1970 was a very good year for the Grateful Dead and a fairly good one for me. I was one year out of college, no long-term success plans in place, working here and there to earn a few dollars. But I was happy enough, I’m pretty sure. Unlike me, The Dead mined gold in 1970, recording and releasing that year what many agree are their two best studio albums: Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. These albums were a big change from Aoxomoxoa, their pretty darn trippy effort from the previous year. The 1970 albums presented tightly arranged songs, many of them quiet and lovely ballads, straight out of the folk, blues and mountain music traditions. The 18 songs on these records shine with a timeless aura and are nothing but grand. The quality of the material probably took the Dead, and most everyone else, by surprise.
During a vagabond-like tour of the USA in summer 1970 I found myself in San Francisco for two or three weeks. I knew about the Dead (who didn’t?), but I don’t think I had any of their albums in my collection at that time. I wasn’t yet a fan. But in San Francisco, the Dead’s home base and where they had become emblematic of hippie culture, I was smart enough to realize that I should go and see them if I had the chance. The chance arose, as they were booked for three nights in mid-August at the Fillmore West. I went to one of those shows. Workingman’s Dead had come out two months earlier, and the guys were already hard at work on American Beauty. It was a rich period. Sadly, for me the concert has almost disappeared into the fog. Well, I do recall a few things, such as standing in the middle of the Fillmore’s crowded open auditorium gazing at the stage. I also vaguely still can hear the band playing Casey Jones, the tune that brings Workingman’s Dead to its end. And I remember thinking that the concert was good but not great, an opinion that would have left Deadheads shaking their noggins in bewilderment. But memories about the show other than those . . . man, I could fill fifty books with all the things I’ve forgotten in my life, if the details magically could be jolted back into place.
Which brings us to April 29, 2015 at the Ardmore Music Hall in suburban Philadelphia. That evening I went with friends to watch two locally-based bands, musicians who had had the superb idea to play the Dead’s 1970 albums in their entirety, track by track. I’m writing this not long after seeing the concert, so my brain hasn’t had a chance yet to get fuzzy about the experience. And the experience was great. I enjoyed the concert in Ardmore more than I did the one in San Francisco 45 years ago.
The Ardmore Music Hall is in the midst of presenting five shows that celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s founding. The centerpiece show for me easily is the one I attended. Handling Workingman’s Dead was Mason Porter, which is a band not a person. The American Beauty duties fell to The Chris Kasper Band, a quintet that grew bigger on some songs with guest musicians. Both units lovingly approached the landmark albums, but didn’t try to duplicate the Dead’s sound. Each was pure rockier than the Dead, and each possessed something the Dead didn’t: a fiddler. Three hundred or more folks packed the Ardmore, ages 20 to 70 all heavily represented and swaying and hippie-dancing to the tantalizing beats.
The five-person Mason Porter had me going from note number one of song number one, Uncle John’s Band. The group built the tune in stages, reaching heady heights with lead guitarist Paul Wilkinson’s soaring Eight Miles High-ish solo. And they nailed the seven songs that followed. Lead singer Joe D’Amico had an easy and calm delivery, very much in the Jerry Garcia vein. Sarah Larsen’s Appalachian fiddling infused the band with a whole lot of grit. The crowd erupted in applause after her long solo on Dire Wolf. She was overwhelmed by this outpouring and smiled the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a musician’s face. It stretched out of the hall and halfway to the next town.
For some reason I was delayed getting into The Chris Kasper Band. But they hooked me with Candyman five songs into the set and didn’t let go after that. Keyboardist David Streim brought strong and broad chordal waves to Candyman and the song took flight with Chris’s electric guitar work and fiddler Kiley Ryan’s sweet solo turn. Quite a night for female fiddlers, and not usual to find two at the same concert. On some songs Ryan exchanged the fiddle for an acoustic guitar.
Chris Kasper’s lead vocals were crisp and mellow all set. Like Joe D’Amico and many others, he’s partly from the Garcia school of singing. He alternated between acoustic and electric guitar and used the latter to drive Till The Morning Comes, snapping off white hot riffs like Keith Richards. Matt Muir’s firecracker drumming bounced that song outrageously, pop pop pop. Tremendous.
Truckin’ brought the band’s American Beauty homage to a close. But the night wasn’t over. Mason Porter and a few guests joined the Kasper outfit on stage and a four song Grateful Dead encore ensued. The energy in the Ardmore Music Hall grew to dangerous levels as the huge ensemble ripped through Goin Down The Road Feeling Bad, Bertha, Franklin’s Tower and Mr. Charlie. The music was ferocious, the audience insatiable. At 11:30 PM the last notes rang out.