Unlimited Devotion is so much more than a Grateful Dead-based, two-day, eight-set all-star musical marathon fundraiser for the Rex Foundation and Wavy Gravy‘s Camp Winnarainbow at the Philadelphia area’s beloved Ardmore Music Hall. The true magic of the music the Dead made is in the freedom they granted themselves to improvise, the trust they placed in each other, and the mutual maverick spirit that sent them searching for their own path. Any celebration of their legacy is a celebration of freedom itself, and it couldn’t possibly have a better home than the city that is the literal “Cradle Of Liberty”.
It was also a labor of love for folks like Scott Shapiro, Matt Butler (Everyone Orchestra), Reed Mathis (Billy & The Kids, Tea Leaf Green, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey), and an army of folks behind the scenes who had a hand in making this expansive, provocative journey a reality. While the work of the two charities this event was created to help support is the most front-facing purpose, the myriad ways the positive impact of seeing that love and trust exemplified in the creation and evolution of the Dead’s catalog is immeasurable.
Thanks to the good folks at nugs.net, the entire 15-hour, two-day event was broadcast live and now exists digitally as a testament to the love born out of the actions of this one group. We’ll touch on some of the highlights from each set here, and for the full picture head over to nugs to purchase the full video-on-demand performance. With your purchase, you’ll help a worthy cause, and—best of all—you’ll get a new reason to smile, smile, smile.
Friday VIP – David Crosby Tribute
Each day kicked off with a special VIP set and Friday’s roster of musicians was made up of a collection of the incredible players on hand for the celebration. Featuring Jackie Greene (Black Crowes) on keys and piano, Steve Kimock on guitar, Reed Mathis on bass, Mikaela Davis on harp, Leslie Mendelson on guitar and vocals, Daniel Donato on guitar and vocals, and Matt Butler on drums, the theme was an exploration of David Crosby’s acclaimed 1971 solo debut If Only I Could Remember My Name.
Crosby’s classic disc was created under a dark cloud resulting from the sad death of his girlfriend Christine Hinton the previous year. Crosby had basically gone into seclusion at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco to record his own solo album, as the other members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young did after their chart-topping success the year before with Déjà Vu. Members of the Grateful Dead, including Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh, often visited to check in on their despondent friend, joining in on the recording process whenever possible.
Jackie Greene nailed Crosby’s vocal tone, Mendelson softened some of the harsher angles on some of the more emotional tunes, and Steve Kimock and Daniel Donato clearly delighted in creating beautiful, wide-open sonic landscapes together. Though the intended tribute to the album was well-intentioned, the three CSN&Y tunes, “Almost Cut My Hair’, “Long Time Gone” and set closer “Wooden Ships” clearly stole the show.
David Crosby Tribute – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 6/2/23 – Preview
The first day Wavy Gravy All-Stars set was a bit more Americana than any other over the two days. Bluegrass legend Peter Rowan (Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Old & In The Way, Free Mexican Air Force) was joined by John Kimock on drums, Mendelson on keys, and Green, Donato, and Mathis on guitars. Tagged in were Dezron Douglas (Trey Anastasio Band) on bass and Max Wareham picking on the banjo.
The set featured some truly lovely moments like Rowan opening it all up with “Midnight Moonlight” followed by “Sweet Melinda”. Mendelson’s emotional take on what is said to be one of Garcia’s last creations, “Lazy River Road”, got a rousing cheer from the deep-cut fans in the crowd. The whole set was a wonderful examination of the earthy, stripped-down appeal of the Americana that so informed Garcia and the Dead’s material.
Wavy All-Stars – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 6/2/23 – Full Video
[Video: SEPA LIVE]
Now that the creative juices were flowing it was time for some artistic license to be taken. Steve Kimock stretched his guitar sound to a more island-centric tone, joined on the six strings by the versatile Mathis. The Tiny Universe and Rolling Stones’ own Karl Denson hopped in on the sax and flute as Ray Paczkowski stepped in on keys alongside fellow Trey Anastasio Band alum Russ Lawton on drums and Dezron Douglas on bass.
Kanika Moore, vocalist for Doom Flamingo, joined Matt Butler, now on percussion, and Peter Rowan as he showcased some of his eclectic skills, yodeling atop his guitar work. The setlist touched on the reggae titans with JGB staples from the Jimmy Cliff catalog including “Sitting Here in Limbo”, “Stop That Train”, and “The Harder They Come” alongside Bob Marley‘s “Stir It Up”, and some Toots and the Maytals jams like an epic “Pressure Drop” for a delicious palette cleansing set.
