It’s All Hallows Eve, one of the most anticipated and sacred holidays on the annual live music calendar. Most bands that play the holiday will don costumes and work up some musical costuming with rare cover songs for the occasion, making for a special event that’s not just another night on tour. Thus, fans have flocked to the Saratoga Mountain Winery here on Tuesday, 31 October, as Billy & the Kids roll in for a Halloween fiesta in the South Bay.
The band features original Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann fielding a supergroup of sorts, composed of next-generation jam-rockers influenced by the Dead’s trailblazing work forging the psychedelic rock counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s. Some critics might try to argue that this genre isn’t really counterculture anymore, with the Grateful Dead having obtained a wider cultural recognition over the decades. But when you consider that LSD is still criminalized and that jam-rock bands still don’t get much play on mainstream radio, the psyche-rock genre very much remains a counterculture endeavor.
The core band includes guitarist Tom Hamilton (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Ghost Light), bassist Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green, Mickey Hart Band), and keyboardist Aron Magner (Disco Biscuits). The drum kit is usually manned by Jeff Franca from Thievery Corporation, who had other commitments. But Kreutzmann has many friends and admirers in the community, and so Brad and Andrew Barr (guitar and drums) from the Slip have been drafted into rock soldier service to help out. The Slip reunited for a pair of sensational performances at last year’s High Sierra Music Festival, so they seem to fit right with the festive vibe here.
As a southwest suburb of San Jose, Saratoga is about as far down as one can go in the region and still call it the Bay Area. It might seem like an odd location for such a show, and most attendees aren’t thrilled about the $25 per car parking fee. But it’s a classy open-air venue with great sound and panoramic views of Silicon Valley. When the group hits the stage with a surprise opener of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Mathis and the Barr Brothers are all donning animal headgear for the occasion while Kreutzmann, Hamilton, and Magner are sans costumes.
The Beatles tribute quickly gives way to a very psychedelic intro to the Dead’s “Terrapin Station” with Hamilton on lead vocal, making it feel like the band has jumped deep into the second set. Billy & the Kids don’t really aim to reproduce the sound of the Grateful Dead, though, with each of the players pushing the envelope in tone and attack to give the band a more modern sound. Mathis is a key element here, pushing the tempo on the low end in between verses as the guitarists trade licks to deliver a particular dynamic version of the classic song.
Mathis takes the lead vocal on the “Estimated Prophet” that follows, continuing to demonstrate his multidimensional skills. Long thought of primarily as a high-level instrumentalist, Mathis has stepped out in recent years with his gigs around the Bay Area, often including soulful vocals on Bob Dylan songs and other classic rock tunes. Brad Barr sings “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” before also leading the group through a raucous Halloween bust out of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”. Andrew Barr stars here, too, with some inventive percussion on cowbells and blocks to assist Kreutzmann in powering the groove to full dance party mode. It’s a great example of the band stretching out beyond expectations as Brad Barr rips hot, melty licks on the guitar solo with a tight tone for one of the hottest jams of the set.
Hamilton takes the lead vocal on “Bird Song”, a classic Garcia/Hunter ballad written in tribute to Janis Joplin after her untimely departure from the Earth. The song is particularly poignant here for a handful of fans mourning the recent passing of a friend from the local scene, a bright light who sadly perished in a car accident on her way home from another concert a few days earlier.
Billy & the Kids then up the ante with an electrifying bust out of “Blow Away”, a deep cut from late GD keyboardist Brent Mydland that’s rarely been heard in recent years unless Terrapin Allstar Scott Guberman is on hand. No one else sings Mydland quite like Guberman, but Magner steps up here to deliver the song’s gritty passion and gets a boost from the fresh up-tempo arrangement as Mathis turbo powers the groove. An ecstatic charge shoots through the audience from hearing a song they weren’t expecting performed in such a dynamic new way, which is part of what a great Halloween show is all about – a trick and a treat at the same time. Mathis is crushing the low end with dynamic runs up the scale, followed by Magner throwing down a monster synth solo to conjure the ghost of Brent Mydland in the best way.
The sensational “Blow Away” jam gives way to a short set break, during which time fans can view a gorgeous bronze moonrise above the view of the Silicon Valley lights. A spacey psy-trance jam with Pink Floydian overtones opens the second set as an intro to an unusually psychedelic arrangement of “Shakedown Street”, which feels like getting a bunch of candy dropped into your trick-or-treat bag. The All Hallows Eve dance party is back on until the somber ballad “To Lay Me Down” brings things back down. It’s an odd slot for such a song, but then the band cranks it back up in a big way with a surprise version of Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon”. Hamilton sings the memorable lyrics about hookers, hustlers, whiskey, and bad cocaine, building toward a smoking jam trading hot guitar licks with Barr.
The “Spanish Moon” jam gives way to a drum jam, with Andrew Barr proving to be a great “Rhythm Devils” partner for Kreutzmann. There’s a tribal gathering vibe here that feels appropriate for All Hallows Eve. The band soon returns for a spacey jam that leads to “The Other One”, with Mathis taking the vocal on the prototype psyche-rock classic. It’s another peak with the swirling lights and the band rocking out on a crowd-pleasing jam. Another deep-cut surprise follows with Brad Barr singing “Built to Last”, and it’s another treat to hear a late-era Garcia tune that’s become a rarity. The band rocks out on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” to close the set, flipping the script with a song typically known as a first set closer or opener.
As the lights go down before the encore, an image of dearly departed saxman James Casey is projected behind the stage while his song “New Bloom” plays on the PA. Best known as saxophonist from the Trey Anastasio Band (TAB), Casey also became a member of Billy & the Kids in 2021. Casey was a great addition to the band, yet it was around the same time that he developed a two-year struggle against colon cancer that sadly took his life at the end of August at age 40. It feels like a message from the other side to appreciate the here and now as his voice on the PA sings, “No matter what problems come your way, You’ve got today, And no matter what happens today, You’ll be ok…”
Bay Area fans never got to see Casey perform with Billy & the Kids, but he’ll long be remembered in these parts for his stellar performance as a member of Phil Lesh & Friends at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater last 27-28 December. Those electrifying shows featured the TAB horns in the band lineup, with Casey delivering a particularly soul-stirring lead vocal and sensational sax solo for the ages on “Eyes of the World”. Honoring Casey here is a heartwarming gesture to the fallen band member who was taken from the world far too soon.
An acapella encore on “Attics of My Life” accompanied by just Hamilton’s acoustic guitar is announced as a first-time experiment and hits the mark for a sentimental finish to what’s been a very festive All Hallows Eve.