How Sweet It Is: Melvin Seals at The Westcott Theater

On Wednesday, March 8, Syracuse celebrated the spirit of Jerry Garcia in spectacular fashion with help from Melvin Seals & JGB.  The intimate evening began with the Upstate NY native band, Los New Yorkers.  The four-piece consisted of three middle aged men and one woman that hopped from one instrument to the next.  The feel-good and upbeat originals reminded me of something that might get chosen as the theme song for a 90’s sitcom on TGIF.  Members not only switched back and forth from guitars, washboard, drums, keys and bass but each member also brought their own original song to the table.  While most lyrics consisted of life-changing events, their love for New York State and generic happy moments, Los New Yorkers did not ignite that Jerry spark that many Deadheads in the crowd were seeking.  If I ever hear this band again, it will probably be while I am buying cotton candy at the New York State Fair because that is exactly how it made me feel.

Word has spread up and down I-81 about a Scranton-based bluegrass group known as The Dishonest Fiddlers, and the quartet did not disappoint.  This collection of traveling ramblers were chosen by Dave Brown, founder of the band, who swaps artists for every show, making the “About Page” on their Facebook profile dishonest.  The unique idea of taking musicians from different parts of the country allows Brown the freedom to mix it up at the drop of the hat and the pluck of a string. One downfall of never having the same band twice is that practice time is limited, therefore they are often forced to fight for space backstage.

At The Westcott Theater, the foursome found themselves practicing in front of the men’s bathroom line, which welcomed them with clinched legs and open arms.  The first song of their actual set was dedicated to the “new friends in the bathroom line” as they channeled the folkie side of Garcia with a beautiful, “Rosa Lee McFall.”  The remainder of the seven-song set consisted of all originals and the crowd seem to genuinely enjoy every minute of it.  As the room began to fill up for Seals and JGB, Brown was hoping to elicit some crowd participation during “There Ain’t Enough Water in the Water” which was minimally responded to, at best!  As couples locked arms and rowdily stomped their feet, The Dishonest Fiddlers’ time was up and Brown thanked the Central NY crowd for their support during the band’s first ever visit to Syracuse.  For the sake of bluegrass music, I hope they return to the Empire State very soon.

Now past 11:00pm, fans were finally ready to embrace Melvin Seals & JGB and it was well worth the wait!  Aware of the time, the crowd let it all hang out as the group opened with a funky jam sequence leading into “After Midnight.”  While the famous Eric Clapton version of the classic fast-paced hit clocks in under three minutes, Seals kept this monster jamming for over 15 minutes!  While on the topic of iconic rock-n-roll, The Beatles were gently sandwiched in the middle of the Jerry-influenced “Midnight” jam as “Eleanor Rigby” made its appearance as it regularly did in the late-70’s and early-80’s.  The “Fab Four” from England were also covered during the next song of the evening, “I Want to Tell You,” which once again featured Zach Nugent filling in for Jerry on vocals.

After the smoking hot start to the show, “When I Paint My Masterpeice” peacefully calmed the audience down and was highlighted by Nugent paying tribute to Garcia with his delicate and passionate playing.  “Neighbor, Neighbor” featured strong backing vocals from Cheryl Rucker and Shirley Starks, and on the night of International Woman’s Day 2017, the crowd was thoroughly glad to have these lovely ladies in their lives.  In the heart of the set list, the Garcia/ Hunter gem, “Mission In The Rain,” somberly described a lost soul searching for redemption and where Nugent’s vocal abilities fell below Garcia standards, his guitar solo was sorrowful and spot on.  The playful and gospel-influenced “Evangeline” lifted everyone’s spirits after the emotional “Mission” before the bluesy “Think” featured yet another powerful vocal collaboration.

Bassist, John-Paul McLean, exchanged smiles and notes with Seals during the classic R&B cover of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and to the delight of Deadheads in the room, Starks and Rucker pointed to the audience while they sang the chorus.  Love had captivated the audience throughout the entire show, but especially at the end of the evening when they transitioned from “Somebody to Love” to “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.”  Seals introduced the band and gave one more stellar B-3 organ solo during the extra sweet version.  Although the show ended past 1:00AM on Thursday morning, the band was not ready to say goodbye to their loyal fan base as Seals & JGB hung out by the merchandise table to chit chat with ticket holders.

Seals has spent over 30 years in the spotlight mesmerizing audiences with his swirling keyboard-synth magic, but he is still the humble, welcoming, and sincere man he was when he first met Garcia.  As a child of the 90’s I have never gotten to see Garcia play live. Although I have listened to thousands of hours of recorded material, read numerous books and stared at videos on Youtube until my eyes were blood shot, I never had the opportunity to be a part of the touring community that was cherished by millions.  Thanks to bands like Melvin Seals and JGB, fans like myself and long-time fans alike can come together and share love, smiles and gratitude with their sisters and their brothers.

The Dishonest Fiddlers Setlist: Rosa Lee McFall, My Brand New Jalopy, There Ain’t Enough Water in the Water, Steve, Sam’s Cigar, The TV Store, Steamtown Blues

Melvin Seals and JGB Setlist: Jam, After Midnight*, I Want to Tell You, When I Paint My Masterpiece, Neighbor, Neighbor, Mission In the Rain, Evangeline, Think, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You

*w/ Eleanor Rigby jam

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