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    May 7, 2011

    The day begins with a hummingbird’s song in the air, then a long morning walk, part of the annual Human Race in San Rafael, to help raise awareness and support for local non-profits, education, caregivers and groups that provide community services and help for people with developmental disabilities. Our walk (or run or roll) is around the Civic Center lagoon and the Marin Center fairgrounds and there are musical groups singing in the open air, and volunteer cheerleaders along the way to encourage those not used to this early morning walk, and we circle the Marin center where Bob Weir is playing with the Symphony tonight, a unique experiment called “First Fusion”. I was apprehensive about going because of a stigma about symphony orchestras. When I was a kid, my dad would make me watch TV whenever a concert symphony or opera was on so I could “get culture”. I never did care for Lawrence Welk or a Leonard Bernstein composition and I generally avoid symphonies for this reason. Bob Weir changed my mindset about what to listen for in music. This was called longhair music before the Beatles and is enjoyed mainly by squares. My kids were raised without television and followed their own musical instincts, and danced ballets, Michael Jackson or with a skateboard. This night would be a night of redemption and healing for me.

    This is the same stage, I’ve seen many times “The Nutcracker” was performed on, and recollect like yesterday Jerry Garcia’s Band playing and Robert Hunter nearby. Of course we’re all seated for the performance, as are the musicians, except for the conductor and Bob Weir. Tonight there is a jury of singers, two rows of six vocalists dressed in black and white and it’s a swingin’ singin’ symphony, better than a Walt Disney silly one, and stirs up rich moments remembering Kubrick’s musical journey through 2001: A Space Odyssey. The theme of this first set, like a concertino, with many supportive instruments, violins, strong bass and keys building towards the concerto, as we listen to the melody with great harmony, and unity, as the tones set the color and the musical texture. Bobby gets the rhythm in motion and we listen to the combined effect, the inextricable web of timbre sound as it’s deeply rooted. “A perfect Cassidy/Bird Song sandwich!” someone says at break. The highlight of the first set for me is “Row Jimmy”. This song was built for this bigger band and it’s about square dancing the dopaso. The orchestra gives this song color and texture while the Grateful Dead version is more of an outline. When the music hits the air magic happens. This opening segment is called “Raising the Dead” and it opens a flood of memories, of seeing Jerry Garcia for the first time at a play called “Tarot” in New York City, written by early Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten, and Jerry appears in this musical play as a guest guitarist.
    I was a student teacher and attended the show with a half dozen other student teachers who shared a house in the Bronx. The play was a dramatic composition of musical vignettes, a terrapin, lovers walking in a magical forest, maidens waltzing, the birthing scene, the mystic carpenter and the space voyage, and then climax came when a trap door opens for the raising of the dead with orchestral sounds, horns and flutes, and amazing light show. The group of us returned home that night totally inspired to do a similar thing. Interesting conversation developed and I started writing down the dialogue around the table and assigning characters to describe each person’s part and the result a few months later was our own successful off-Broadway play, “Search Of The Candlemaker”. That night after seeing Garcia I started listening to “Workingman’s Dead”, then over and over and then “American Beauty”, an endless inspiration during that season.

    The sounds here are big and Robert Hunter supplies us with the poetry for the evening. He is the musical poet laureate behind Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and these songs translate and transform, change and heal.
    The second set brings in the full symphony orchestra, more than fifty musicians, and the Quartet San Francisco, with composer-arranger, Dr. Giancarlo Aquilanti conducting, and their fun begins with Playin’ in the Band > Uncle John’s Band > Dark Star (verse 1) > Jack Straw. It’s a perfect progression and the harmony between the two characters in Jack Straw, sung by Bobby and Jeff Chimenti, complement the sound with transposition, and then pause, for the gem “Days Between”. Members from the rock band Ratdog are playing with the symphony tonight. “Dark Star” starts up again (verse 2) > Uncle John’s Band (reprise) > Playin’ In The Band (reprise). One by one the orchestra members get up and leave. Bob walks off, and the Midnight Band vocalists present him with a beautiful bouquet of flowers.

    One by one some of the orchestra returns and then the encore! Only Bob Weir could take a rock ‘n roll song like “One More Saturday Night” and sing it with a symphony orchestra with new vibration and velocity that takes the conductor to new heights. It only makes sense the Grateful Dead would be interested in this kind of arrangement, to do a benefit for the Marin Symphony, and education, and draw from their roots and background and friends, and “Ripple” fits here perfectly. The closing song “Attics of My Life”, a capella, brings the very best moment of the night. Members of tonight’s group stand together in a beehive circle while Bob walks to the piano and hits a note several times, then slowly walks in front to the center of the group, and waits for silence in the audience to begin to sing. It is a moment to savor of ultimate absolute peace, peace of mind, silence without sound, peace of heart, unity in spirit, perfect harmony among the singers of the song, vocal chords as a coalition of instruments, planting poetry in the heart, peace in sound, humming along, a song, with voices in the air, with love and care, for all listeners with an ear to hear. This first fusion brought us to this oneness and opens the realm of musical possibilities.