Cosmic throws a Birthday Party for Jerry Garcia

Just as music fans the world over are clamoring to get their fix, so, too, are musicians longing to get out in front of actual crowds and ply their trade. No live stream can replicate the energy of a live concert, where musical notes serve as a conduit facilitating an infinite loop of energy travelling between the band and the audience. Live music requires presence —  you have to be there, to be sure — though not just in body, but in mind and spirit, too. Within that presence, as one finds alignment with the head, the heart, and the feet, is where the magic lives. As it has been said, “Seek and ye shall find.” 

Bridging that thought, it’s been especially hard to find live music these days (no explanation necessary), especially that of the safe and socially distant variety with crowds respectful of both coronavirus and others’ personal space. Creativity has become the order of the day in terms of booking, and I’ve now been lucky enough to catch a few live shows in locales previously unthinkable: a field behind Woodbridge HS, the Asbury Park Elks Lodge, even a few backyards, not least of all my own.

Some days live music seems more poignant than others; Jerry Garcia’s birthday has always been one of those days. I’ll never forget seeing Jerry on his birthday at The Palace at Auburn Hills, August 1, 1994, one of just three performances by the Grateful Dead on this date. Well, in the summer of 2020, any live show is special, and just as I was one of the lucky ones to see Jerry’s birthday show in ‘94, so, too, was I lucky enough to see Cosmic open the Days Between (marked by the days between Jerry’s birth and death, 8/9/95) on August 1, 2020.

After having spent the day on the beach in Asbury Park with my wife, we parted ways {one of the beautiful things about our marriage is that even though we have divergent interests, she unilaterally supports my passions} and I grabbed some primo socially distant real estate at the Asbury Elks Lodge, right up front near the band and in front of the PA. I’ve spoken of silver linings in other recent musings, but my favorite one bears repeating: encroaching on someone else’s personal space has become societally uncool, and that bodes really well for an abundance of dancing space. Punctuality has also become the order of the day and, since timeliness is next to godliness, mine was rewarded not just with the best 10×10 foot square in the house but also with soundcheck, a tasty version of “Beat It On Down the Line,” even if the band ultimately decided not to play a “seventy-eight beat intro for Jerry’s birthday” after briefly parrying the idea back and forth. 

Just fifteen short minutes after the announced start time of 4:00, everybody was dancing in a ring around the sun as Cosmic took to the stage and opened this gorgeous afternoon with the Grateful Dead’s anthemic summer song, “The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion.” This song has a short history with the Grateful Dead  and wasn’t to be played live at any time after 1967, wayyyy before my time, heck, even before the actual summer of love later that same year, but to me it’s always been a party tune and set a fiery tone for the day as the band implored, “Hey hey, hey, come right away. Come and join the party every day.” An impressive and energetic “Viola Lee Blues” followed (is there any other kind???), before the band played “Set Me Free”, the first of seven original tunes they would play on this sunny August afternoon. 

Shirtless guys and sun-kissed girls in long flowing dresses, spinning and twirling in a scene reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate park, the crowd was beauty personified. On this day, as we celebrated what would have been Jerome John Garcia’s 78th trip around the sun, none of us were thinking about the problems of the world, at least no more so than pertained to social distance and wearing masks. We were celebrating the life and music of Jerry Garcia, the outward expression of whose passion in turn shaped most of our lives. From the youngest among us who, forget about having seen Garcia live, probably shouldn’t have been drinking legally, to those with stories from the Avalon Ballroom and the last time they saw “Golden Road” live, our collective spirit embodied the principle of community. 

Yet, in a whole world full of petty wars, “Throwing Stones” unfortunately seems to grow more relevant with each passing day. Political bullshit aside, it’s a fun song that set up one of the day’s highlights, “Cream Puff War”, driven by the insane timekeeping of drummer Dan Donovan, who would also provide an interesting bit of trivia during set break, “I wanted to make sure we worked this one into the setlist today since it’s the only tune (whose lyrics) were written by Garcia.” A short but combustible tune that the Grateful Dead only played in 1966 and 1967, Cosmic did it great justice on this most special day for Deadheads. That, I think, is the beauty of the Grateful Dead and the symbiosis they inspire between the musicians occupying their space and the deadheads taking it all in. Regardless of who’s holding the guitar, we’re all just fans (maybe fanatics would be more appropriate but let’s not parse words). 

Another glorious original rocker followed, “Make Me Feel High,” as Wanda, Exalted Ruler of the Fraternal Order of Asbury Elks (I can’t shake the image of Fred Flinstone as Grand Poobah of the Royal Order of Water Buffaloes) made her way to the stage, seemingly intent on having a discussion with each band member during the middle of the song. Fully expecting a buzzkill announcement like “turn it down” or some shit like that, Wanda surprised me at the end of the song by taking the mic and welcoming us all while imploring us to “enjoy the music and the hospitality.” Poor timing aside, it was a nice message.

