MANHATTAN, NY—On “Ripple,” Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter sang, “Let there be songs to fill the air,” and so he did at the City Winery where he added a creaky, folksy edge to a catalogue of tunes that have stood the test of time and weathered through the ages like fine wine. On the road again for the first time in a decade per a recent interview to help pay for his medical bills, Hunter seemed happy to be up there telling the stories behind the songs for an unplugged performance straight out of a coffee house.
Whimsical one-liners to dodgy characters, wharf rats and that unbroken chain, Jerry Garcia turned Hunter’s words into musical nirvana back in the day. At City Winery, Hunter took on the tunes and added a take on the Grateful Dead’s legacy by playing the originals faithfully, yet with a twisted take on a vocal here, a guitar run there, that kept things interesting.
He stepped up to the plate and delivered in a style that was calm and coy, like Garcia’s but soaked in a whiskey-stained grovel that pushed and pulled at the hidden melodies. Hunter’s was minimalist, as was his guitar playing. His vocals shone throughout the whole evening as he navigated through the Grateful Dead cannon as well as other gems from his solo career.
Looking a bit nervous at first, dressed in jeans and t-shirt, he opened with “Box Of Rain” from American Beauty, and after a false start, caught the groove and took on the muse for a delightful two-set performance. By the time the next one, “Loser,” went down, Hunter was at ease and in command. On “Attics Of My Life,” he added a husky-voiced counter to the band’s original that was played a capella, adding afterwards that he had never performed it live before.
“Touch Of Grey” began the second set and had the crowd singing along on the chorus, “I will survive.” Hunter thanked the tune for the pool and new house he bought from its proceeds, then commented that the band was on the verge of breaking up at the time of its release and things were never the same again after it became a hit.
It took “a three-night stand get this song out,” he stated before “Tales Of The Great Rum Runners.” “Sugaree” had the crowd chiming in. Springsteen’s “Born To Run” was playfully cut short while the Dead’s “Stella Blue” was the night’s opus. On it, Hunter took on the Garcia version and made it his own. A song to the joys of music, a life on the road and Garcia on the line “a broken angel sings from a guitar,” he barrelhoused through the coda, “In the end there’s just a song, crying like the wind,” in homage to Jerry and anybody that ever watched the band live.
A rocked-out “New Speedway Boogie” ended the regular set. “Boys In The Barroom” ended the night like a seaside shanty sung at a smoky dive bar with Hunter bringing the words back to the bard. You could almost hear Garcia cackling in devilish glee in the background.