The Capitol Theatre brought some of the best of bluegrass into Port Chester, New York on Thursday night, as Keller Williams fronted his very special Grateful Grass project for what was a truly terrific performance. Featuring the Infamous Stringdusters’ Jeremy Garrett on fiddle and Andy Hall on dobro, as well as frequent Keller collaborators Jeff Austin on mandolin and Danton Boller on bass, their masterful throwdown of Dead tunes will be remembered by many as one of the most fun shows at the Cap this Spring.
Love Canon, the day’s premier bluegrass tribute to the 80s, came out for an opening set and did a great job of racking up the level of fun right away. The crowd filled in across the Cap floor quickly, and they started moving and vibing and didn’t stop until the house lights came on hours later. While an 80s bluegrass cover band could sound like an eye-roller to some, the first-rate picking of the members of this band makes their shows first and foremost stellar bluegrass sets. They started off on a couple of staples and favorites, first with “Sledgehammer” and then “Centerfold,” which was received as a nice nod to recently passed away J. Geils.
“Money for Nothing” and “Legs” saw some especially great playing all around, and the Dire Straits number hit a cool spot in having its last few measures done in a slow swing. Their set ended on a crowd-cherished “Kiss,” a perfect high-energy dancer to set the tone just before Grateful Grass’ magnificent set.
Keller and his musical guests for the evening started out solid with “Shakedown Street.” After the first couple of choruses, Keller looked around at his bandmates and said, “Let’s hang out here for a bit.” And that was the gate opening, really, for a set chocked full of fantastic picking, deep exploration and fun surprises. The tune ended with the whole band vocal riffing on the last chorus, a comically deep bellow. “Feel Like A Stranger,” next, really started to bring the goods right away, seeing Garrett lead the band to a nice peak with some great soloing on fiddle.
With “Bertha,” it was time to fly, in the way the Capitol knew this ad-hoc quintet could. The tune ripped out of the gate for some searing hot breakdown playing, and rounds of multiple stellar solos. The straight bluegrass smoke that started up on “Bertha” came again on tunes like the hard-hitting “Samson and Delilah.” Garrett and his bandmate Hall especially bookended this facet throughout the entirety of the show, with big and bold, dynamite playing all night long. Right there with them time and again, by the second half of the set especially, was Jeff Austin, who always rocks crowds with his bombastic style of picking.
The other was colorfully explorative playing, where Keller’s melodic solos shined the most, and that also really flourished on the following pairing, “King Solomon’s Marbles,” and its seamless morph into “Eyes of the World.” On this one and the couple after, bassist Danton Boller also started amplifying his amazing musical skills within the mix. Hall took up the light on “Eyes” with some great soloing, but underneath him Boller was puppeteering the groove with some incredibly jazzy playing. This point of the set fleshed out and upward for a nice, stringy serving of a feel good jam.
“Friend of the Devil” itself saw the best of both worlds, and was essentially a two-for-one special. Halfway through the tune, the band eased the brakes on some very solid bluegrass picking to repeat the last couple of verses in a pretty and delicately handled folky style.
From here things only got cooler. They hit a couple of staple Dead covers for Keller, in any of his many musical projects. The first, “St. Stephen,” played to a straight Keller, chop-style rhythm that would make it sound just like one of his own tunes. Then, Keller’s personal Dead forte cover, “Birdsong,” traveled out far for a long, great jam, in which all five players were improvising at their own style and leisure. On “Cold Rain and Snow,” the crowd joined Keller in humming Jerry’s classic guitar riff on the song for one of the stand out moments of the night.
But the best moment undoubtedly came next, in which Keller led his band to start out on “They Love Each Other,” and while maintaining that melody, proceeded to play “Cumberland Blues,” for a bold, but well executed move. It was a stellar surprise that wowed the Capitol as much as it made them dance even harder, with its nice extended groove to end the set. The band came back out to encore with a much appreciated “Mr. Charlie.”