The Vogel – Count Basie Center for the Arts – Red Bank, NJ – 4/8/23
Review & Photos- Rebecca Wolf
As a child of the 70s and teen of the early 80s, I grew up with 70s pop, classic rock, R&B and disco taking up residence in my psyche and heart. My parents didn’t listen to music frequently and as the eldest child I didn’t have older siblings whose musical tastes I looked to emulate. Instead, I discovered music on my own, finding my way to Top 40 radio and the hits played on local NY, NJ, and Philadelphia radio stations. Two of my first LPs in the mid-70s were Barry Manilow’s Trying to Get the Feeling and Robert Flack’s Killing Me Softly, later followed by albums from ABBA and Wings. That provides a view into the origins of my musical preferences. As time passed, my 8-track collection included Styx, Supertramp, The Beach Boys and The Cars, followed by a massive number of cassettes, the likes of Billy Joel, Chicago, CSNY, David Bowie, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Doobie Brothers. Throughout the decades, I remained fairly consistent in my musical taste, rarely veering from what was rooted in my heart and soul. That is, until the past few years working as a concert photographer and predominately focusing on artists that fit in the confines of my original musical interests. Watching these artists age, I became increasingly concerned about who I’d photograph once these musicians stopped performing. This angst led me to open up my mind and consider exploring music beyond the 70s and 80s soundtrack of my youth.
Since opening the door to new (to me) music, I’ve discovered a number of artists, in a variety of genres. I’ve become an avid listener of Southern rock, as well as its “cousins” folk rock, country rock, blues rock and Americana, including Blackberry Smoke, Tedeschi Trucks Bands and The Wood Brothers. I’ve been thrilled by bluegrass (today’s progressive bluegrass), including Greensky Bluegrass, The Infamous Stringdusters and Kitchen Dwellers. And, I’ve become fascinated by the psychedelic jams of Circles Around the Sun. However, with all the “new” music that entered my life, I never listened to the Grateful Dead beyond an occasional radio encounter. While I didn’t dislike the music or what I perceived it to be, I never felt it was “my scene.” I didn’t see myself as a “Deadhead” (the term lovingly coined for the band’s devoted fanbase) and I believed the scene and the music was a package deal. However, a friend who frequently accompanies me to concerts said, “I’ve seen the music you like and I really think you’d like the Grateful Dead’s music.” So, with this endorsement we set off to see Splintered Sunlight, a Grateful Dead tribute band at The Vogel in Red Bank, NJ.
Splintered Sunlight is from the Philadelphia area and has amassed a considerable following over the past 25 years. Having never attended a Grateful Dead tribute band performance, I didn’t know what to expect from the band or the crowd. I wondered if by not really knowing the music I’d feel like an outsider. Would it be painfully obvious? Would I stand out in the sea of Deadheads that I presumed would fill the venue’s general admission area. As we awaited the band’s arrival, audience members entered in drips and drabs and it seemed unclear if the large crowd I was expecting was going to materialize. Speaking to a security guard I learned that just prior to the show ticket sales had risen to 400, so it appeared only a matter of time before the crowd would arrive. The space slowly began to fill and enthusiastic chattering wafted across the room, as the band’s devoted fan-following excitedly greeted one another. Unlike concerts where audience members typically stick to interacting with the guests they arrive with, the reputation of Grateful Dead devotees as free-spirited, gregarious, open to communicating and connecting to others, seemed true.
As the house lights darkened and the stage lights rose, energetic applause accompanied the band’s arrival onstage. Looking behind me, I suddenly noticed that in the blink of an eye a crowd of passionate, Grateful Dead-loving fans had filled the general admission space. From the band’s first notes of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” the crowd instantly was lost in the music and the mood, swaying and singing along to the gentle rocking tune. The beat changed with “Franklin’s Tower” and it’s bright, bouncy groove, followed by the country rock energy of “Me & My Uncle,” and the folksy Americana feel of “Brown-Eyed Woman.” No matter the song, it was next to impossible to find an individual in the crowd who wasn’t dancing and singing along. While lost in the moment and the music, fans were never too lost to passionately and emphatically join in to sing beloved, meaningful lyrics.
Splintered Sunlight’s band members were equally as passionate about performing the music as their fans were listening to it. I was intrigued by lead guitarist and singer, Butchy Sochorow, who in a tie-dyed shirt, chin length silver-gray hair and glasses, presented as an Asian Jerry Garcia. (Later, I learned those familiar with the band do affectionally refer to Butchy as “Asian Jerry”.) Sochorow’s role as band leader, corresponds to Garcia’s, who was generally recognized as leader of the Grateful Dead. Bob Weir’s “part” on rhythm guitar and vocals is held by Mike Kennedy, with additional lead vocals performed by Rosalind Rose. Rose was eye-catching as she danced and twirled in a full-skirted dress adorned with red roses and amplified the electricity and brightness onstage. The band’s lineup also includes Stephen Spatz on bass, Micheal Borowski on keyboards and Jerry Horan and Scott Toop on drums. While the specific songs chosen from the Grateful Dead’s vast catalog provided an opportunity to highlight each vocalist’s individual abilities, it was clear they were also selected with the goal of having the audience dance the night away. Additional songs performed during the evening’s two sets included “Deal,” “China Cat Sunflower, “Terrapin Station,” “I Know You Rider,” “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “The Wheel.”
This being my first time experiencing Splintered Sunlight and the Grateful Dead’s music, I had no comparison with which to judge the band. As for the Grateful Dead’s music, my friend was correct; I liked its sound, energy and vibe. I liked that “dance numbers” felt like songs you could groove to without flashy dance club beats or moves. I liked that the music felt cohesive (a jam band aura) but each song had its own individuality. And, I liked the eclectic, friendly crowd, spanning a half-century age range. Those few whom I told this was my first time at a “Dead show” were pleasantly surprised and eager for me to hear the music, understand their devotion and jump onboard. Not only did I like the music, but I liked Splintered Sunlight. While I couldn’t say if they sounded exactly like the Grateful Dead, to me they demonstrated phenomenal musicianship, vocals and overall stage presence. What I do know is the ongoing devotion to the Grateful Dead has spawned a countless number of tribute bands, including in the Philadelphia, PA/NJ vicinity. For Splintered Sunlight to be flourishing after 25 years and filling music halls with hundreds of fans, is a top-notch endorsement for the band, as Deadheads would never support a band that didn’t properly pay tribute to their beloved Grateful Dead.
Having grown up and continued into adulthood as a consummate lover of 70s/80s pop, classic rock, and R&B, I was never too open to exploring music beyond the soundtrack of my youth. How lucky I feel to have opened the door and my heart to “new” music, music that’s been bringing joy to others for more than half a century. With the world around us on shaky ground, we all should follow the inspiring words from the Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower,” “If you get confused, listen to the music play.”