The Sam Grisman Project peforms at Wild Buffalo House of Music in Bellingham, Washington, on Jan. 21, 2023. (Photo by Mark Caicedo)
One more Saturday night in Bellingham at the Wild Buffalo, and I was listening to dawg music courtesy of the Sam Grisman Project, or SGP as the band is known. Finishing up a west coast winter tour (the next night in Seattle was the final show on the run), Grisman and company performed to a packed house, turning in a 3-hour show of Grateful Dead, Garcia-Grisman, and original music.
Samson Grisman is the son of David Grisman, the mandolinist famous for his expressive and expert playing, an ability to interpret almost any musical genre, and a collaboration with Jerry Garcia that resulted in sublime and beloved music. Definitely a challenging act to follow, but Sam Grisman (vocals, bass), Ric Robertson (vocals, mandola, mandolin, electric piano and electric guitar), Aaron Lipp (vocals, guitars and electric piano), Chris J. English (vocals, drums, percussion), and Alex Hargreaves (fiddler from the Billy Strings band), know their chops, performing with dexterity, passion, and of course, love.
The inter-generational music lovers in attendance (20 to 70-somethings) on Jan. 21 spoke to Grisman and Garcia’s enduring legacy. As I drank in the evening’s delightful ambiance, I thought about how this second generation of musical artists is interpreting their parents’ songs. As we get further from that golden age of rock and roll in the 1960s and ’70s, the music that resulted from that era is regarded as “classic rock” by many. But as I was listening to SGP play songs like “Deal,” “Bird Song,” and “Ripple,” I realized that this second generation of musicians is not simply regurgitating, tribute-like, old Grateful Dead songs, but rather interpreting a body of work much like the NSO or Boston Pops interprets George Gershwin or Aaron Copland. In that regard, SGP played “classical” music for us on Saturday as, no doubt, it will still be played for centuries to come, just as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart are still performed today.
See Sam Grisman Project perform “Peggy-O” at the 2022 Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival on YouTube:
Although one might think bearing a beloved surname of a previous generations’ musical giant might be a boon to these artists, I suspect it may be a greater burden than we imagine. Musicians in general, not just the ones whose famous parents bear names like Grisman, Allman, Betts, Bonham, Lennon, and Harrison (among many others), long to be accepted and embraced on their own terms and ability. Perhaps Jakob Dylan said it best in an interview back in 2000 with the LA Times, “People would ask, ‘Why are you denying [your surname]? And the truth is I am very proud of my heritage. It’s nothing to run from. The only thing I ask is to be taken at face value, and I feel that is starting to happen.’”
I arrived at the Wild Buffalo shortly before showtime while the venue was still filling up (eventually to capacity). The dimly lit stage prominently featured what appeared to be an Ear Trumpet vintage microphone designed for single-micing small acoustic ensembles. Not previously familiar with SGP, I was curious about how the music would be presented. The Ear Trumpet provided the first clue, having previously seen Watchhouse and Rachael and Vilray perform using one, that we’d get an acoustic song (or two). Chatting with folks lined up at the stage rail who were familiar with SGP gave me my second clue that this would be a lovely evening filled with music we all love.
Taking the stage just before 8:30 PM, we spent the next 3 hours under the spell of dawg music, that fragrant, holistic brew of bluegrass, gypsy jazz, rock and roll, and countless global influences. Opening with the Dead’s “Ramble on Rose,” we were given loving performances of a couple tunes, “Loser” and “Bird Song” from Jerry Garcia’s first solo album (which in a coincidental twist of fate I’d been listening to on my drive to the show), along with the Dead’s “Must Have Been the Roses” and the Van Morrison classic, “And It Stoned Me.”
After a plea for the audience to tone down the chatter, the band gathered at the front of the stage around the Ear Trumpet and launched into the first acoustic set with “Been All Around This World.” We then got a wonderful treat as Matt Eakle from the David Grisman Quintet joined the band onstage to add flute for the rest of the set. A song I’d been hoping to hear, “Thrill is Gone,” featured percussionist Chris J. English on vocals.
Watch SGP perform “Grateful Dawg” at the 2022 Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival on YouTube:
After a short break, the second set resumed in the acoustic format with “Dire Wolf” followed by the Stones’s “Wild Horses” which if you closed your eyes and listened, you could easily imagine Jerry and his Old and in the Way companions up there onstage. Several eclectic covers followed before the band strapped on their electric instruments again. Opening with “New Speedway Boogie,” the band cycled through a couple more Dead tunes before turning in a gorgeous performance of Garcia’s ballad, “Standing on the Moon,” from the Dead’s final studio album, Built to Last (1989). One of the more interesting numbers was a bluesy shuffle rendition of “Ripple,” which may have startled purists but established how talented and adventurous are these second generation musicians. The set closed with another Garcia rocker, “Deal,” before the double encore of “Teddy Bears Picnic” and the traditional closer, “Goodnight Irene.”
Watch a Grateful Dead 1989 performance of “Standing on the Moon” on YouTube.
Ramble on Rose (Grateful Dead)
Loser (J. Garcia)
Shake Your Shadow
Must Have Been the Roses (Grateful Dead)
Bird Song (J. Garcia)
And It Stoned Me (V. Morrison)
Been All Around This World (Trad.)
Babe, It Ain’t No Lie (Elizabeth Cotton)
Telluride (D. Grisman)
Two Soldiers (B. Dylan)
Dawg After Dark (D. Grisman)
Thrill is Gone (B. King)
Dawg’s Bull (D. Grisman)
Dire Wolf (Grateful Dead)
Wild Horses (Rolling Stones)
Lucky Old Sun (Beasley Smith and Haven Gillespie)
I’m Troubled (Trad.)
That Would be Something (P. McCartney)
Rosalee McFall (C. Monroe)
New Speedway Boogie (Grateful Dead)
I Won’t Lie
Poky Way (Grateful Dead)
Standing on the Moon (Grateful Dead)
Ripple (Grateful Dead)
Deal (J. Garcia)
Teddy Bears Picnic (Trad.)
Goodnight Irene (Trad.)
Every time I see a child of those original rockers perform, I’m reassured that the music will continue to live and breathe. As Sam himself put it on his website, “My goal in starting Sam Grisman Project is to build a platform for my friends and me to showcase our genuine passion and appreciation for the legacy of Dawg and Jerry’s music. By playing some of their beloved repertoire and sharing the original music that our own collective has to offer, we will also show the impact that this music has had on our own individual musical voices.”
Stream Sam Grisman Project’s EP, Temple Cabin Sessions Volume 1, on Spotify.
SGP will be back on the road soon. Keep up to date on new recordings and future tour plans though the website or Facebook page.
Here are some more photos of SGP live at the Wild Buffalo on Jan. 21, 2023. All photos courtesy of and copyright Mark Caicedo.