Who Holds the Key?

David Nelson Band

Joe's - Chicago

May 21, 1998

First Appeared in The Music Box, July 1998, Volume 5, #7

Written by John Metzger


On May 21, the David Nelson Band finally returned to Chicago for a performance at Joe's on the first night of a very short, four-show tour. From the opening notes of Freight Train Boogie, the group quickly found itself wielding a powerful brand of music that can instantly soothe one's soul. Its songs are deeply rooted in and borrow heavily from traditional American music, and its style blends elements of country, rock, bluegrass, and psychedelic mayhem not unlike its close cousin The Grateful Dead. It's impossible not to make these comparisons, considering that the group's namesake David Nelson played with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter in a bluegrass band called The Wildwood Boys long before the Grateful Dead even existed. His association with Garcia continued over the years through side-projects, such as New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band. Nelson also appears on the classic Grateful Dead recordings American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. The remaining members of the ensemble bassist Bill Laymon, keyboardist Mookie Siegel, guitar genius Barry Sless, and drummer Arthur Steinhorn (absent on this tour due to the birth of his child) have all crossed paths with each other and with members of the Grateful Dead through side projects like New Riders of Purple Sage and Bob Weir's Kingfish. It's no wonder then that the David Nelson Band executes its songs with a sound that more often than not is eerily reminiscent of the classic performances of the Grateful Dead. The collective not only comes from a similar and overlapping background, but it also truly understands the soul of the Grateful Dead's music.

As if that isn't enough upon which comparisons can be drawn, the David Nelson Band tends to masterfully pull a few Grateful Dead songs into its performances. On this particular evening, the group fit Cumberland Blues, Ripple, The Wheel, and the traditional Dark Hollow into the set. Both Cumberland Blues and Dark Hollow were tackled with fluid ease, as the band pounded country-rhythms into raging psychedelic rivers. Sless tore through a series of pedal-steel guitar solos that danced around the gifted acoustic picking of Nelson. Ripple was particularly brilliant as Laymon passionately tackled the vocals while providing a solid bass line to underscore the song.

As good as it was to hear these classics performed with a musical brilliance that pays tribute to the spirit and essence of the Grateful Dead, it was the David Nelson Band's own songs that were the strongest of the evening. Naturally, each of these tunes continued to recapture and reformulate the Grateful Dead's spirit and essence, but they did much more than that. The group infused the material with the individual performers' collective styles, and transmuted it into a passionate and colorful universe brimming with organic, life-affirming rhythms. Wizard's Son took off like a shot as both Nelson and Sless took turns adding searing guitar licks to herd the song into a single-minded being. Siegel soared through both piano and organ solos as the song ebbed and flowed, bubbling vibrantly before bursting its boundaries and entering the timeless void of deep space. Gradually the band regrouped as the song began to mutate, reforming and finding new life in a glorious jam. This also began to morph into a winding, mellow groove, that seemed to hang suspended between songs and sounding very much like the familiar segue from the Grateful Dead's Scarlet Begonias into Fire on the Mountain. Gradually, this dissipated back into the void of space, before Nelson led the band into Impressionist Two-Step, which he sang with the perfect country-drawl.

The infectious Born Sidestepper continued the momentum as did the Laymon-sung ode to the Beat Generation Kerouac. Edge of the Wire was beautifully done as Siegel added a majestic, flowing electric piano solo that lifted the song up towards the heavens. The set concluded with a stunning Kick in the Head, an upbeat country-rock song with the feel of a Dire Straits tune. Sless grabbed the reigns with a Garcia-like set-closing solo that danced in circles around the melody. The band spun the song out of its musical frame, and gracefully guided it into a mellow jam. Laymon made a circular motion to indicate the next song, and Sless moved over to pedal steel as the band pulled off a magical entrance into The Wheel. Gradually, it mutated the tune back into Kick in the Head, which melted into a beautiful, mellow piano segue and once again reformed into a final blow-out of Kick in the Head. Siegel playfully overlaid a series of piano solos that fell somewhere between Brent Mydland and Professor Longhair as the band drew the evening to a conclusion. Returning for a solid run-through of Box of Rain, the collective pulled out a perfect ending with a fitting tribute to the Grateful Dead. After all, this was the final song the Dead had performed on the final night of its final tour, which ended here in Chicago.

Since the passing of Jerry Garcia, it's been a long and difficult search for a truly mind-bending, transportational, life-affirming, and spiritual concert experience. A few shows, such as JGB's show at the House of Blues on May 15, have come very close, but only a few have regularly achieved what the Grateful Dead could so easily do even on their worst nights. In fact, there are only three groups that have consistently performed at this stellar level the Allman Brothers Band, Ratdog, and the David Nelson Band. It's not that every performance from these groups is perfect, but what they do they do well. They truly understand the awesome power of music, and they know how to use it to reach deep into people's souls and move them emotionally and spiritually. It is these bands that truly are the keepers of the key.

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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright 1998 The Music Box