Last Saturday, Melvin Seals & JGB continued a now-tradition established in the last couple years of playing the legendary Warfield Theatre in Downtown San Francisco. Fans of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band hold the venue at a special place in their hearts as both bands played dozens of concerts in the historic theatre throughout the 1980s and 90s. While Seals and the JGB have been keepers of the flame since Garcia’s passing in 1995, it was only recent years that the Warfield and Seals reunited in the context of Jerry Garcia’s legacy. The tradition features various special iterations of the core JGB band consisting of Melvin Seals (B3 Organ, Keyboards, Vocals) alongside Zack Nugent (Lead Guitar, Vocals), JP McLean (Bass), Pete Lavezzoli (Drums), and newly joining vocalists Lady Chi and Sunshine Becker. This year, the band announced an especially sensational evening of JGB featuring special guests including jazz guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan, RatDog/The Other Ones saxophonist Dave Ellis, Dead & Company/Allman Brother Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, and powerhouse drummer Rodney Holmes. JGB and a special opening set entitled “Tribute to Jerry” shined on at the Warfield to honor the prestigious venue’s 96th Anniversary.
The opening band included an exceptional surprise as original Jerry Garcia Band vocalists Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones joined a one-off lineup of Seals, Burbridge, Jordan, Holmes, and Nugent. The stunning tribute was a special treat for fans and band alike as the setlist was entirely focused on songs Jerry played with the Grateful Dead. The special tribute set kicked off with the holy trinity of 1970s Dead, “Help On The Way” -> “Slipknot!” -> “Franklin’s Tower.” Immediately apparent was how enthusiastic the players were to be onstage doing this set. Zack Nugent has developed quite the following amongst heads, taking the JGB band to heights never reached with Stu Allen or Dave Herbert, straying from the formula of precisely “how Jerry Garcia Band did it.” Jordan and Nugent made a captivating guitar duo on Help Slip Frank with Jordan handling lead vocals, reminding heads how he’s also a strong singer. With Melvin beaming and trading rhythmic pulses with Burbridge and Holmes, it was business right out the gates.
The crowd exploded after the climactic crescendo finale of “Help on The Way” reprise ending “Franklin’s.” Next up to the mic was Burbridge to lead the band through a poignant and haunting, “To Lay Me Down,” amped up by LaBranch and Jones powerful harmonies. The Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia ballad become a favorite of Garcia’s and his audience alike, a rare gem that only graced the stage a handful of times in later years. Next, Zack led the group though a fast-paced “Eyes of the World,” which had some of the most potent jamming of the set, especially when Burbridge and Holmes got ahold of the third solo segment and laid it down like they’d been playing together in the same band for years. The set appropriately concluded with a touching “Stella Blue,” with Burbridge yet again at the vocal forefront. This quintessential ethereal tune has become a highlight of Dead & Company with Burbridge taking over lead vocals for Bob Weir, bringing nuanced beauty to the beloved tune. Ellis took a particularly stirring solo in “Stella,” no doubt developed in his days with RatDog. The set concluded too soon but the next set’s formation of the JGB would bring a hybrid band to focus on Garcia Band material, which was equally embraced.
The JGB-centered second set featured the same band as the Garcia Tribute set showing off their chemistry on the tunes that graced the 96-year old Warfield for decades. “Cats Under The Stars,” kicked off the set, displaying Nugent’s remarkable vocals and guitar. His Mutron-style envelope effect brought the sultry finale solo to heights that had the crowd leaping in delight. The Hunter/Garcia classic “Mission in the Rain,” once again displayed the Jerryettes in finer form than ever, invigorating each and every note. “Get Out My Life Woman,” was a fine tribute to the late great Alan Toussaint, indeed also a JGB staple. After a chilling, “I Shall Be Released,” the band took a ten-minute intermission due to technical difficulties. When they came back so did the energy instantaneously with a meaty set closer of core Hunter/Garcia originals in, “Run for the Roses,” and “Deal.”
The third set brought the continuous JGB lineup of Seals, Nugent, Lavezzoli, McLean, Chi, and Becker to close the show. The classic setlist blissfully began with “How Sweet It Is,” and “Like a Road Leading Home.” Emulating more of a classic JGB setlist, the band continued with a powerful rendition of, “Think” which put Seals B3 organ at the forefront, permeating through every inch of the towering Warfield. The Gospel tune, “My Sisters and Brothers,” had the crowd singing along with every word before landing onto a lengthy improvisation-heavy, “Don’t Let Go.” The set concluded with a bouncy “Moonlight Midnight,” a rockling “Evangeline,” into the quintessential Jerry cover “Shining Star.” The current lineup of JGB band continues to find new threads and sensations in the school of Garcia. Seals is ultimately getting the credit he deserves for bringing this music back after Garcia’s passing and continuing strong all these years. Bay Area fans were blessed to have such an occasion with a stellar cast of guests, none-the-less concluded by the fine core members of JGB.