Taking the break as a chance to confess their hunger and ask for provisions, a familiar drumbeat signalled the start of “Samson & Delilah,” with bassist John “Jelly Roll” Nemeth taking lead vocals. John was a noticeable force on the bass all afternoon and I’m sure glad I had a hand in getting his mix turned up during soundcheck. “Wine Women Rock”, another original, this one with keyboardist Billy Siegel on lead vocals, was so good that one fan felt inspired to drop a tip in the bucket on stage left in the middle of the song.

Even when he’s not singing Dead tunes, Billy still has the Brent Mydland thing going on and I just love his vocals, this last being my favorite of the “Billy” tunes. Lead singer and guitarist Michael Jaskewicz went off script with the next one, a lovely version of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” before an explosive “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” that closed the set 75 minutes and almost 10,000 steps later. 

I love that this band, with a local and loyal following behind them, has the balls to play their own songs in key spots of the set. Opening the second set with “This Fire”, they continue to make the statement that they are so much more than a Dead cover band. I haven’t asked but I suppose that’s why they dropped “Jerry Band” from their moniker, as they seek to grow and develop their own material. I’ve now heard eleven original songs over two shows these past couple of weeks, and here’s to hoping there’s an album release on the horizon. 

“Foolish Heart” is always a treat and Jaskewicz characteristically dazzled with both his guitar and his voice. “The Wheel” gave way to “Crooked Tree”, another rockabilly original that really slams as Siegel pounded the black and whites. Some fine setlist wizardry gave an emphatic Siegel the chance to continue stealing this segment of the show with the joyous “Hey Pocky Way” that followed. There would be no MVP, however, on this sun-soaked afternoon, as it was a total team effort. “Run For the Roses” was the first turn through the Jerry Garcia catalog before “We Are Divine,” an original dripping with proggy funk that was one of the best songs of the night, GD or otherwise.

During “Terrapin Station,” I closed my eyes and transported to another time and place, enjoying the simultaneous delicacy and raw power of a song that, from the first time I heard it, literally shaped the rest of my life. The Rolling Stone’s “Loving Cup,” even if it felt more like Phish’s version, rocked like the set closer that it could have been (my notes here simply read, “Sweet Jesus!”), even though there was still a “Loose Lucy” and a “Might As Well” on tap. Singing thank you, for a real good time!

I’d have gone home happy right then and there, fully spent having shared all of my love and energy with the band and the folks around me, but if the band was going to treat us to one (or three) more, I’d dig deep and continue to give all of myself right back. One more original was followed by a pair of JGB tunes, the powerful “Mission In the Rain” and the prayerful “Sisters and Brothers”. “Mission” has long been a personal favorite, a song by Robert Hunter that really paints a picture of the human condition.

Of this song, Garcia, in an interview, once said “Mission in the Rain” was “… a song that might be about me. It’s my life; it’s like a little piece of my life. Hunter writes me once in a while.” I felt every bit of that with Nemeth’s foreboding bass notes and Jaskewicz’ stirring vocals. As for “Sisters and Brothers”, what better way to close the day than with the hopeful gospel of Charles Johnson song popularized by the Jerry Garcia Band, “My Sisters and Brothers.” I’ll leave you with the power of its words …

I wanna say to my sisters and my brothers
Keep the faithWhen the storm flies and the wind blows
Go on at a steady pace
When the battle is fought, and the victory’s won
We can all shout together, we have overcome
We’ll talk to the Father and the Son
When we make it to the promised land
If we walk together, little children
We don’t ever have to worry
Through this world of trouble
We gotta love one another
Let us take our fellow man by the hand
Try to help him to understand
We can all be together, forever and ever
When we make it to the promised land

18,651 steps on the lawn of the Asbury Elks. Who’d have thunk it???

Setlist

Soundcheck: Beat It On Down the Line

Set One: The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion) > Viola Lee Blues, Set Me Free*, Throwing Stones > Cream Puff War > Make Me Feel High*, Samson & Delilah, Wine Women Rock*, When I Paint My Masterpiece, China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider

Set Two: This Fire*, Foolish Heart, The Wheel, Crooked Tree*, Hey Pocky Way, Run For the Roses, We Are Divine*, Terrapin Station, Loving Cup, Loose Lucy, Might As Well

Encore: unknown original, Mission in the Rain, My Sisters & Brothers 

asbury parkcosmicJERRY GARCIA