When the Grateful Dead performed their five fiftieth anniversary “Fare Thee Well” concerts in 2015, the hype machine went into overdrive celebrating the legendary band’s history. Most mainstream media outlets treated “Fare Thee Well” as a one-time mega-event, roundly ignoring that the surviving members of the reuniting band had spent the twenty years following Jerry Garcia’s passing and the Grateful Dead’s demise performing together in some form or another more or less continuously in a number of guises and permutations. As recently as 2009, the four longest-tenured members of the historic psychedelic/Americana act (guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) had all toured together as the Dead, followed by Weir and Lesh combining forces in the group Furthur. Following the culmination of the historic “Fare Thee Well” shows, Lesh returned to fronting his long-running, rotating Phil & Friends combo in a reduced touring mode, but Weir, Kreutzmann, and Hart wasted little time in regenerating the long-running musical conversation that is the Grateful Dead’s legacy and raison d’etre.
Forming yet another new continuation of the theme — Dead & Company, which comes to the Garden on November 12 and 14 — the three took to the road in fall of 2015 with the somewhat initially curious choice of John Mayer in the lead guitarist role — a chair that has been ably filled in previous mix-and-match combinations by capable pros including Steve Kimock, Mark Karan, Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, John Kadlecik, and Trey Anastasio . . . though always with some controversy and always with the ubiquitous and attendant moaning or applauding of various segments of the vocal Deadhead fan base. Mayer may have seemed a peculiar choice initially, his ability as a stellar blues-influenced guitarist being somewhat overshadowed by his celebrity reputation and pop-influenced solo musical output. He had developed an interest in the Grateful Dead’s music only in recent years, but after playing with Weir on a couple of occasions, Mayer threw himself into studying the group’s material as well as its ethos. Though debate continued to rage among Deadheads over the choice, each successive tour undertaken by the nascent Dead & Co. enterprise (from 2015 to the present) has seen Mayer acclimating more and more and gradually crafting his own unique spin on the band’s repertoire — a technique sounding individualistic but still reverent to both the memory of his beatified progenitor, Garcia, and to the overall gestalt of a group that has now been creating music for more than half a century.
With a celebrated multipart documentary (Long Strange Trip) appearing on Amazon in 2017, the Grateful Dead is nothing short of an American phenomenon in the minds of casual music fans and dedicated heads alike. The Dead & Company aggregation has taken to the road again this fall to continue exploring the band’s music, pushing sonic boundaries (including the improvisational Drums-and-Space segments that were a staple of GD shows), and as always performing a completely different setlist at every unique performance. The group’s summer tour proved highly lucrative, with the shows well attended and parking lots approximating the nostalgic circus atmosphere of the Dead’s heyday. And in keeping with tradition, the repertoire over this jaunt was indeed varied, with more than one hundred different songs being played over twenty shows. Even this, though, raised some murmuring among the devoted fan base, who noted the band’s current incarnation sticking to a less-catholic assortment of material, eschewing post-Garcia compositions written by the later iterations of the band and its members. Missing in action, for instance, were any of Weir’s latter-day songs with RatDog, music explored and developed by post-Jerry outfits the Other Ones and Furthur, or material off Weir’s lauded 2016 Blue Mountain album.
Beside long-standing historical figures Weir, Kreutzmann, and Hart and alongside now-devoted disciple Mayer, the Dead & Company lineup also includes the talented keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, a veteran of all the post-Garcia lineups, and Oteil Burbridge, longtime bassist for the Allman Brothers, who has become a crowd favorite with both his dextrous playing and emerging vocal responsibilities. On the most recent tour, Burbridge began lending his vox to the mix more prominently, spelling Weir and Mayer with the occasional heartfelt lead on such songs as “Stella Blue” and “Comes a Time.” Chimenti also sings but thus far has been relegated to harmony and ensemble duties. As with Mayer via Garcia, Burbridge does not try to approximate the exact style of his long-term predecessor, Lesh, but is able to mesh his substantial talents with the music being created onstage to a degree that the group’s distinctive overall vibe is present, even as it continues to develop in new directions.
