Bill Kruetzmann's days are usually filled with tending sheep at his Hawaiian estate but his past as the Grateful Dead's drummer is always with him. He just celebrated his 75th birthday with the Grateful Mahalo event that featured three sets of Dead tunes with special guests Billy Strings, Santana and more. This was a live stream event but as Covid restrictions loosened in the US, Kruetzmann decided to have the Grateful Mahalo reprise at Red Rocks in July 2021.
Kreutzmann stressed that the group wouldn't play a tour but had to add a second night because the first show sold out in 13 seconds. To say that the Grateful Dead's popularity is still thriving would be an understatement especially considering we are entering the sixth generation of Deadheads and young people are still flocking to these shows. Kreutzmann's Billy and the Kids is one of many bands currently touring that were started by Grateful Dead members. They include Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros, Dead & Company, and Phil Lesh & Friends. Each of these bands sell out arenas and are showing a new generation what it means to be Dead.
These days, when a Dead band sells out a Monday show at Red Rocks with teenagers, babies, and a swarm of deadheads in the audience, images of torch passing seem to arise. The notion that these tunes, this selection of songs may live forever stands poignantly in your mind as parents teach their children what a reprise is when the melody of Bird Song returns after a roaring rendition of The Other One. This notion is strengthened by the presence of the new kid on the block, Billy Strings.
Billy Strings gracefully entered the Dead Universe as he won a Grammy for best Bluegrass album last year, hosted a 6-night run at Capitol Theatre in honor of the Dead, and most strikingly received the go-ahead from Kreutzmann to rewrite a song that Robert Hunter penned for him. Robert Hunter was the Grateful Dead's key wordsmith that created lyrics for mind-bending songs like Dark Star, Touch of Grey, Friend of the Devil and more. Deadheads know that Billy Strings singing Hunter's lyrics is a big deal because it implies a generational shift, a passing of the torch.
The new song, which hasn't been officially recorded, is known as Thunder and was only played for the second time at the first night of the Red Rocks run. Aside from all these accolades, Billy Strings can shred and he proved this with his Grateful Mahalo performances along with his two nights at Dead on the Rocks.
The set list on that first night seemed to be a lesson in the Grateful Dead that explored all the realms the Dead touched with their music. it also seemed to be a lesson about Jerry Garcia.
The set began with a delightful China Cat Sunflower that merged into Billy String's second-ever live performance of Thunder. The band that consisted of Kreutzmann on drums, Billy Strings & Tom Hamilton Jr. tag teaming rhythm and lead guitar, Aaron Magner (Disco Biscuits) on keys, Reed Mathis on bass, and James Casey on saxophone followed up with a beautiful Brown-Eyed Women. At this point they began to explore the material of the Jerry Garcia Band, which was Garcia's longest running side project that played a lot of Rhythm & Blues covers.
They followed up Brown Eyed Women with a tune penned by Norton Buffalo called Ain't no Bread in the Breadbox that was often played by JGB. Everyone in the crowd couldn't help but notice how much energy Kreutzmann had as he led each song with a driving beat that begged for dancing. Ain't no Bread in the Breadbox was followed by a cover of a Phish song called Back on the Train. You may be wondering why they played a song by a band that was clearly inspired by the Grateful Dead and I think it was to show how much the genre of jam bands have grown over the years. At first misunderstood, this music scene has exploded into the mainstream and you can't help but thank the Grateful Dead and Jerry.
They ended their first set with amazing performances of Deal, Positively 4th Street (A Bob Dylan tune often played by JGB), and a Feel Like a Stranger that was filled with synthesizer melodies from Magner.
As night fell over Red Rocks, the music from Billy & the Kids was paired with liquid acid projections onto the rocks and the psychonauts were ever so grateful. They began their second set with an uplifting Scarlet Begonias that drifted into the heart-string pulling take on Sitting Here in Limbo, another JGB tune. The way that Dead music can take you to the highest highs to swirly depths in the matter of a couple of songs is incredible. The lyrics of each song seem to jump right at you and give you a kernel of wisdom. The next song they played was Eyes of the World, a philosophical classic by the Grateful Dead, which led into the BIrd Song > Other One > Bird Song Reprise.
The next tune was the most impactful of the night, a tear dropping rendition of So Many Roads. The lyrics of this song alone can take you to the outer realms but Billy Strings vocals took it to another place and the fact that it was one of the last songs played by Garcia at the final Grateful Dead show is even more emphatic. A woman next to me who saw the Grateful Dead many times in the 80s said he was channeling Jerry as she wiped a wayward tear. I wanted to say the same thing but a sixth generation Deadhead can only understand the music to a certain extent, without Jerry it's different. But the fact remains that these songs are still filling the air and inspiring people to follow their bliss all the way home. If this band ever plays again, do not miss it.