Hungry for a road adventure, I split New York and headed west with my accountant; our destination: A Bear’s Picnic in Laurelton, Pennsylvania. On the morning of Saturday. August 18, 2012, we roared down 80 West with live Dead cranking. Flashbacks of past journeys danced in my mind. This was the endless highway that had guided us to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin. Oh, those wondrous days when we used to consult road maps and ask people for directions. On this four-hour trip, we stopped only to restock the beer cooler and toss around some pigskin. My accountant and I arrived at The Picnic around noon.
The bands of Grateful Dead drummers, Mickey Hart and Billy Kreutzman. were headlining the festivities. With the addition of The New Riders of Purple Sage and JGB Band on the bill, a massive musical feast awaited us.
David Gans was the first performer I saw. Hula-hoop girls pranced around the front of the stage as unfettered sunshine kissed central Pennsylvania. Lazy, puffy clouds watched the proceedings from a distance. Gans entertained us with sublime renditions of “Terrapin Station” and “Attics of my Life,” and he shared a song that he co-wrote via email with Robert Hunter. Mc Mule, the finest bluegrass band in the land, followed Gans and whipped through a set that spanned two centuries of American roots music. On “Russian Lullaby,” Joanne Lediger’s angelic voice filled the countryside as Perry Paletta and John Anderson traded torrid acoustic leads.
I retreated to the parking lot to relax in the shade and mingle with locals. The scene was idyllic: everybody was happy and relaxed–no lines, no overcrowding. I saw Melvin Seals walk past his tour bus. It was 5 PM, and it was time to rock. Bear’s Picnic continued to bake as JGB Band cooked in the style of ’90s JGB. “Don’t Let Go” was the standout performance of the solid, soulful set. The New Riders of Purple Sage followed by doing their thing for two hours. Suddenly, it was chilly as a thousand cats under the stars anticipated the arrival of Mickey Hart’s Band.
This was my first time seeing Hart’s Band, and during the course of the 152 Grateful Dead concerts I’d seen, I’d never been this close to Mickey, ten feet away. You could be chilling in the Bear’s Picnic lot, and then sixty seconds later you could be in the front row. If you’ve never been to Bear’s Picnic, you need to make the pilgrimage.
I expected good things from Mickey, but his performance exceeded everybody’s expectations. His music was way out there, yet he steered the show seamlessly into beloved classics like Friend of the Devil. Trippy, powerful, and unpredictable, the music reminded me of Zappa, Pink Floyd, Miles (fusion), and Phish; yet it was distinctively Mickey. Sometimes the repetition of “Franklin’s Tower” bores me, but this band made it come alive. After Franklin’s, Mickey informed us that he was taking a break. Yes! We were in the thick of a long crazy night.
Mickey inserted gripping originals between “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain.” Hart pounded percussion and created sequences of mind-boggling sounds from his command center. The communication between the musicians was unbelievable and the guitarists smoked. One minute I’m in an African Rainforest and then Mickey blasts us to Pluto via “The Other One.” This was the embodiment of everything I love in live music.
Going Down the Road > We Bid you Goodnight closed the second set. For the encore, Hart’s band thundered Cream’s “White Room.” There was no rest for the ecstatically weary. We shuffled over to the pavilion behind the main stage to see Billy K’s band, Seven Walkers.
The electrified room was reeling and rocking with dancing hippies of all ages. Enormous tie-dye banners covered the walls. Billy and his band hammered the blues with a funky New Orleans groove–Avalon Ballroom meets Tipitina’s. Mickey joined the band for a song and then Seven Walkers played “He’s Gone.” Hmmm. Images of Jerry Garcia were shown on the projection screen. Somewhere Jerry was smiling down on this scene. Billy’s drumming was stunning, he just might be the best drummer on the planet. The crowd adored “Birdsong,” which sounded like a 1972 version with a funky Seven Walkers twist. “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” featured a trombone solo that was pure Bourbon Street.
After a marathon day of spiritual rejuvenation, I went to my accountant’s car, grabbed a blanket and drifted off to sleep in the front seat . It was 3AM and the Seven Walkers were still pitching a wang dang doodle in the tiny pavilion behind me.