleans funeral. Only thing missing is a flock of white hankies waving in the air.

Soon the energy lifts and we're all Goin Down the Road Feelin Bad. And it feels so good. The Jerry spirit is with us and we're all going down that same road together.

The band does three encores. I can't rememer the first two because the third is still stuck in my mind: Papa Mali waves all the musicians to the front of the stage for an a capella hymn:

Lay down my dear brothers, lay down and take your rest
Oh won't you lay your head upon your saviour's breast
I love you, oh but Jesus loves you best
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight

And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight

Rest In Peace, Jerry.

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