Originally conceived in 2008 as a somewhat informal‚ rotating roster of Queen City musicians collaborating in homage to the Grateful Dead‚ the Dead Sessions have turned into a regular if infrequent staple of Burlington Vermont nightlife over the last few months. The group's first appearance at Higher Ground suggested why they draw and deserve the packed house they commanded in the Showcase Lounge.
Rather than play it safe and all too carefully‚ this septet exhibited real courage in its two lengthy sets. The group crashed their way through "Dark Star" and displayed admirable discipline steering their way through "Terrapin Station." While the first set found The Sessioneers moving perhaps a little too fast for their own good‚ most noticeably on "Help on the Way" and "Franklin's Tower" (were they intentionally paying tribute to the amped-up pace of the Dead on their first studio album?)‚ it was nonetheless otherwise well-paced‚ including‚ but not limited to‚ an economical run of "Drums and Space."
"Bertha" is as ideal a kickoff for a show for this group as the band who wrote and first performed it. "High Time" was accurately positioned to slow the pace in correct proportion to the ripsnorting blues of "New New Minglewood Blues‚" each tune allowing its lead vocalist to demonstrate their distinct styles: Benny Yurco exhibits the vulnerability of Jerry Garcia when he sings‚ while Seth Yacovone belts it out in an abandoned fashion Pigpen would relish.
Both complement with their guitars as well‚ alternating fluid economy with harsher ambience. Yurco and Yacovone clearly enjoy the interplay that manifested itself so naturally throughout the evening‚ so with two drummers in tow (Kevin Shapiro and Greg Stukey) plus the aggressive approach of a fearless bassist (John Rogone‚ formerly of Rubblebucket)‚ it's left to Yurco's former comrade in Turkey Bouillon Mafia‚ Adam King‚ to find his own level via the keyboards.
Which he did‚ and niftily too‚ besides singing with an understatement particularly effective on the ebullient rendition of "Sugar Magnolia." Whether leading or harmonizing with the crystal clear tones of her voice‚ Vermont native Christina Durfee was the surest singer on stage‚ making this Dead Sessions lineup perhaps the best they've ever boasted.
Little wonder the capacity crowd enjoyed themselves so boisterously: their rowdy reaction was a direct reflection of the attitude of the group. These seven clearly love the music and understand it thoroughly but refuse to become so reverent of it that they can't inject their own personality. At least this night‚ The Dead Sessions didn't sound like the work of a cover band but rather an exceptional musical unit drawing from an extremely deep well of distinctive material.
Through the frenetic take on "The Other One" and "St. Stephen" through an encore of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue‚" The Dead Sessions beg another listen as well as the question of whether the assembly of The Dead themselves due to hit the road this spring will fare so stylishly.
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