Indeed, part of what keeps the old warhorse chugging along is the sense, from night to night, that the band could do anything, that surprises could always lay in store. A new arrangement for a classic such as “Jack Straw,” a long-neglected Dylan cover pulled out of mothballs, such chestnuts as “High Time” or “Viola Lee Blues” broken out or returned to the song rotation? And all along, the debate continues to rage among concertgoers: Is Dead & Company a Dead cover band? Or are they something familiar, yet new? Is a musical conversation that began before much of the audience was even born continuing in unexpected and interesting ways? Are Dead & Company little more than a cynical cash grab? Or are they a way of keeping classic Grateful Dead material circulating, treasured songs still being performed in a way both reverential yet fresh, to the delight of thousands of fans who love both the music and the concert experience? Are the performances dynamic and ever evolving? Do they evoke nostalgia while still being vital?
The discourse shall persist. ’Twas ever thus, actually, when it comes to the music, as well as the legacy of a band that was once described as being both sociologically and sonically similar to the old parable about four blind men encountering an elephant. The long, strange trip continues apace in its latest transformative mutation, and perhaps the only way to arrive at an opinion might be to clear the mind, open one’s ears, and decide for oneself at the Garden. Or, to take a page from the Dead’s own well-trodden lyrical playbook (courtesy of Robert Hunter): “If you get confused, listen to the music play.” What you hear may surprise you.
(Guest post by Pete Millerman)
SKY AND GROUND (Talya Tibbon & Joshua Bennett, 2017)
Sunday, November 12, SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves., $19, 6:45
Thursday, November 16, IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St., $12, 10:15 am
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
The DOC NYC festival, consisting of more than 150 nonfiction feature films and shorts, has room for stories small and large, allowing viewers to understand the world from the macro to the micro; Talya Tibbon and Joshua Bennett’s Sky and Ground, having its world premiere November 12 and 16, zeroes in on the micro. In his sweeping new documentary, Human Flow, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and his crew went to twenty-three countries and dozens of refugee camps to personalize the growing international migrant crisis. Among the places he visited was the Idomeni tent city in Greece at the now-closed Macedonian border. The makeshift camp is the starting point for Tibbon and Bennett’s startling and intimate Sky and Ground. Tibbon embeds herself with the Nabi clan, led by Abdullah Sheik Nabi, known as Guevara for his childhood admiration for Argentine rebel Che Guevara. Guevara and his family have escaped the dangerous situation in Aleppo, Syria, and are trying to get to Berlin, where Guevara’s brother, Abdo, lives. But getting there is a harrowing journey, fraught with police and military, rewards for citizens who turn them in, cheating smugglers, and more impediments to their attempts to find a new home. “If we stay here in this misery, my family will go crazy,” Guevara says of the camp, and they are soon back on the road, not knowing what fate awaits them. Using the GPS on his cell phone and staying in touch with Abdo, Guevara has taken charge because no one else could, accepting responsibility for his mother, Jalila; his sister, Shireen, and her husband, Souleiman; and his nieces and nephews. The film plays out like a gripping thriller as the family sneaks through vast landscapes, wooded areas, isolated camps, and train stations, knowing they could get caught and sent back to war-torn Syria at any moment. “Everywhere I go, I lose my home,” Shireen says, while Jalila adds, “I am very, very regretful. I’d rather have bombs dropping every day than go through this torment.” But Guevara never gives up, no matter how treacherous things become. “After trying to get in touch with ten smugglers, all of them proved to be liars and frauds,” he explains. “We have no choice but to attempt to smuggle ourselves again.”
