Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

Joe Gallant's Blues for Allah

by Richard Gehr
Village Voice
15 January 1996
Joe Gallant's Blues for Allah

Call my neck of the woods Disjunction Junction. For example: While not exactly a believer, I still hanker for a Casio Prayer Compass (800-357-2160), programmed to point the digital faithful toward mecca at the appropriate times of day. It just seems right somehow.

Similarly, their own peculiar psychedelic mystery religion didn't prevent the late Grateful Dead from recording Blues for Allah in 1975. Chiseled from jams in Bob Weir's home studio during the band's single year off the road, Allah sparkles with contradictions and anomalies. Although the album remains a showcase for the group's long-sought technical chops, only one of Allah's several instrumentals found its way back into the group's live repertoire. The album still sounds warm, however, even intimate -- there's a homespun hippie intelligence that was often lost amid the sacral circuses Dead shows epitomized. Allah also condenses the often amusing fissure between my outside-music pals and the jam-band aficionados I've chummed with online for the past few years.

Blues for Allah turns out to be an excellent choice for the first attempt to mount a Grateful Dead repertory event beyond the hackey sackful of cover bands that fill the Tuesday-night Wetlands slot. Conceived by Bay Area bassist Gary Lambert, the Blues for Allah project was first executed last year in San Francisco with members of Peter Apfelbaum's Hieroglyphic Ensemble as "Paradise Waits." Bassist/bandleader Joe Gallant brought Blues for Allah to the Knitting Factory -- bastion of the downtown sound -- January 12 to 14, with intrepid new arrangements for some two dozen musicians. More sophisticated and ambitious than Gil Evans's Hendrix revamps, Gallant's take on Garcia and company embodied a sympathetic fan's notes. The big band and guests made the music rumble and sweat, shimmer and expand into nearly double its 45 CD minutes.

Particularly rich shows -- Jerry shows -- often began with "Help > Slip > Franklin" (taper shorthand for "Help on the Way," "Slipknot!," and "Franklin's Tower"), the segued trio that opens Blues for Allah . "Paradise waits," go Robert Hunter's aphoristic lyrics, "On the crest of a wave / Her angels in flames." All Hunter's words now bear extra baggage, so it was so refreshing to hear Gallant and Illuminati nudge Allah 's triad into a raucously swinging half-hour New Orleans jazz funeral, with thrilling trombone (Steve Swell) and violin (Todd Reynolds) solos. Gallant (who also plays in Rashied Ali's Coltrane rep unit, Prima Materia) was a lyrical linchpin on six-stringed electric contrabass.

Allah brims with domestic and imported stylistic gestures, which Gallant exploits fully -- from the Latin rhythms of "King Solomon's Marbles" (with Ellen Christi engaging in some Leon Thomas-like space scat) to the gospel brouhaha of "The Music Never Stopped" (belted Wayne Newton stylee by Vegas vocalist Tony Memmina), the spider web reggae of "Crazy Fingers," and Bob Weir's Bach-ish "Sage & Spirit" (arranged for string trio). Compared to Gallant's adventurous arrangements elsewhere, the faux-Eastern cascades and free-form improvs of the titular suite sounded downright earthy.

Which should come as no surprise to the fortunate few who've heard Gallant's remarkable 1994 album, Code of the West . One of the highlights of that densely layered Cornell box of musical delights is Gallant's psychedelic-jazz encrypting of Dead bassist Phil Lesh's "Unbroken Chain." This, and Memmina's liturgical reading of "The Days Between," were the highlights of a freewheeling second set that veered from awful Grateful Dead karaoke to knowing rock/roll bliss (especially guest guitarist David Gans's "Fire on the Mountain"). This set's steamy family reunion delighted an audience consisting of the usual assortment of dank hippie trolls, cranky tapers, drunken louts, itchy-sweater brats, sinuous diviners, and head-bobbing potheads of all stripe.

Gallant and Illuminati's celebratory exploration of the Dead's jazz and worldly diversity suggested just one way their music might continue to thrive (I'd like to hear him take on Terrapin Station next); the reportedly freer San Francisco show suggests another. But the Dead's sound has always been a litmus test for reinterpreters, as show openers Dose Hermanos proved. With their twinkling, punning helix lines and sheets of candy-colored calliope and harpsichord samples, early Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten and latter-day GD sound engineer Bob Bralove (the guy responsible for the Dead's most outside project, Infrared Roses) were by turns eloquent, tongue-tied, and portentous -- just like da boyz themselves. Uh, were.