There is something about the energy created by people coming together to hear the music of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. The first time I experienced this seemingly human-powered electricity was a few days before my 18th birthday, in 1994, in a parking lot near what was then the Boston Garden. When Jerry died the following summer, I found myself in a park sitting in a circle around a singular candle that seemed to burn for hours. I was too young to have experienced much of what the people around me had, but they assured me, even if only with their kind faces, that I was welcome.
This past Saturday night at The Cabot Theater in Beverly, Massachusetts, I felt the light of that candle from the vigil. In between snowstorms, on a relatively mild winter night, we gathered to see, hear, and experience Melvin Seals and JGB. In the moments I spent outside before making my way in, I felt the familiar spark, exchanging smiles with strangers, seeing old friends unite, and chatting with folks in line.
The Cabot is a welcoming place from the start, from the folks that work the door to the smell of popcorn in the lobby and the friendly faces that will help you find your seat. And then once at the edge of my seat, I took a few moments to take in the beauty of the building itself and the love that has clearly gone into a recent restoration project.
I’m going to tell you now. I didn’t come to study chord progression. This almost stopped me from writing this today, this “how does a non musician write a music review?” But I do study how things feel in my body, and perhaps there’s something to be said for finding what moves us, and for knowing what places and spaces allow us the full expression of our human experience. For me, that’s feeling deeply and connecting with other people. Also, dancing.
Melvin Seals and JGB have a presence before they even take the stage. Their set up, a half circle, with Mr. Seals’ soothing electric organ, a Hammond B3, on the left, which is even more beautiful once he sits down, sporting a red and black scarf, which really looked sweet with his wool fedora.
OK but Zach Nugent, the guitar player, shared something within moments of stepping to the microphone that made me excited to be the girl with the pen – he was playing the Wolf guitar that was once Jerry Garcia’s Wolf guitar, auctioned last year to support the Southern Poverty Law Center. So, that’s super cool, and said guitar glistened with Zach’s excitement at getting to play it.
Melvin Seals and JGB have taken on the legacy of being “the keepers of the flame,” of the music of the Jerry Garcia Band and the Grateful Dead, and indeed the warm friendly notes of each song were felt deeply by many of us throughout the Cabot Theater.
Covering the Rolling Stones first, they opened with “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. Yes, please-let’s! Maybe half of the theater stood to dance – but not my section and so not me, yet. I closed my eyes and felt my wanting to dance, a joyful swaying in my chair, and a hope that soon I would stand without worrying about blocking someone. I was warmed by the back up vocals of Lady Chi and Sunshine Becker – the energy of the two of them side by side. in the semicircle is like literal sunshine in which we basked.
Thank goodness, “Cats Down Under the Stars” brought some dancers into the aisle to my right. Also, someone nearby suddenly face-timing a friend to share the show - these are new times! They didn’t stay too long in that spot and soon enough the woman behind me was standing and so was I. I felt the familiar notes of this almost anthem reverberate in my heart as I reminded myself to ground in the rooting of my legs. It would be the song I would be singing to myself in my kitchen hours later, reheating the leftovers saved by my family.
During the next song “Mission in the Rain,” I became distinctly aware of what seems to be Melvin Seals’ (I want to call him Mr. Seals) intention for leading this band, for keeping this candle lit. Through the moments he takes to look up from his powerful finger work, he connects with the audience, makes eye contact, shares a smile. I think the show was sold out, and I think this band will sell out other shows soon, so the flame is definitely alive. It’s really special to see the care with which the band holds this legacy. This song – the first Grateful Dead tune of the night – got the crowed fired up (technical music review term). Jerry himself would have loved it.
“That’s Alright Mama,” a JGB favorite brought anyone able and wanting to dance to the floor. It also brought screams around me of, “This set list is so fine!” and “This set list is ridiculous!” Did you know this song was written by a man named Arthur Crudup, who shares a first name with my dad. Yup. (hi, Dad.) Melvin Seals has a soulful and funky way of playing his gorgeous organ that’s distinctly his own, but in these songs, Melvin’s intention is palpable, a connection to keeping the songs true to the familiar home of this music.
I don’t think you need me to tell you about my thoughts and feelings during each song. It was a great show. We got a little biblical and melodic with “Gomorrah” which also gave Melvin an opportunity to share his love for the keyboard. Next up was the sort of thing some of us might have come for: A spacey Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain. I was struck by the way John Paul McLean carried the bass line through the transition. (Note to self: curious to know how a real music reviewer would discuss this.) The vocals were stunning, the Deadheads went lovingly crazy, and I focused on the vibration tapping on my ribs from the drums played by Pete Lavezzoli.
Such a fun first set, wrapped up of course with Melvin (Mr. Seals?) lovingly checking in with the crowd. I saw one of my dancing neighbors in the restroom at set break and got to say hi to my Facebook friend, Gary, and I realize why I am really here. It’s a chance to enter into what becomes a sacred space of it’s own, governed only by music, if only for a few hours.
The second set started with “That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” which brings another Jerry favorite and a chance for Zach to have some fun with Jerry’s guitar. Melvin appears to really love this song and leads the crowd in a mini sing-along toward the end. The whole band, led by Melvin, is having fun, but also, they’re working really fucking hard.
This is not a band that’s interacting with each other a whole lot, but you can feel the way they are interacting with the audience. “Brown Eyed Women,” one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs, was followed by a song I’d never heard live, Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo.” It’s during the next song, “Lay Down Sally” that I truly fall in love with the combination of vocals that this band brings with Sunshine Becker, Lady Chi, Zach Nugent, and Melvin Seals.
“Don’t Let Go” was written by Jessie Stone and is the title track of the JGB album recorded a week before I was born. Saturday night’s version brought a funky groove with room for jams and solos. One couple near me was now watching the show with their heads squished together to see through one of their phone’s video camera. Thankfully, the lights sparkling around the theater gave my eyes somewhere to rest. I cannot tell a lie. Sometimes the long jams that jam bands are known for make me a little restless. But as if Melvin Seals and his friends on stage know this restlessness themselves, when the jam here started to feel a little long, we delight in gorgeous teases of Van Morrison’s Moondance.
Jerry’s “Sisters and Brothers” makes my soul happy and I make a mental note to play it for my sons soon. It’s simple message feels so important: “Walk together little children we don’t ever have to worry. Through this world of trouble, we got to love one another.” Of course, I’m feeling a little guilty that my family isn’t with me to experience the divinity of this beautiful song in person.
The penultimate song was “Ruben & Cherise”. Hooray! This might be why I am here, this tender lyrical Grateful Dead original that I love in my hips every time. I don’t think I should say any more about that one, so you can just go see if you can catch it for yourself. Last in the church of love and live music at The Cabot Theater on Saturday was “Magnificent Sanctuary Band” with its vocally playful beginning and powerful lyrics. The song, written by Dorsey Burnett, starting with “There are multitudes of people dying.” The chorus, repeating the line, “Singing in the band, talking to the man…. Join the magnificent sanctuary band,” brought goosebumps that almost felt like tears.
When Rich came back to our seats after the song was over, I wanted to still be dancing. Thanks so much to Melvin Seals & JGB, for keeping this flame alive, and to The Cabot Theater for hosting a lovely night.