The arresting film is beautifully photographed by Emmy winner Axel Baumann, the lush vistas and sunsets in stark contrast to the Nabis’ heart-wrenching dilemma. In addition, Guevara documents everything he can using his cell phone and a handheld camera given to him by the crew. Tibbon and Bennett, who are also two of the producers — Guevara is credited as one of the coproducers — puts the viewer right in the midst of the action, helping us understand the Nabis’ strife and fear. They could be a middle-class family from anywhere; they are not poor and uneducated but an intelligent and clever group with money and connections and yet still are thwarted at nearly every turn, though they manage to maintain their faith and even their sense of humor throughout. There is a fascinating, unspoken aspect to Sky and Ground that went on behind the scenes; the filmmakers might have embedded themselves with the Nabis, but they had access to a car and slept in hotels as they followed the family across several countries. “As a filmmaker, ‘embedding’ with your subjects poses moral and editorial dilemmas on a daily basis,” Tibbon notes in her director’s statement. “When Jalila, the family matriarch, wondered why we couldn’t get them a car (or put them in ours), or when the kids asked why do I get to go back to a hotel at the end of the evening and they don’t, I didn’t have good enough answers. They weren’t criminals and I wasn’t better than them. . . . But from the outset we knew we couldn’t do anything illegal (like sneaking through borders) and we also knew that we didn’t want to do anything that would potentially put the family at risk or alter their journey.” Sky and Ground is a terrifying film to watch not only because it is hard to know what we as free individuals can do about the crisis but also because in today’s situation across the globe, it makes you realize that this could happen to just about anyone. Part of the Humanity on the Move trilogy from Show of Force, Sky and Ground is screening on November 12 at 6:45 at the SVA Theatre and November 16 at 10:15 am at IFC Center, followed by Q&As with Tibbon, Bennett, and producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre.
Gibney Dance Performing Arts Center, Studio H
280 Broadway between Chambers & Reade Sts.
November 16-18, $20-$25, 8:00
California-based AXIS Dance Company is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with its debut New York City season, November 16-18 at Gibney Dance. The company, founded in 1987 by Thais Mazur, brings together performers with and without physical disabilities through artistry, engagement, and advocacy. Under new artistic director Marc Brew, AXIS will present three works in Gibney’s Studio H, featuring company dancers James Bowen, Lani Dickinson, Scotty Hardwig, Carina Ho, Dwayne Schuneman, and Yuko Monden. Brew’s Radical Impact, a collaboration with composer and pianist JooWan Kim of Ensemble Mik Nawooj, explores identity politics and what it means to be human. Amy Seiwert is reworking her 2013 piece, The Reflective Surface, with an original score by Darren Johnston, seeking to surprise the audience and challenge its expectations. The evening will also include an excerpt from 2015’s In Defense of Regret, an examination of interior landscapes choreographed by Maurya Kerr, Alex Ketley, and Bobbi Jene Smith, with music by Emily Adams and Matan Dasaki. In addition, AXIS will be curating a series of integrated technique classes November 14-17 ($20, 10:00 am) with Brew (11/14), Mark Travis-Rivera (11/15), Heidi Latsky (11/16), and Alice Sheppard (11/17).
For Performa 17, South African multidisciplinary artist Mohau Modisakeng has created ZION, a procession through Manhattan invoking his native country’s history of colonialism, apartheid, and violent displacement. Beginning at 11:00 on November 11, Modisakeng and twenty dancers, carrying personal possessions, will make their way from Mother Zion Church in Harlem, zigzagging down Malcolm X Blvd. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. and to Hotel Theresa. At 2:00 the march stops at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heads into Central Park, crossing the Great Lawn and Summit Rock. At 4:30, photographer, filmmaker, performance artist, and sculptor Modisakeng, whose previous work includes Passage, Metamorphosis, and Endabeni, will go from Anita’s Way public plaza to Times Square for a grand finale. The choreographed exodus equates what has happened in Cape Town’s District 6 and to Native Americans in Seneca Falls, New York, which was also the site of the first women’s rights convention, while also focusing on the current international refugee crisis.
