The air was crackling with energy last Saturday night as fans piled into The Warfield to witness a tribute to hometown hero Jerry Garcia. The significance of the venue was certainly not lost on the audience, smiles abounding through the crowd on the floor of the theater, which provided a home-base for the Jerry Garcia Band in the 1980s and 90s. Garcia performed at the hallowed venue 88 times, and the memories of countless transcendent nights of music have seeped into the bones of the old theater. Melvin Seals and JGB headlined the night, as the virtuoso organ player and former member the Jerry Garcia Band has carried the torch and continued the legacy of the band since Garcia’s passing in 1995.
Before Melvin Seals took the stage, Peter Rowan led The David Nelson Band through a spirited, hour-long introductory set. Nelson’s presence was missed, however, as the legendary San Francisco rocker is currently battling cancer and was unable to perform.
Melvin Seals and JGB’s first set featured Zach Nugent on guitar, and opened with a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” This was followed by a fantastic rendition of “The Harder They Come,” a Jerry Garcia Band staple. Few songs in the JGB repertoire convey such positive emotion, and it seemed a wonderful choice to set the tone for the night. The band kept the spirit of revelry high during the set with a rousing “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox” and an impassioned take on Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” JGB closed out the first set with an incredibly high energy “After Midnight,” briefly slipping into a wild and primal “Eleanor Rigby” jam segment.
While the first set of the evening was certainly memorable, it was the second that turned the night into a rare and unparalleled night of music. Stu Allen, the beloved bay area guitarist who has played an instrumental role in carrying on the legacy of the Grateful Dead’s music, took over the reins from Nugent. Stu was joined by original Jerry Garcia Band vocalists Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones, as well as Oteil Burbridge on bass. The addition of Burbridge was truly a delight, and it’s wonderful to see that he continues to pursue Dead-related music during his time away from Dead & Co tours.
The star-studded lineup opened the second set with a rollicking “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” followed by an energetic “Cats Under the Stars,” the signature Garcia tune whipping the crowd into a jubilant frenzy. Each song of the set was masterfully performed, and the band seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience, grins splitting the faces of Seals and Burbridge as they traded solos with Allen. “Run for the Roses” was predictably another audience favorite, as was the ever-soulful and exuberant “Evangeline.” The band brought the energy down for the last song of the set, a chilling cover of Van Morrison’s “And it Stoned Me,” Stu Allen’s voice poignantly floating over the heads of the crowd into the rafters of the theater.
This seemed too somber a note to end such an ecstatic show, and the night’s entire lineup returned to the stage for an encore. All four backing vocalists and both guitarists shared the stage for a foot-stomping, searing performance of “Deal.” There was a communal spirit between the band and audience, and it seemed that they would have played all night if they could. Saturday was a fitting tribute to the memory of Garcia, and gave the denizens of San Francisco an unforgettable experience in a venue steeped in tradition.