When Venice Dyes itself in Grateful Dead Color

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Submitted by Cico Casartelli on Tue, 05/24/2016 - 5:15 pm

Ten days of concerts and various events around the Lagoon inspired by the band once led by Jerry Garcia, which this year celebrates the 50th Anniversary. Starring international musicians like John Kadlecik, Scott Law, Ross James and Leonardo Suarez Paz to which a contingent of Italian players was added: Martino Coppo, Paolo Bonfanti, Roberto Bongianino, Veronica Sbergia and Max De Bernardi. Here our report. 

What would happen if the colors of Grateful Dead take possession of Venice, of the Biennale, of the historical buildings and of the Lagoon for a good ten days? It can happen and anything – and, indeed, about everything happened. Although quite difficult to put all together, the meat on the fire is quite a lot –  we will try to serve you with the right words.

Everything took place thanks to the gumption of Michael Becker, a former New Yorker who lives in Oregon for decades and is president of IGE-Innovative Giving Enhancement, a non-profit foundation that already, a couple of years ago, promoted a progenitor of the present year’s event. IGE calls these immersive events Experiential Residencies. The previous residency was in smaller scale and mainly attended by friends of the musicians and Becker. This year, the 50th Anniversary of Grateful Dead and the vicennial of Jerry Garcia’s passing, the foundation lead by Mister Becker, made it bigger, namely for ten days during which IGE invited to the Lagoon from around the world, musicians, multimedia artists, dancers and patrons of the REX foundation, the foundation established by the Grateful Dead, for a range of noteworthy happenings that has given to participants in the residency experience a clear picture of the way of life in the name of the great American group. IGE joining forces with Rex Foundation, established in the 80’s as the only legitimate foundation (along with Phil and Jill Lesh’s Unbroken Chain Foundation), takes care of the events and much else that gravitates around the Grateful Dead world.

As already expressed, arrangements were made with quite a commitment. The IGE leases three historical buildings in the heart of Venice, in the St. Mark sestiere, placed around the beautiful squares of Campo Sant’ Angelo and Campo Manin, making them the hospitality base for all the guests – who collectively remember the 2400 Fulton Street address, in the case of Jefferson Airplane, or the 710 Ashbury Street address, in the case of the Dead. The IGE arrangement reminds all well of the idea of gathering likeminded people such as in those San Francisco abodes that so much fostered the West Coast ethic, not to mention the music way back when. It was IGE and REX foundation intent to take advantage of the well-known contexts that the Venice’s Biennale can offer. To increase the appeal of chosen palazzos and villas in which IGE resident participants are housed, one of the three historical buildings, the one assigned as the headquarters, was the Venetian dwelling of the classic romantic poet Lord Byron back in the Nineteenth Century  – hence, everything is very much flamboyant!

Along the way, the folks that showed up really experienced the flawless hospitality of IGE, that seamlessly put together diverse circumstances: concerts, jam sessions, potlucks and cocktail parties, visits at Biennale and rendezvous at some other prestigious and less prestigious places in a city that is so unique – everything spiced with the peculiar dimension of the “alternative nation” represented by the Grateful Dead. By the way, rumors persisted that one among the core-four of GD (Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart), could visit Venice – it wasn’t the case this time but who knows next year, since IGE promises two similar events in 2016. Another thing to point out is the defection of Tim Bluhm, leader of The Mother Hips, a seminal California Soul group discovered in the 90s by no less than Rick Rubin – just few weeks ago Tim had an accident that landed him in the hospital. The news, however, is of a slow but sure recovery. Tim, we hope, you will keep the appointment with Venice for 2016.

IGE and REX presented a musical program: Music of the Americas: North to South beginning with Americana and the music of the Grateful Dead. The show, presented as benefits for the Venice Conservatory of Music and the Palazzo Albrizzi foundation, included players of various origin under the direction of Maestro Leonardo Suarez Paz, the eminent Jazz, Tango and Classical violinist, singer and dancer from Argentina, who is artistic director of IGE. The program was dedicated to his fellow citizen and family friend Astor Piazzolla (Suarez Paz’s father was part of the orchestra of the Argentinian bandoneonist and composer) – all played with classical musicians that took on Piazzolla creations such Camorra 3, Escualo and the hyper famous Libertango, where the audience also experienced some tango dance courtesy of the great and beautiful Olga Suarez Paz, live on stage. Suarez Paz brought in major international stars such as Caroline Pearsall, the famous English tango violinist; and the Italians – Filippo Arlia, conductor of the Calabria symphony, director of the Calabria conservatory and international piano soloist; Enrico Corapi, the seminal bass player, and Cesare Chacchiaretta, perhaps Italy’s greatest bandoneon player.