MIRACLE ON 42ND STREET (Alice Elliott, 2017)
333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Saturday, November 11, $19, 1:30
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
If you’ve been watching The Deuce on HBO, you have a pretty good idea of what the Times Square area was like in the 1970s, a haven for drugs, prostitution, massage parlors, and pornography. A few blocks west was the dangerous area known as Hell’s Kitchen, which had a history of gang violence and other troubles. But in the mid-1970s, Richard Ravitch and HRH Construction began building Manhattan Plaza, two commercial skyscrapers, more than forty floors each, a project aiming to revitalize the neighborhood by bringing in upwardly mobile people. But the recession, urban blight, and the lack of interest in moving into the area stopped the building in its tracks until someone — it is still argued exactly who — came up with the idea to transform Manhattan Plaza into an arts community, offering low-income housing to qualified performers working in the Theater District, Times Square, and other parts of the city. Oscar-nominated producer, cowriter, and director Alice Elliott recounts the story of Manhattan Plaza in Miracle on 42nd Street, which is having its world premiere November 11 at the DOC NYC film festival. Situated between Forty-Second and Forty-Third Streets and Ninth and Tenth Avenues, Manhattan Plaza has been home to a vast array of artists, from Tennessee Williams and Dexter Gordon to James Earl Jones and Mickey Rourke; seventy percent of the rooms are allocated for artists on a limited income, with fifteen percent for the elderly and the disabled and fifteen percent for neighborhood residents. Elliott speaks with such actors, musicians, and comedians as Larry David, Alicia Keys, Giancarlo Esposito, Angela Lansbury, Donald Faison, Estelle Parsons, Terrence Howard, and Kenny Kramer, all of whom lived in Manhattan Plaza, as well as Samuel L. Jackson, who worked the night shift there as a security guard. (Two of the producers, Mary Jo Slater and Nancy McLeod Perkins, were also longtime Manhattan Plaza residents.)
They all speak fondly of the welcoming atmosphere that helped them hone their crafts. “For as much as I could have a sense of community, there was a sense of community at Manhattan Plaza,” notes David, who lived across the hall from Kramer; their relationship formed the basis for the Seinfeld characters George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld, and Cosmo Kramer. “That building raised me,” Faison says. Lansbury calls it a “wonderful sociological experiment.” And Howard adds, “That place nurtured my dreams.” Meanwhile, the behind-the scenes development of the project and history of the location are recalled in interviews with longtime director of operations Richard Hunnings, Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, former assistant NYPD chief Mickey Schwartz, operations director Rodney Kirk, former NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, 42nd St. Development Corp. founder Fred Papert, and builder Irving Fischer, who proudly says, “This wasn’t just a place to live; it was a community. . . . Manhattan Plaza revitalized the center of the city.” The interviews, some of which were conducted more than five years ago, are intercut with archival footage of New York City streets and Mayors John Lindsay and Abe Beame, along with clips from a 1978 Manhattan Plaza talent night in which David and Kramer both performed. Elliott (The Collector of Bedford Street. Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy) cowrote the film with Joal Ryan and Steve Ryfle; unfortunately, narrator Chazz Palminteri never finds the proper rhythm of the text, regularly emphasizing the wrong words. The sixty-eight-minute film also shows how the idea spread to other cities, where arts-based housing helped rebuild neighborhoods, but in today’s financial climate, it’s hard to imagine any more Manhattan Plaza–like projects popping up in the city. Miracle on 42nd Street is screening November 11 at 1:30 at the SVA Theatre and will be followed by a Q&A with Elliott, Parsons, Palminteri, and Kramer. In addition, the film will be preceded by Lucy Walker’s five-minute short, Oh, What a Beautiful Symphony (A City Symphony).
Multiple Barnes & Noble locations
Saturday, November 11, and Sunday, November 12, 12 noon, free
B&N is hosting its third annual all-ages Mini Maker Faire around the country on November 11 and 12, featuring inventors, innovators, 3D printers, hobbyists, hackers, robots, virtual reality, coding, and other cutting-edge technology and creators. On Saturday at 12:30 at the Eighty-Sixth St. store, Max Bogue will give a talk, “From Concept to a Million Pens Sold,” about the 3Doodler Pen, followed at 2:00 by Danny Sigler and Ruben Dax of ROLI discussing the Lightpad Block and the Seaboard Block and Frank Dautant showing off the Lomo’Instant Camera White. At 3:00, Samantha Razook Murphy of Curious Jane magazine will give a presentation. (Curious Jane will also be at the Park Slope B&N Saturday afternoon.) On Sunday at the Union Square B&N, Cyant CEO Barbara Hanna will discuss art and tech at 2:00, followed at 3:00 by multimedia sculptor Taezoo Park, who will talk about his very cool TV Being 009 project. And over at the Tribeca B&N, Pixel Academy will be on hand Saturday afternoon from 12 noon to 4:00, while Stuyvesant Pulse Robotics Team will give a battle-bots demonstration on Sunday at noon.
