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Keller Williams covers all-Dead material

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times CorrespondentVail CO, Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesKeller Williams covers all-Dead material with his new, Internet-only album, REX.
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ASPEN, Colorado Jerrys birthday on Aug. 1; he would have been 66. You know what that means: Ive been listening to the latest batch of Grateful Dead and Dead-related recordings, which dont seem to be abating since Garcias death, 13 years ago, and the subsequent demise of the band.

But its possible that the elements never came together quite like they did over three nights, Nov. 9-11, in 1973. They were on their own turf in San Francisco, and it would be the only appearance of the year at the Winterland, the rickety skating rink that would become their home-at-home. They were playing through the Wall of Sound, the marvelously effective and brutally inefficient sound system of their own invention. There was heaps of new material to play, and the husband-wife team of pianist Keith and vocalist Donna Godchaux had not worn out their welcome yet.You can hear the alignment of the stars from beginning to end of these nine discs. The Dead were never into perfection, looking more for the in-the-moment inspiration that often results in the concert equivalent of a train wreck. But here, there is both perfection (or at least, quite a bit of it) to go with the sense of spontaneous glory. But if youre the kind of kid who cant wait till Christmas morning to rip open the presents, then go straight to Nov. 10, disc two, capped by a run of Playing In the Band/ Uncle Johns Band/ Morning Dew/ Uncle Johns Reprise/ Playing Reprise. Just the fact that they would attempt this unusual, palindromic sequence says something; that they pull it all off with the X factor present throughout makes it essential Dead.The music gets appropriate handling from the Dead staff. A generous booklet features a chapter on the extraordinary lengths they went to to transfer the sound to disc. Theres even a bonus disc unnecessary but a keeper of a set from a show the following month, in Cincinnati.My buddy Alan and I have a running argument for the entire seven years weve known one another, regarding the Dead in the year of our Lord, 1971. He says they were amazing; I contend it was something less. His opinion is no doubt influenced by the many shows he saw in 1971; mine, by the fact that I saw none.Road Trips, Summer 71 definitively settles the issue: Were both right. Owing to the fact that the band was essentially a quartet, plus Ron Pigpen McKernan on occasional vocals, the sound could be thin. Worse, many songs which would eventually become powerhouses were in their embryonic stage, and feel undeveloped. The Uncle Johns Band here sounds like a studio version outtake; the gospel-like bridge to Wharf Rat that became the heart of the song hasnt come into its own.On the other hand. Pigpen was in fine form; check out the monster Turn On Your Lovelight that closes the bonus disc. The spare lineup of instruments spurred Garcia to take on added responsibilities, and he often rose to the occasion, as he does on the full Thats It For the Other One suite. Merl Haggards Sing Me Back Home was still in the repertoire, and Garcias touching version here makes you scratch your head at the thought that they ever dropped it.The Road Trips series, which compiles highlight tracks from select tours, doesnt make much sense. Give Deadheads credit for this, if nothing else: They have long attention spans. They dont need the greatest hits treatment. But this third installment, if still not perfectly sensible, does spotlight some killer tracks. And some mediocre ones.Keller Williams, REX (Live at the Fillmore)Keller Williams, who often performs as a one-man band playing originals and an eclectic selection of covers, goes the band route here, with all-Dead material. Joined by the all-Colorado backing of bassist Keith Moseley of String Cheese Incident and mandolinist Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band, Williams also goes the all-acoustic, quasi-bluegrass route here.Good choices all. Williams ditches his own goofball lyrics and the sound-looping techniques to deliver jaunty, worthy and invariably, lightning-quick interpretations of Dead tunes. The material doesnt necessarily stick to the obvious choices for acoustic treatment; there are covers of the long, jazzy Eyes of the World, the bluesy Black Peter and the rocking St. Stephen.All proceeds from the sale of REX, an Internet-only album available on iTunes, goes to the REX Foundation, established decades ago by the Dead to support all sorts of good deeds.Williams performs Friday at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, and Saturday, Aug. 2, with Yonder Mountain String Band, at Red Rocks.Donna Jean & the Tricksters, Donna Jean & the Trickstersproduced by Donna Jean & the Tricksters (HGR)Donna Jean Godchaux (now Godchaux-McKay) was the bane of many Deadheads existence through most of the 70s. Her wailing vocals were, at best, an intrusion on the Deads sound; at worst, it was off-key caterwauling that prompted the bumper sticker, Donna Ruined My Tapes!Full and fair disclosure: When Godchaux was given the occasional lead vocal, she could turn out welcome versions of You Aint Woman Enough, and I like that studio version of Heart of Me from the Shakedown Street album. Still, shes got a lot to atone for. Surprisingly, this debut effort by Donna Jean & the Tricksters the combined forces of Godchaux-McKay and the long-running jam-band, the Zen Tricksters goes a long way. The jams here, with more than a little Jerry-inspired lead guitar in them, are inventive; the songs, all originals, with dashes of Motown-style R&B, are solid. And Donnas singing is a damn sight better than it was on that May 17, 1974 Vancouver tape.Something else that turned up on my desk: a CD single by DJ&Ts, covering the Deads obscure Til the Morning Comes. Not bad.Emory Joseph, Fennario: Songs by Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunterproduced by Chris Brook (Iris Records)New York City songwriter Emory Joseph limits himself not only to the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter side of the Deads songwriting axis, but goes to the heart of the songwriting. Almost all of the songs included on Fennario are from the incomparably fertile 1970-72 period. But he doesnt limit himself stylistically. Ramble on Rose gets a ragtime feel; Loose Lucy is stomping rock n roll, with a touch of gospel; Black Peter is slow and Southern; Brown-Eyed Women nods toward bluegrass, with mandolin parts contributed by Garcia associate David Grisman. Overlook a few clunkers, and Josephs occasional idiosyncratic phrasings, and Fennario a title taken not from a Garcia/Hunter composition, but from the traditional Peggy-O is a well-crafted contribution to the Dead-derived catalogue.Fennario is currently available as a download on iTunes, and will be released on CD Aug. 19.stewart@aspentimes.com


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