REVIEW: The Chapel celebrates 50 years of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Aoxomoxoa’

Aoxomoxoa, Grateful Dead, Ethan Miller

Ethan Miller leads a bevy of Bay Area artists celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Aoxomoxoa’ at The Chapel in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2019. Photos: Michael Smyth/Staff.

SAN FRANCISCO — One expects to encounter a certain amount of enthusiasm for The Grateful Dead here. The Bay Area is, after all, where the group and its devoted fans began their long explorations together. This year marks the 50th anniversary of two Grateful Dead albums: Aoxomoxoa and the live set Live/Dead. To celebrate this anniversary The Chapel revived the band’s unconventional third studio album on Monday for an ensemble performance. An assortment of rock musicians gathered to perform the album in its entirety.

Live/Dead: 50th anniversary celebration of The Grateful Dead’s 1969 album
8:30 p.m., Tuesday
The Chapel
Tickets: $25.

The show boasted eleven musicians with bandleaders Ethan Miller of Howlin’ Rain and Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, who performed the entire set. An additional guest was introduced on each of six songs. Once Miller and Mitchell took the stage, they warmed up with some jumbled mixolydian jams before launching into the recognizable guitar intro to “St. Stephen.” Complete with the song’s signature scream, supplied by Miller, the group did a faithful rendition of the album’s most rock-oriented number. Miller and Mitchell recreated the song’s divergent vocal patterns and harmonized on surging guitar leads.

Steve Gunn, Ethan Miller, Grateful Dead, Aoxomoxoa

Steve Gunn and Ethan Miller perform at The Chapel in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2019.

Alex Bleeker, whose band Real Estate doesn’t quite fit the jam band mold, joined as the first guest of the night for an extended version of the Wurlitzer-driven “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” The band churned through the song’s chord progression as it searched for its sea legs. This was followed by the introduction of Brigid Dawson, longtime member of Oh Sees. Dawson sang lead on the delicate “Rosemary.” Her vocals were less flanged than on the album version, and the band’s rendition was altogether more present than the spaced-out original.

That was followed by the weird chord changes and raucous-soft dynamic of “Doin’ That Rag.” Holly Bowling was introduced, and she and keyboardist Adam MacDougall engaged in a piano-organ melee. Bowling, who has performed with Phil Lesh & Friends, remained onstage for the rest of the set.

Isaiah Mitchell, Steve Gunn, Ethan Miller, Dan Horne, Grateful Dead, Aoxomoxoa

Isaiah Mitchell, Steve Gunn, Ethan Miller and Dan Horne perform at The Chapel in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2019.

The group rendered the songs faithfully, taking some liberties during extended, improvised jams. However, they did not role-play. Miller, sporting a full beard and Shakedown-Street-inspired goon suit, sang most of the leads, but he did not attempt to take on Jerry Garcia’s persona. Likewise, Mitchell did not portray himself as Bob Weir, instead eliciting highly authentic Garcia tones from his natural wood-grain Stratocaster. His technique for Grateful Dead guitar soloing was studied and convincing, but in the bends he betrayed an affinity for British Invasion guitarists as well.

Highlights from the set included the wizened “Mountains Of The Moon” and the uptempo “China Cat Sunflower.” The former featured a guest appearance by Paula Frazer of Tarnation, who sang the idiomatic lyrics convincingly and voiced an arresting soprano turn at the end. Mother Hips guitarist Greg Loiacono joined for “China Cat Sunflower,” the most energized performance of the evening. Mitchell erupted with organic leads that strived upward like green shoots emerging from the fecund earth. Behind the band, a video display suggested a colorfully magnified paramecium colony.

Ethan Miller, Greg Loiacono, Grateful Dead, Aoxomoxoa

Ethan Miller and Greg Loiacono perform at The Chapel in San Francisco on Oct. 28, 2019.

Much of Aoxomoxoa is fairly conventional from a songwriting perspective. The psychedelic element manifests in strange passing moments throughout. The band incorporated these passages, but it wasn’t until extended noise experiment “What’s Become Of The Baby” that the group was able to stretch out and fully explore its sonic palette. Bassist Dan Horne, of Grateful Shred and Circles Around The Sun, stood out on the song with subversive bass slides that resulted in thick sustained notes. Drummer Austin Beede, also of Grateful Shred, added effective cymbal swells, driving crescendos of discord. MacDougall laid down a meditative, drifting vibe. A member of numerous bands including Chris Robinson Brotherhood, MacDougall provided textural complexity and coherence throughout the set.

Following this unique and successful interpretation, the band returned from interstellar regions with the lazy blues excursion “Cosmic Charlie,” featuring Steve Gunn as guest. Gunn, a former collaborator of Kurt Vile, performed earlier in the evening at Slim’s. After the Aoxomoxoa album closer, the band took a brief respite before returning for a long encore of “Morning Dew,” replete with overdriven guitar solos and a strong dynamic sensibility.

The audience comprised highly enthusiastic fans of the Grateful Dead. Many were too young to have witnessed the original release of Aoxomoxoa but it didn’t stop them from dancing like flower children. A very cool and colorful Aoxomoxa hoodie was passed among several concertgoers. Meanwhile, a gregarious senior told the story of being introduced to the band in Palo Alto in 1967. He then shared photos of his Grateful-Dead-inspired stained glass collection. Fifty years after its initial release, Aoxomoxoa and its appreciators continue to grow and explore.

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