Lincoln Center, New York City 1/16/09

Published: January 18, 2009


A lingering acid flashback of kaleidoscope days: a benign sense of déjà vu might describe the state of mind intermittently conjured by the songs of the Grateful Dead as performed by the American Beauty Project, a loosely affiliated ensemble of nine musicians, at the Allen Room on Friday evening.

For the cheerfully scruffy middle-aged audience that attended the 90-minute concert, part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, collective joy welled up like spring water when the Australian singer-songwriter Fiona McBain sang “Ripple.” In this bluegrass-flavored ballad from the Dead’s 1970 album, “American Beauty,” Robert Hunter’s mystical lyrics, attached to Jerry Garcia’s gently welcoming tune, evoke the stillness of ecstatic cosmic attunement on a magical afternoon: “Ripple in still water/When there is no pebble tossed/Nor wind to blow.”

The concert focused on “American Beauty,” but dipped into its immediate forerunner, “Workingman’s Dead,” and went on other sidetracks. One goal was to focus on the band’s songwriting without trying to recreate “the Grateful Dead experience,” the guitarist and singer Larry Campbell explained at the beginning of the evening.

In “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead,” the band forsook freer-form jamming to affirm its folk and bluegrass roots in songs as evocative of rural Americana as those of the group’s more self-consciously stately East Coast counterpart, the Band. But until Ms. McBain sang “Ripple” on Friday, acoustical imbalances rendered most of Mr. Hunter’s lyrics for Dead classics like “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia” and “Candy Man” barely intelligible.

In most cases the new arrangements were more thickly textured and the energy more streamlined than on the original albums, where the music ambles along, shuffling and skidding in no particular hurry, leaving plenty of space for the sun to peek through the trees.

As the musicians took turns singing, broke up into smaller units, then regrouped, the project reflected the Dead’s casual communitarian ethos, but without a Garcia-like guiding patriarch. The singer and guitarist Jim Lauderdale appeared to be the co-leader along with Mr. Campbell, its electric lead guitarist, and women dominated the vocals.

The mandolinist Catherine Russell, who sang a tough, soulful “Box of Rain,” was the closest thing to a lead vocalist, followed in importance by Ms. McBain, Teresa Williams and Amy Helm (daughter of Levon). Ms. McBain and Ms. Helm belong to the folk-gospel quintet Ollabelle, which made up the nucleus of the group. Other members included Byron Isaacs on bass, Tony Leone on drums and Glenn Patscha on keyboards; everyone contributed vocals.

The set’s rock-inflected bluegrass numbers and harder blues shuffles were interwoven with aromatic folk songs like an exquisitely harmonized “Attics of My Life,” whose sweetly homespun music harked back to Stephen Foster while Mr. Hunter’s poetry of spiritual yearning transported the song to a headier realm.

After the show ended, I heard some grumbling about the absence of “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones.” But for most of the audience, the chugging folk-rock anthem “Truckin’ ” brought the concert to a satisfying peak. Long ago the signature phrase from “Truckin,’ ” one of the rock era’s most beloved road songs, took on the ring of hippie scripture in seven words that sum up the continuing life journey of the peace-and-love generation: ”What a long strange trip it’s been.”

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