2018-11-16 - Great American Music Hall - San Francisco, CA
Bay Area, Day 2: In the Heart of America
The Great American Hall is a storied venue. Its most well-known regular might be Jerry himself, having performed here under his own name, with JGB, and for the Grateful Dead's first From the Vault recording. Many other legends have recorded here, though – Doc and Merle Watson, Boz Scaggs, Robin Williams, to name a few. Immediately upon entering, you can see why: the walls and ceiling are ornately hand-carved, amenities are well-located and convenient, and the whole building has an air of professionalism.
With a capacity of about five times the Catalyst Atrium, I knew this wouldn't be as personal an affair as the previous night. But that was more than made up for by the larger room's benefits: the full light rig is on display here, complete with LEDs, and from the first note the sound was robust, crisp and sublime. We decided to maximize these factors by hanging around the back center of the room.
And what better first note for the American Music Hall than that of America? This song is unpretentious, heavy and propulsive, and often (though not always) foreshadows a Reprise. What's not to like? The crowd gets moving. Mind's Unchained is next on the list. It's well-played, a cartwheeling court jester next after the opener's unapologetic intensity; as instructed, we soak it in and ease the pain. This song's guitar part sounds inspired by the Dead to me, surely a crowd pleaser in this venue and with the night's Killing It sticker theme being a double Jerry.
Leave the Light On gets the next call, the female fan favorite song if you judge by woo-ing gender. LTLO's lighthearted lyrical vibe isn't everyone's cup of tea, and while the uninitiated might accuse it of being white-guy-reggae, folks who know buckle their seatbelts. The first jam sounds a bit like a Windmill jam, with Brian finding a nice upward phrase and working it for a while. By the time we get to the bit Red always works in to the second jam – I'm gonna go ahead and coin that Red's Theme – the band has already struck a furious pace. While this version doesn't go too far afield musically, the lights were spectacular in this jam. The LEDs gave the room a sinister vibe in the beginning of the jam and the whole rig was used to great effect up through the peak.
This version of People gets the Red solo treatment, with the band hanging around just a little more than usual. The rising chords in the peak always give me goosebumps, and with that we're sent off to set break. We rest our legs a bit and get a fresh drink – though there's no rush, since the bar line is never long in this place. I have time for a brief conversation with a stranger where we're not sure if the words of America go "I lost it somewhere across the fall" or "somewhere across the fault", which would fit given that this venue was built immediately after the 1907 earthquake. We settle in near the front, Cam-side.
Virtual Bean Dip has been my opener call many times, for some reason. Spafford loves contrasting ideas in their songs, and VBD juxtaposes syncopated, malevolent metal with calm noodly jazz. In this case we don't get my favorite part, the wild drum segment at the end, but that's fine because its foregone in favor of a sprawling 28 minute jam. The band is on their own time here, patiently working together to cover a lot of ground. They finds a nice percussive salsa groove, and the crowd is moving and shaking, but several times they opt out of a forced peak in favor of shining a light on the next musical nook or cranny.
The segue into Salamander Song is smooth and superb, and suddenly I know why I recognized the salsa groove from the previous jam. Who doesn't love dancing in circles and Hey!-ing, especially after the headbanging opener? VBD > Salamander has happened before, on 8/18/18 and 1/25/18 to be exact, and it makes a great combo. Spafford loves to go deep, as they did the night before at the Atrium. But some nights it's the breadth of what they can play that leaves an impression.
The so-called fourth quarter is kicked off with Plans. I'm alright with having seen this song a ton since its debut, maybe because the band plays the hell out of it. This one belongs to Jordan. He finds a refrain he likes early in the jam and sticks to it stubbornly. He and Brian have played together a long time, and it's clear in this jam, as he provides the perfect underpinning for Brian's explorations. Cam backs off to an ambient space, letting us breathe the music in deep.
My dad had mused that in 3 days we were sure to get a Postman, and he was right. This one goes fairly deep, with some great interplay with a descending riff, and a patient build to the song's triumphant conclusion. It's a great way to close a solid set.
Catfish John is a frequent earworm for me, and it's a fitting choice to close out the show here given that it was popularized by the Dead. It's clear that the band put some extra thought into their set list on this night. The lights, venue, and crowd were all great, and that helped magnify the experience. LTLO and Plans were my personal highlights. Perhaps just due to the stupefying musicianship I had just witnessed the night before, I couldn't help but think that the band was holding back a bit. But the run wasn't over yet, and there was no reason for them not to leave it all on the table the following night.