For over 30 years, The Grateful Dead criss-crossed the country, the house band at party after party in countless cities for a roaming community best known as "Deadheads;" their common bond, to gather and celebrate. Skeptics often write off The Grateful Dead, dissing their fans, attacking the band's now mythical drug habits and citing their poor output of studio recordings, without ever really taking the time to consider the massive body of work they left behind. In this writer's opinion it can be argued that when Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the world lost one of its most important musicians ever. It is a bold claim. But listen, go back and check out some of those nights in '69, in '77, in '82; the man was electrified, ripping through notes, shaking people to their core, and backed all the while by a band that roared along with him around every corner. Without even beginning to discuss how they wove together the entire American music experience, from bluegrass to jazz, it's safe to say that The Grateful Dead accomplished more than any other band in the 20th century (whether you like their fans or not).
In the summer of '98, three years after Garcia's passing, former Grateful Dead member's Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bruce Hornsby reunited under the moniker The Other Ones for a national tour. They recruited drummer John Molo, from Hornsby's current band, saxophonist Dave Ellis, whose most recent solo album was produced by legendary jazz producer Orin Keepnews and guitarists Steve Kimock, a longtime staple from the San Francisco music scene and Mark Karan, formerly of The Rembrandts (yeah, you remember the theme to your favorite television show Friends). The quality and standard of music from that summer tour, documented on the recently released "live" 2-CD set The Strange Remain , is proof positive that the improvisational musical voyage into the great unknown is not some fancy description for half-baked musicians to hang their hat on. It is the muse for a collective of uniquely individual and extremely talented musicians to create timeless, pure, inspired music. And yes, there is a good dose of revisiting the past and counting on the old standbys, but for "Deadheads" it taps directly into a world of memories and emotions, and isn't that what good music should do?
The disc's first notes send forth "St. Stephen"/"The Eleven," an anthem of sorts that was rarely performed during The Dead's last 20 years. It's immediately apparent that the chemistry is still there as the rhythm section locks in tight, pushing and pulling the new frontline, who respond by seemingly doubling the energy and sending it back around. Grateful Dead classics such as "Jack Straw" and "Sugaree" are given new life. Hornsby's vocal take on the latter is stellar, finding hope and humor in the lyrics where Garcia once found sorrow. A supercharged version of "Corrina" follows with a funk bounce that was never fully realized in latter day Grateful Dead performances. Ellis and Hornsby's interplay here is nothing short of outstanding. Ellis' sax weaves effortlessly through the piano stomp, eventually giving way to the nimble fingered Kimock, his guitar popping and twisting around the melody. Ellis takes the lead back and sends the sucker home in rousing fashion. Disc one closes with the reggae-tinged Bob Weir tune "Estimated Prophet." With two guitar players and a horn player replacing Garcia in the new line-up, the band is able to flesh out this arrangement in ways that were previously not possible. Weir, Kimock and Karan's guitar parts build one on top of the other in an ongoing dialogue. There's also some very fun Bobby-patented falsetto shouts that whip the crowd into a frenzy. Pure ear candy. The liner notes to The Strange Remain begin: "The music, as the late, great John Burks 'Dizzy' Gillespie liked to remind us, is all already out there, waiting, like some intelligence transmitted from another galaxy by a higher life form, to be received, deciphered, and retransmitted for the benefit of humankind. All any of us can hope for, Diz said, is to grab ourselves some little piece of it." On disc two, The Other Ones set this statement in motion, simply becoming conduits for the music to flow through. "Playing In The Band" and "The Other One," come back to back, lyrically touting adventure and musically providing a full-blown ride into the stratosphere. Kimock and Karen wail, Weir splashes color randomly across the canvas, and as is the case throughout much of these two discs, Dave Ellis, Bruce Hornsby and Phil Lesh pull the wagon, push the envelope and steer the ship with grace, passion and sophistication. By the time, Weir returns to "The Other One" refrain: "Comin, Comin', Comin', Comin' around y'all," the words ring like prophecy - "the groupmind," has been achieved. The audience and musicians are existing together on that next plane.
Fittingly, the collection mellows a bit with two Garcia/Hunter classics "Friend of the Devil" and "Mountains Of The Moon." The first is a spirited, acoustic ramble. Weir takes a nice guitar lead, and the harmonies ring clear and tight. It's proceeded by Phil Lesh's touching and atmospheric take on the seldom performed "Mountains Of The Moon." With the bassist currently recovering from a liver transplant, the inclusion of the song seems to take on added meaning. Lesh's voice is deep and confident, falling slightly out of key from time to time, which adds a profound element of depth, sadness and psychedelia to the performance.
The Other Ones convincingly prove that they are more than a nostalgia trip. This isn't about collecting a paycheck like so many reunited bands in the '90s. They did it full-tilt and without a net. Though most people would call this rock music, it comes closer to the original spirit and intentions of what jazz was about in its heyday. If only a quarter of the cats on the scene today were willing to take this many chances, and bring this much inspiration and feeling to their music, we wouldn't all be sitting around scratching our heads and waiting for the next Columbia/Legacy reissue. God bless The Other Ones.