MOLE MAN (Guy Fiorita, 2017)
Friday, November 10, Cinépolis Chelsea, 260 West Twenty-Third St. at Eighth Ave., 212-691-5519, $19, 7:30
Monday, November 13, IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St., $12, 12:15
Festival runs November 9-16 (various passes $75-$750)
After appearing on a 2010 episode of the History Channel series American Pickers, Ron Heist gained cult status for the massive structure he had been building in his parents’ large backyard in Butler, Pennsylvania, since 1965. The director of that episode, Guy Fiorita, has now made the bittersweet documentary Mole Man, a fascinating look inside the life and times of a unique man. Born in 1950, Ron has been obsessed with building things since he was a child. Now sixty-seven, toothless, and usually wearing a dark hoodie, Ron has constructed twenty-five buildings and twenty-three cellars linked by narrow passageways on his family’s property. He built it all by hand and by himself, scavenging items from more than seven hundred abandoned homes and factories, many of which had been left vacant following the closing of the Pullman Standard railcar plant in 1982. He refuses to use nails or mortar or even a level, relying on his own feel and intuition. He gets on his motorcycle, puts on his helmet, and meanders through the woods until he finds these houses, then brings back wood, doors, window frames, cinder blocks, chests, and whatever else he can fit on the back of his bike, as well as balls, plungers, clocks, license plates, and other items he collects. “People shouldn’t be as wasteful,” he says while showing off some treasures he has just found. Ron was always different, and his father, Chuck, treated him special; but the film’s real subject is Ron’s prospects: following the recent death of his father, Ron is left with his ninety-year-old mother, Mary, and his future becomes doubtful. The family, including Ron’s brother, Tim, and sister, Christine, who love Ron dearly, think that their mother would be better off in a smaller home, and they don’t have enough money to maintain the house. Meanwhile, they finally get Ron tested by a therapist to confirm that he has autism — he was previously diagnosed as “mentally challenged,” as were many of a lost generation of undiagnosed adults with the condition — and might be eligible for certain health benefits, although they worry about what might happen to Ron if he has to live elsewhere. “His routine, his environment . . . that’s his safety zone,” Tim says. But when Ron tells three of his friends, Sean Burke, Mike, and his cousin-in-law, John Burkert, that he knows where the Piney Mansion is, they believe they might find more than enough valuable objects, particularly some old, classic cars, to keep Ron living at home, so off into the woods they go, on a rather difficult journey. “To see Ron pulled out of that place, I think, would kill him, plain and simple,” John explains. “I just don’t think he’d want to live anymore.”
Ron is an endearing, eminently likable character. He has a childlike enthusiasm and even somewhat resembles a taller version of the Mole Men from the 1951 Superman film, although that’s not where he got his nickname from. “He loves being the Mole Man,” Burkert says. Like many people with autism, he has trouble holding conversations unless it’s on a subject that interests him, like time, numbers, construction, and scavenging. People naturally are drawn to his love of life and his dedication to his ever-expanding living quarters, although safety issues are a growing concern. Fiorita never exploits Ron, instead celebrating his individuality while also recognizing that Ron’s immediate future is at risk. Mole Man is having its world premiere at DOC NYC on November 10 and 13, with Fiorita, producers Cassidy Hartmann and James DeJulio, and some of the film’s subjects participating in postscreening Q&As. DOC NYC runs November 9 to 16 at Cinepolis Chelsea, the SVA Theatre, and IFC Center, with more than 150 features and shorts, by such documentarians as Barbara Kopple, Errol Morris, Laura Poitras, and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady; the films highlight such diverse figures as Eric Clapton, Curtis Sliwa, Lorraine Hansberry, Sammy Davis Jr., and David Bowie in addition to exploring many contemporary sociocultural issues from around the world.