Forget Independence Day. Saturday was the day of The Dead at the Rothbury Festival, which came as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the plethora of Grateful Dead-related attire worn around the Double JJ ranch site or to the many Dead flags that popped up at virtually every other festival performance.
And The Dead -- one of the clear models of Rothbury's musical aesthetic -- delivered with a three-hour and 45-minute concert, bisected by a nearly hour-long intermission, that marked the surviving Grateful Dead members' only summer appearance and quite probably brought the curtain down on their 2009 reunion. If that's the case it ended on a prodigious note, with a combination of well-known favorites ("Sugar Magnolia," "Friend of the Devil," "Franklin's Tower," "I Know You Rider," "Throwing Stones"), deeper catalog gems ("Loose Lucy," "Unbroken Chain," "Viola Lee Blues," "Morning Dew," "Sunshine Daydream"), a choice rendition of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" sung by guitarist Warren Haynes and appropriate selections such as "One More Saturday Night" and "U.S. Blues," the latter accompanied by an overhead fireworks display.
Earlier in the show, guitarist Bob Weir sounded a patriotic note, asking the crowd for "a big round of applause for the guys who thought this country up and did something about it."
The Dead finished its marathon with Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," something the 30,000-plus tye-died fans in front of the Odeum stage Saturday certainly hope won't happen to the group's renewed association. Bassist Phil Lesh previously told Billboard.com that he has no plans to tour again this year with any of his groups, while drummer Bill Kreutzmann said Friday that the four principal members hadn't spoken about future plans yet. But as Lesh brought the band back for its encore on Saturday (technically early Sunday morning), he offered some hope by telling the crowd "We hope you're having as much fun as we are...We hope to come back again."
Lesh also gave fans a bit of bonus Dead on Saturday, joining Jackie Greene, a member of his Phil & Friends collective, for renditions of the Dead's "New Minglewood Blues" and Greene's own "Ball and Chain."
Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, meanwhile, sported a Grateful Dead patch on the left knee of his jeans during his band's 115-minute set preceding the Dead. The group played with a harder edge but still curried the favor of early arriving Deadheads -- particularly with an electrifying instrumental transition from "Downtown Money Waster" into "Thorn In My Pride." "I Ain't Hiding," the thumping, disarmingly danceable lead track from the Crowes' forthcoming album "Before the Frost..." (due Sept. 1), had the crowd grooving as much as it did to more familiar songs such as "Wiser Time," "Jealous Again" and "Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution."
With overlapping time slots, Son Volt and Hill Country Revue clearly cannibalized each other's audience -- and the former had to deal with a brief cloudburst that sent fans scurrying from the Ranch Arena stage. Still, Jay Farrar and company made a case for Son Volt's new album, "American Central Dust," on the opening date of their summer tour and just three days before its release, while Hill Country Revue lit up Sherwood Court with its particular brand of Southern Rock, breaking into Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" during the song "Hill Country Revue."
And while most of the day's acts were of the loud and plugged-in variety, bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys, which includes his son Ralph Stanley II, had no trouble charming early risers at the Odeum stage -- though they did have to compete with some sound bleed coming from Underground Orchestra's set on the nearby Sherwood Court. But Stanley was stately and undaunted, whether he was singing an a capella "O Death," offering up the gospel tune "Rank Stranger" or plucking on a banjo during "Candy Darlin' " or tapping into fans of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with "Man of Constant Sorrow."
Rothbury producer Jeremy Stein of Madison House Presents said Saturday he was pleased that this year's festival "raised the bar" but would not commit to a third year in 2010 -- partly owning to this week's sale of the Double JJ to the consortium Progressive Resorts. Stein did say Madison House does "have our eyes on" a third year and estimated that this year's festival will draw somewhere in the mid-30,000's, partly thanks to one- and two-day ticket packages that he said made Rothbury more accessible to people, particularly those who live within three hours of the site, who were not able to attend all four days.
The bar was also raised on Rothbury's environmental and charitable efforts. Preliminary numbers indicate that recyling efforts at the festival site and in the campgrounds were both up significantly, while a food drive had netted 13,000 pounds in donations as of Saturday evening.