Photo: Francesco Marano
Lyricist Robert Hunter, formerly the silent member of the Grateful Dead, performed some of the Dead's iconic songs on July 23rd at City Winery. (There's one more show coming up, on August 2nd.) More than a wordsmith, Hunter was integral to the band, particularly in their mind-bending, culture-changing early years. After facing some serious health problems a few years back, Hunter has hit the road, guitar in hand. He looks great, a lithe and youthful 73.
The concert had a definite arc: It started shakily and ended strongly. First number was "Box of Rain," and it was largely unrecognizable. Hunter was off-pitch, out-of-tune, and rhythmically uncertain. (Singing was never the Dead's strong suit, although Jerry Garcia's thin voice and limited range somehow suited the songs.) After a few minutes of agony, Hunter stopped, announced that he was in the wrong key, and started again. ("I'm playing with limited ability anyway, and I had to buy my own songbook to remember the lyrics.") It was a pretty frayed "Box of Rain."
Hunter got progressively more confident through the first half of the concert. The only other major Dead classic was "Attics of My Life," which was he did just fine, without precisely nailing it.
Hunter was a whole new man in the second half. (What potions might there have been in the green room?) He began with a dynamite, full-throated version of "Touch of Grey," the only Dead song that ever broke the Top 40. "I bought a house and a swimming pool from this song. It came in like a greased weasel and things were never the same again." "Promontory Rider" was powerful ("Had to warm up for three days for this one.") "Sugaree" was terrific. "I first wanted to call it Staggeree. It's a song about a prostitute talking to her pimp, or maybe the pimp talking. I don't know. Whatever you want. The writer is not in charge of the meaning of the songs."
An unexpected cover of the beginning of "Born to Run" segued into a new song "Heck," movingly about aging, mortality, and death. The set ended strongly with Dead classic "New Speedway Boogie."
The encore was the ineffably lovely and poetic "Ripple," sung beautifully and movingly. For those in the audience who were around in those far-off days, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. "Boys in the Barroom," a capella with the guitar slung at Hunter's side, ended the concert to a prolonged standing ovation.
Tickets and info for Hunter's other upcoming shows on the City Winery website.