There’s an old saying about the Grateful Dead: “They’re not the best at what they do, but they’re the only ones doing it.”
More than a decade after Jerry Garcia died, the axiom still rings true. No one has recreated the experimental, loose, jammy concert experience of a Dead show.
But on Tuesday night at Benaroya Hall, the American Beauty Project proved that others can make more with Dead songs than the original band.
The project is a collection of first-rate bluegrass musicians including the band Ollabelle, country musician Jim Lauderdale, session guitarist David Mansfield and the fabulous vocalist Catherine Russell.
They draw from the Dead’s seminal albums, “American Beauty” and “Working Man’s Dead,” re-invisioning the songs as part of the American songbook.
During the first stop of a rare West Coast tour, the American Beauty Project delivered a powerful, rousing 90-minute set, playing all but four of the 18 classics on the Dead’s two albums, throwing in a few other Dead songs. (Uncle John’s Band, Truckin’, Dire Wolf and Operator weren’t played.)
The group’s musicianship, gorgeous harmonies and thoughtful, interesting renditions elevated the music to places out of reach to the Grateful Dead, especially later in their career when Garcia’s voice had lost its soft sweetness.
As a friend commented after the show, “They were just like the Grateful Dead, only in tune.”
The American Beauty Project opened with a upbeat, country style version of “Friend of the Devil,” followed by a bluegrass “Sugar Magnolia.”
“Till the Morning Comes” was psychedelic country. “Easy Wind” was delivered old style and bluesy.
It was Australian Fiona McBain who turned the corner on the evening, entering chilling, etherial ground with her gorgeous “Ripple.”
“New Speedway Boogie” was stripped bare, with Russell giving the song a gospel feel and Mansfield accompanying on mandolin.
Instead of a soulful lament, “Black Peter” was fast, rousing bluegrass.
Straying from the albums, keyboardist Glenn Patscha said he opened the Grateful Dead hymnal to find “Wharf Rat.” During the refrain, “I’ll get up and fly away,” the audience could sense the lift as the band entered sacred ground.
“Box of Rain” was straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, giving the lyrics a chance to come forward and be heard.
The vocal harmonies on “Attics of My Life,” were supported by a solo electric guitar. “Cumberland Blues” came across fast and furious. “High Times” sounded like a smoky, bar ballad.
The band let loose at the end of “Casey Jones,” showcasing their musicianship and drawing a standing ovation.
Encores included the traditional “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” and Garcia’s “Ramble on Rose.”
In the latter, the coda includes the line, “The grass ain’t greener, the wine ain’t sweeter, either side of the hill.”
It’s hard not to compare the American Beauty Project to the original Dead. That’s not the point. The songs are classics, wonderful music that provided a soundtrack to so many of our lives in the 40 plus years they’ve been sung.
This special performance brought back many memories, and created new hope that what nobody but the Grateful Dead could do, can be done by other musicians in their own way.
Looking around the small audience at Benaroya Hall Tuesday night, where tye-died T-shirts blended with sport coats and khakis and long hair was mostly gray, it hardly was a long-strange trip. Instead, the night was more of a golden road to ultimate devotion.
No, the grass wasn’t greener, the wine wasn’t sweeter, but it was very green and very sweet indeed.
Friend of the Devil
Till the Morning Comes
New Speedway Boogie
Box of Rain
Attics of My Life
Ramble on Rose
Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad