Sundown On The Forest

(This review originally appeared on the Classic Rock channel of, Spring 1999)

Ever since the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, a number of records featuring his trademark guitar stylings have emerged from the woodwork. Bruce Hornsby, David Grisman, Howard Wales and scores of other collaborators have all dug out something they did with the mighty Captain Trips. Matthew Kelly and Kingfish recently joined the fold, unearthing a nugget from 1973 called Ridin' High.

Of course, Kingfish has a long-standing association with the Dead. Kelly, an exceptional blues harpist, guitarist and songwriter, was, along with the Dead's Bob Weir, a founding member of Ratdog, a member of Bobby and The Midnites (another Weir project from the 70s/80s), and appeared and/or recorded with the Dead throughout their long and strange trip. Weir actually became a member of Kingfish during the Dead's mid-70s hiatus and stayed on for two years.

Over the years, Kelly has kept the Kingfish flame somewhat alive with various incarnations and special guests. Upon Garcia's departure to the great hereafter, Kelly was inspired to get the ball rolling once again. On the eve of Garcia's passing, Kelly wrote and performed a simple little ditty called Every Little Light which he dedicated to the late guitarist. Soon after, Kelly left Ratdog and started work on a project that would blossom into the first Kingfish studio album in over twenty years, Sundown On The Forest.

Sundown On The Forest is an all-star congregation awash in a mixture of blues, reggae, country, psychedelia and nostalgia. It is, for the most part, representative of the sounds that have been streaming out of the Bay Area since the Summer of Love. Along with Garcia and Weir, Kelly enlisted the aid of several singers, songwriters and musicians -- mostly members of the band at one time or another during its scattered existence.

The CD opens with Hurt Enough, a bouncy, reggae-flavored romp that features the lead vocals of Maria Muldaur's daughter, Jenni. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but the song is highlighted by some tasty exchanges, notably by guitarist Barry Sless.

The title track, this time with Danny Rio at the vocal helm, is a song dedicated to Julia Butterfly Hill, a woman who has been living in a Northern California tree for the past two years and refuses to climb down. The jazzy/Steely Dan guitar lines weave intricately within the song's environmentally- charged theme. It Don't Take Much and Burning In My Heart follow on a safe and modest course. The former features Kelly on the lead vocal while the latter (with Muldaur) spotlights original Kingfish guitarist, Robbie Hoddinott. For the uninitiated, these first four tracks are nothing to lose sleep over, but Kingfish fans will undoubtedly get their long-awaited fix.

The aforementioned Ridin' High is an interesting blend of old and new. Back in the early 70s, Bill Cutler (whose brother John engineered and co-produced some of the Dead's latter-day recordings) wrote and sang the song, and somehow managed to get some of San Francisco's hottest musicians to back him up. This included members of Kingfish as well as Jerry Garcia. For the new CD, Kelly restored the song, adding more guitar, keyboards and vocals in the process. Although the end result is one of the few non-Dead songs featuring both Garcia and Weir, it sounds more like something that would be floundering in contemporary country music circles.

The best of the lot has to be Paddie Cufflinks. A roving Dead-like number, this could very well be one of the finest tunes Weir has ever sang without the Dead. Percussionist James A. Nelson -- who co-wrote the song -- also gives the rhythm some extra sauce by tapping on an anvil. Good-bye, So Long is a throw-away that sort of rollicks through to nowhere while the version of Every Little Thing lacks the intimate warmth Kelly exhibited during his performances with Ratdog.

Eyes Of The Night is another Muldaur/reggae groove injected with a squirming lead by Hiddinott and backed by such Bay Area notables as the Zeros' Bobby Vega And Steve Kimock. Without taking anything away from Hiddinott, it's a shame that Kimock is delegated to rhythm guitar on this and two other tracks he appears on. His playing with the Other Ones in 1998, and more recently with Phil and Friends (or Phriends), makes him one of the few guitarists able to amply fill the shoes of the dearly departed Garcia.

Covers of Bob Dylan's It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry, Arthur Crudup's My Baby Left Me, Bobby Charles' Tennessee Blues" and Country Joe McDonald's Starship Ride fill out the album whole-heartedly. There's loads of congenial guitar lines from Sless -- greasy picking to elegant pedal steel -- as well as some bluesy harmonica work from the man himself -- Matthew Kelly.

As a fan of the Grateful Dead and their extended family, I can't rate Sundown On The Forest as one of my favorites. There are a few bright moments and some enticing interludes, but the cautious route Kelly takes doesn't really challenge the ears or provoke the senses. Like much that is emerging from the Bay Area these days, Sundown On The Forest is merely a throwback to days gone by. And as the Garcia vault is slowly plundered, I might be more inclined to follow Phil Lesh as he mounts a tour with yet another group of "friends" determined to ascend to the next level.

~Shawn Perry

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