A highlight of the event were players with the Grateful Dead mark, starting out with Scott Law, master guitar/mandolin player and composer from Oregon and musical director for IGE, who was in charge of the musical direction of the non-classical players. With him were Ross James, Phil Lesh’s right hand in the present incarnation of the Friends, Arthur Steinhorn, drummer/percussionist with experience in bands such the New Riders Of The Purple Sage, the David Nelson Band and the Kingfish (Bob Weir), and John Kadlecik, the magnificent fill in for Jerry Garcia who for more than five years was an essential part of Furthur, the band lead by Lesh and Weir that jazzed up the GD legend across the U.S.A. in major arenas and festivals. During the nightly long jams at IGE headquarters, the four did not save themselves and really put together their own versions of the Dead-ian “American Beauty.” Each night people danced and tripped out to the sounds of classics of the repertoire of the Skull & Roses band such Terrapin Station, When I Paint My Masterpiece by Bob Dylan (which included for the occasion the perfect verses, “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola/Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!”), Stealin’, Been All Around This World, Friend Of The Devil, Ripple, among the many they managed to play. It’s impossible to forget two originals by Kadlecik, Sisters Smiles and American Spring, both off of the old project called The Mix, a band put together a dozen or so years ago with Melvin Seals and others. The songs, worked up during jam sessions, were performed at the benefits.

The climax of the benefit concerts was reached when the American musicians were joined by Italian superstar players, scrupulously chosen and all on the GD vibes. For the gala at Benedetto Marcello Conservatory, the lineup was joined by Veronica Sbergia and Max De Bernardi – not the luckiest evening since the famous Venetian “high water” literally paralyzed the city rendering attendance challenging (though even given “high water” virtually every seat in the house was filled). In the end, the very same night a nice jam with Max’s and Veronica’s participation was on, and that persuaded all lucky enough to attend of the skill and contributions of this carefree and expert duo – the hootenanny saw every kind of exchange: wine, smiles, songs and instruments, as must be on these informal jamming and picking occasions. 

The weather condition for the second benefit concert, on the contrary, kissed in the best way possible, the arrival of Martino Coppo, leader of Red Wine, a band from Genoa and Italy’s longest running and best know bluegrass group (they started out back in 1978), and of guitarist Paolo Bonfanti with his concertina player, Roberto Bongianino. The three Italian aces participated in the second benefit, a gala, for benefit of the Palazzo Albrizzi, where the splendid and packed hall (one of the most famous rooms in Italy replete with priceless and difficult to visit marbles and frescos) truly heated up to the sound of the full complement of string-band players. It was all very intense, even if shorter than desired, before the stage was released to the jazz, tango and classical players. The great and versatile Scott Law was on stage for each element of the program.

The best moments of the 10 day residency, may have been two hootenannies that saw everybody involved – many nights the international assemblage of star players would not stop playing, and I assure you, the lucky audiences were in agreement. Players and audience were quite incredulous at the ease with which Coppo, Bonfanti and Bongianino were able to meld sounds and cultures, from GD to bluegrass, that belong to other lands. For example, among such plenty, the audience will struggle to forget how the improvised orchestra went for You Win Again by Hank Williams with Law singing.

Given that time is relative, the music of Grateful Dead, which exists out of time is the epitome par excellence. This IGE event, the experiential residency, is so different from what usually goes on in Venice, and was conceived to shift the tenor of the Venetian atmosphere while contributing to its evolution. The reverberations of  “Sailin’ round the world in a dirty gondola/Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” at Palazzo Albrizzi had a magical and timeless and out of time quality to it. Ultimately, for 10 magical days and nights, all were happy – and anxiously waiting for everything to take place again.

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