Reggae Jerry – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 6/2/23 – Full Video
[Video: SEPA LIVE]
Splintered Sunlight & Friends
Philadelphia’s own premiere Dead cover band Splintered Sunlight featuring regulars Butchy Sochorow on lead guitar and vocals, Mike Kennedy on rhythm guitar/vocals, Stephen Spatz holding it down on bass and vocals, Mike Borowski on keys and vocals, Scott Toop and Jerry Horan on drums, and Rosalind Rose on vocals were joined for the entire show by Daniel Donato with a few special appearances by Karl Denson on sax and Kanika Moore on vocals. It was as straightforward a translation of the classic Grateful Dead catalog as was presented all weekend. Clearly, these hometown heroes knew what the crowd would love and gave it to them in heaping helpings ’til the venue itself hit the wall of a 2 a.m. curfew.
Splintered Sunlight & Friends – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 6/2/23 – Full Video
[Video: SEPA LIVE]
Saturday VIP – Spaga Plays Dead
Three-piece beast SPAGA revisited its awesome take on well-known and obscure Dead tunes first displayed during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival after the COVID pandemic put the debut on the shelf for three years. The “mostly acoustic” jazz trio consisting of the Disco Biscuits’ man on keys Aron Magner alongside bassist Jason Fraticelli and drummer Matt Scarano provided some jaw-dropping and mind-bending instrumental madness.
SPAGA Plays Dead – Ardmore Music Hall – Ardmore, PA – 6/3/23 – Preview
The second half of the two-day Wavy Gravy All-Stars featured returning guitarist Steve Kimock alongside Karl Denson’s horns and flute, Jackie Greene, now on guitar, The Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein, Kanika Moore returning to vocals alongside Leslie Mendelson on guitar, Russ Lawton back on drums, and Ray Paczkowski rocking the keys. Together, this fully loaded lineup had some powerful moments that only superjams like this can provide.
The duet between Jackie Greene and Leslie Medelson on Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” featured some unexpectedly exceptional harmonica work from Mendelson. Moore and Denson made for a sultry pair on a dark, smooth “Sugaree”. Denson’s bebop sax riffs on the set-closing “Shakedown Street” were some of the most fun had by player and fan alike over the course of the weekend and a perfect example of why the Dead’s catalog is sure to be relevant for decades to come.
Conductor Matt Butler prefaced his Everyone Orchestra set with a moving testimonial to Rex Foundation and its many good works since its early ’80s inception while laying bare his joy at working with them. With the emotional details handled, it was then time for the innovative musical collaborative effort of the Everyone Orchestra. Leading the way was Steve Kimock holding down the guitar, Karl Denson on sax and flute, Marc Brownstein getting funky on the four-string, Russ Lawton and John Kimock providing the backbeats, the first appearance of Snarky Puppy guitarist Mark Lettieri, and returning vocalist Kanika Moore.
Masterful moments such as a lovely, delicately evolving Denson flute riff being embraced by the other players one by one, fiery fretwork from Littieri, and the solid chops of the always reliable Steve Kimock made this an EO to remember. A loving tribute to Rex Jackson, roadie and eventual road manager for the Dead, and namesake/inspiration for the Rex Foundation itself closed out this inventive improvisational exercise which reflects the core Grateful Dead aesthetic perfectly.
Finally keyboardist Aron Magner, Karl Denson—back one last time on horns—Leslie Mendelson, Kanika Moore, Mark Leittieri, and John Scofield on the six strings alongside one of the weekend’s true warriors Reed Mathis captained the ship as part of the Twisted Dead grand finale. A thick opening slab of an impressively stellar, delightfully pulsating take on Martha and the Vandellas‘ classic “Dancing In The Streets” fused with Donna Summers‘ irresistible groove-laden “I Feel Love” before dissolving into probably the closest this weekend got to delivering any sort of “Drums” > “Space” nod.
This final set was easily the most explorative, with a far-ranging take on “Brown Eyed Women” that led to an existential breakdown during “Dark Star” that had listeners reeling. Luckily a comfortable landing for the set and the weekend was waiting in the form of the ironically always welcome “Bertha”. Reed Mathis, who had spent as much time and effort on stage as anyone, followed his “Bertha” vocal turn with the closing mic thank yous and kind words about the weekend to a noticeably exhausted audience.
Thanks to the owners of Ardmore Music Hall and the sponsors (Scott Shapiro, Richard Genter, Rob Rush, Risler Financial, West Boca Metals, and Orion Contractors) that gathered together for this massive two-day tribute/fundraiser for two very good causes. Thanks to ticket buyers and generous folks like them, Rex Foundation and Camp Winnarainbow will have the funds to continue to raise the quality of life for others. More than that, the music will play on, the world will be a slightly merrier place and the love will echo further on down the line.