ROTHBURY, Mich. -- For the rest of the country it was Independence Day. At the Rothbury Festival, however, Saturday (July 4) was the day of The Dead.
The surviving members of the Grateful Dead wrapped their 2009 reunion -- at least for now -- with a musical marathon over two sets and three hours and forty five minutes, with festival organizers setting off 4th of July fireworks during the group's encore of, appropriately enough, "U.S. Blues." During the set guitarist Bob Weir had asked for "a big round of applause for the guys who thought this country up and did something about it."
There were plenty of The Dead's musical pyrotechnics before that as well. The group -- the patron saint of the "jam band" movement and of Rothbury's own musical ethos offered up expansive version of favorites such as "Sugar Magnolia," "Friend of the Devil," "Franklin's Tower," "I Know You Rider" and "Throwing Stones" and also dug deep into its catalog for gems like "Loose Lucy," "Unbroken Chain," "Viola Lee Blues," "Morning Dew" and "Sunshine Daydream."
Warren Haynes, the Gov't Mule and Allman Brothers Band guitarist who's now part of The Dead, also sang a choice rendition of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," and rockers such as "One More Saturday Night" and the show-closing cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" had the tye-died faithful twirling around the field at the Double JJ ranch.
The Deadheads certainly hope that the latter song does not apply to The Dead's reunion. Group members Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann both said at Rothbury that there are no future plans at the moment (Rothbury was billed as The Dead's only summer performance), but before the encore Lesh did inspire hope, giving props to Rothbury's organizers and telling the crowd that "we hope to be back."
Lesh also gave fans a bit of bonus Dead on Saturday, joining Jackie Greene, a member of his Phil & Friends collective, for renditions of the Dead's "New Minglewood Blues" and Greene's own "Ball and Chain."
Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, meanwhile, sported a Grateful Dead patch on the left knee of his jeans during his band's 115-minute set preceding the Dead. The group played with a harder edge but still curried the favor of early arriving Deadheads -- particularly with an electrifying instrumental transition from "Downtown Money Waster" into "Thorn In My Pride." "I Ain't Hiding," the thumping, disarmingly danceable lead track from the Crowes' forthcoming album "Before the Frost..." (due Sept. 11), had the crowd grooving as much as it did to more familiar songs such as "Wiser Time," "Jealous Again" and "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution."
With overlapping time slots, Son Volt and Hill Country Revue clearly cannibalized each other's audience -- and the former had to deal with a brief cloudburst that sent fans scurrying from the Ranch Arena stage. Still, Jay Farrar and company made a case for Son Volt's new album, "American Central Dust," on the opening date of their summer tour and just three days before its release, while Hill Country Revue lit up Sherwood Court with its particular brand of Southern Rock, breaking into Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" during the song "Hill Country Revue."
And while most of the day's acts were of the loud and plugged-in variety, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys, which includes his son Ralph Stanley II, had no trouble charming early risers at the Odeum stage -- though they did have to compete with some sound bleed coming from Underground Orchestra's set on the nearby Sherwood Court. But Stanley was stately and undaunted, whether he was singing an a capella "O Death," offering up the gospel tune "Rank Stranger" or plucking on a banjo during "Candy Darlin' " or tapping into fans of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with "Man of Constant Sorrow."
Rothbury producer Jeremy Stein of Madison House Presents said Saturday he was pleased that this year's festival "raised the bar" but would not commit to a third year in 2010 -- partly owning to this week's sale of the Double JJ to the consortium Progressive Resorts. Stein did say Madison House does "have our eyes on" a third year and estimated that this year's festival will draw somewhere in the mid-30,000's, partly thanks to one- and two-day ticket packages that he said made Rothbury more accessible to people, particularly those who live within three hours of the site, who were not able to attend all four days.
The bar was also raised on Rothbury's environmental and charitable efforts. Preliminary numbers indicate that recyling efforts at the festival site and in the campgrounds were both up significantly, while a food drive had netted 13,000 pounds in donations as of Saturday evening.
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