Melvin Seals and the Jerry Garcia Band rolled into the Tralf Music Hall on Tuesday, and it was like hearing Garcia himself.
The music has not died! And it drew a big crowd. Several generations filled the Tralf, all in hippie clothes.
Seals’ group carries on the easygoing vibe of the Jerry Garcia Band, for which Seals was the keyboardist for years. It’s a modest group – two backup singers, a guitar, a bass and a drummer and, of course, Seals, blasting away at the organ.
Singer/guitarist Dave Hebert sounds just like Garcia. He has that kind of modest, stuffed-up vocal sound. With his long hair, glasses and baggy clothes, he even looks kind of like a youngish Garcia. As one Deadhead said, “It’s like Jerry in 1974.” Someone should tell him to push his glasses up on his nose. Garcia used to do that.
The band, of course, gets a lot of credit for framing him perfectly.
The two backup singers, Shirley Starks and Cheryl Rucker, contribute a large part of the Jerry Garcia Band sound. They are strong gospel singers with powerful voices. They’re not kids, and in “Deal,” which closed the evening, I caught one of them stifling a yawn. Still, they get the job done.
Seals, known in San Francisco as “the soul of the Bay,” is the soul of the band.
Starting with the first song – “Cats Under the Stars,” a Jerry Garcia Band classic – he was passionate, completely engaged, filling the music with grit and emotion. “Tears of Rage” was beautiful. The band skillfully speeds the evening up and slows it down. Other musicians could learn from them.
“Midnight Moonlight” and “They Love Each Other” were cathartic highlights, with everyone singing along. “Let It Rock” and “Money Honey” brought us into the blues, where Seals really shines.
Seals is fascinating to watch up close. Immovable and mountainous, he hardly stirs other than to turn and beam beatifically at us. Even his huge arms hardly move. I found myself thinking of monster classical pianists I have admired, like William Wolfram and Andre Watts.
Players like this save the gymnastics for the keyboard. Seals’ hands switched constantly between the organ’s keyboards, tooting, squealing and burbling through songs ranging from “Run for the Roses” to “Road Runner” to “Sisters and Brothers.” Pulling out the stops, he dished out outrageous glissandi.
His low-key artistry was thrilling in a different way. Restless, constantly changing, it could sound like somebody talking.
In someone else’s hands, Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” could be monotonous. Seals made it into a crowd pleaser. But one thing: Hebert forgot the lyrics and no one cheered! People used to applaud when Jerry forgot lyrics.
Tuesday’s concert got the big things right. The evening had a terrific energy. Jammed into the crowd on the dance floor, I thought what a pleasure it is to be among people so overt in their enjoyment of music. God love Garcia for rolling all these different American styles – rock, blues, bluegrass, gospel, even jazz and funk – into one. And for finding the musicians to do it.
The evening began with a Buffalo group called Family Funktion and the Star Jams. They are brothers from Buffalo, and one of them plays the sitar. The volume was loud but the music was low-key. It warmed up the room nicely.