The dissolution of that most robust of American psychedelic space-truckin’ institutions, the Grateful Dead, in 2015 has (perhaps inevitably) resulted in the formation of several splinter groups- not that much different, in fact, to the general state of play during their existence. Of all the ones currently doing the rounds, the most ‘heavy duty’ is undoubtedly Dead & Co, featuring a triumvirate of ex-alumni in Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart: however, until they deign to land on these hallowed shores (something which, if rumours are to be believed, is scheduled for an as-yet-unspecified date next year) then it falls to this aggregation – steered by ‘original’ keyboardist Tom Constanten and manned by the associated refugee cadets of Ratdog and Jefferson Starship – to transport us on their cosmic caravan across the hallowed spheres.
An unenviable task to some, perhaps, but one which they seem more than up to: with the pianist (trained by John Cage and Terry Riley, outsider muso buffs) firmly entrenched in the role of mad professor-cum-bandleader, and his scintillating ivories high in the mix from the get-go, you know the chances of this show descending into workmanlike jam-band mediocrity are extremely slim at worst and non-existent at best. Earlier the same evening, in fact, a random yet friendly chap in Bilston’s tres groovy pre-gig hostelry Café Metro had touched on that very subject, asking me how a band who essentially started their career playing a form of country rock had ended up being held in such high regard by the psych movement: trust me, it’s not an easy question to answer, but once you start listening properly (and, more to the point, start attending shows like this) the explanations will become apparent.
Admittedly, as the quintet ease into proceedings with Bertha and Big Boss Man (the latter reflecting the Skull And Roses–era Dead’s preoccupation with blues standards) you could be forgiven they’re going to go down precisely that path: sure, the slide guitars of Slick Aguilar and Mark Karan are already doing that twisty-turny, river-flowing stream of consciousness thingy Garcia and Weir used to specialise in, but for the moment, they’re still playing everything a little too straight. Likewise the next two numbers, the John Phillips (now there’s a Reprobate for you) composition Me And My Uncle and Kris Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee, again from the Skull And Roses set: great tunes both, but where’s the headfuckery? Don’t worry, they’re just warming up- which can only mean the long strange trip is shortly about to recommence. And, verily, it doth.
Suddenly, from out of nebulous nowhere, a four-headed, acid-eating, brain-frying monster slides into view: the slow-release sonic behemoth that is Dark Star emerges, glimmering hairs standing erect ‘pon its craning neck, and crawls across the Robin’s speaker-stacks with sinister liquid languor before segueing into an equally portentous Wharf Rat, back into Dark Star once more and finally out the other side into a whirling St Stephen. Meeting The Eleven somewhere in the middle of the end, the seamless segue challenges the strictures of the verse-chorus verse format in rambling style yet still prioritises harmony and melody throughout: with its ability to make a minute seem like half an hour yet still pass in the twinkling of an eye, Dead music is the true transgressor of linear time and space. A ‘transitive nightfall of diamonds’, indeed, and from this point, the diamonds just keep coming.
Death Don’t Have No Mercy, the Rev Gary Davis tune that invented Gothic blues three decades before little Nicky Cave was even a twinkle in the milkman’s underpants (and which, more importantly, Constanten and the original Dead reworked into a seminal slab of sonic doom on the Live/Dead album) simmers with fear, forewarning and portent: Playing In The Band, turbling elegantly into Rider and Turn On Your Love Light is the two-fingered salute to that warning, its freeform freak abandon letting the Reaper know that whilst the second half of the band’s name may honour his omnipotence, it’s the first that resonates most. Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Vince Welnick and Captain Trips himself may all be gone, but the music crackles with life, and every Deadhead in the room (probably a mere quarter of the entire West Midlands contingency, but still not a bad turnout for a snowy, and thus thankfully sandal-less, Tuesday in Wolvo) is hip to the vibe, maaan.
One silver-bonced longhair, reminiscent in many ways of legendary London gig-goer ‘Jesus’, is so exuberant – even during the ploddy bits – that he refuses to stop dancing, prancing or letting his freak flag fly for one minute of the band’s two-hour performance: by halfway, his chemical wingspan has already circumnavigated the entire room twice, and while it might be ventured that these days, the hardest substance ingested by even the most turned-on and tuned-in Black Country dropout is probably several pints of Banks’ Amber Ale, that, again, is the hidden power of Dead music. By the time Constanten and his merry men have meandered, wandered and explored for 70-odd minutes, we’re already off our respective boxes regardless of whether we’ve taken anything or not: to paraphrase Bert Convy (and, once again, our old pal Kris Kristofferson) in Semi-Tough, “even if you don’t get it, you’ve still got it”.
Amusingly, all five of our (San) Franciscan (brain) friars look more than a little miffed when told to vacate the stage at 11.15 pm: had they their way, I’m sure they would have jammed for another 90 minutes or more, but this ain’t California, it’s what used to be called ‘South Staffs’, and as most public transport round here stops within roughly the next 30 minutes, it’s probably best we GTFO. Freaks we may be, but that doesn’t mean we want to blow all our dosh on freakin’ taxis. Time, then, to leave the castle, head to Terrapin Station and catch the last train to Shakedown Street: in these environs, one should always remember that the faster we go, the rounder we get.