For nearly 50 years, Robert Hunter has been as important to the Grateful Dead as Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. While the band is often associated with the psychedelic jam band scene, there were many complex and intricate lyrics which presented a story and caused the listener to think about the message the song was presenting. It was a relationship that worked for thirty years: the Dead would write the music, and Hunter would write the lyrics.
Almost 20 years after the Grateful Dead officially dissolved, Hunter has re-emerged and has been slowly venturing back out on the road with his enormous catalogue of material, including a recent stop at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, where an intimate crowd got to experience a master wordsmith tell the tales that have defined the Deadhead culture for five decades.
Kicking off the night with only a stool, a harmonica and an acoustic guitar, Hunter delivered an upbeat folk version of the early era Dead classic “Bertha.” From just the first song it was evident this was not a normal Dead show; it was an appreciation of the words that went along with the bands legendary music, delivered in a different capacity by their often-overlooked curator. In one of the boldest moves of the evening, Hunter brought out a quieter take on the Dead’s “Dire Wolf” which he used as a call and answer mash up with the old folk love song “Peggy O,” a favorite of Garcia’s live shows.
While a majority of the very intimate crowd could sing along with any Dead song, singing along to Hunter - and the words he penned - proved a bit challenging. For instance, during the bluesy “Deal,” he included an extra verse the Dead never used. The same could be said for the early acoustic standard “Friend of the Devil,” where Hunter again included extra verses, although the extra verse may have been more recognizable as the Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh, has been including it in his live shows.
Although most of Hunter’s work was with Garcia, he did dabble into other Dead members songs, as he pointed out by delivering a tight “Jack Straw,” a cut that was written with Bob Weir. Rounding out the rather short (40 minute) first set, Hunter brought out one of the Dead’s later fan favorites, a raucous “West L.A. Fadeaway,” before telling the appreciative crowd “see you in 15.”
Following the brief intermission, Hunter continued to showcase the appeal his songs had to Dead members other than Garcia by delivering a tender “Box of Rain,” a cut that was written for Lesh. Dipping back into the psychedelia of the Dead’s “Aoxomoxoa,” Hunter brought out a somber take of “Mountains of the Moon,” before breaking into one of Garcia’s signature songs, the always-enjoyable “Sugaree.” For the latter song, Hunter told a story of how he originally planned to call the song “Stingaree,” before playing a few bars and joking about the title not working with his original idea.
Keeping with the slower momentum of the previous songs, Hunter put it what many felt was the highlight of the show with a tender “Standing on the Moon,” a song which the Dead debuted in the late 1980’s. While Hunter may not be the best guitarist, it’s his words that are the real highlight of his performances, and for “Standing on the Moon,” it was nearly impossible to not have a mental picture of being “somewhere in San Francisco, on a back porch in July, just looking up to Heaven at this crescent in the sky.”
Following a lively “Rubin and Cherise” and a slower “Brown Eyed Women,” Hunter brought out what has become his most recognizable solo song, a thumping “Promontory Rider.” While it may have taken the Dead over 20 years to achieve its first Top Ten hit, the band finally achieved it in 1987 with the Hunter-penned “Touch of Grey.” While many can sing along with the pop feel of the line “I will get by,” Hunter delivered the song as a folky acoustic number, which brought a new feeling to a song many Deadheads can’t tolerate due to it bringing the band into the mainstream.
Ending the second set with a spirited “Scarlet Begonias,” which found a jovial Hunter once again rearranging some of the songs verses, he came back for a two song encore beginning with the sing-along “Ripple.” While the song typically ends most Dead related shows nowadays (with the ending line of “if I knew the way, I would take you home”), Hunter concluded the night with an a cappella rendition of “Boys in the Barroom.”
For a man who has been mostly a recluse for a few decades, Robert Hunter has deservingly earned his place in the Grateful Dead legacy. His words have been the soundtrack to many people’s lives, and if these brief tours that he is doing are any indication, those same people are finally getting the chance to show their appreciation for a man who is more of a poet than a rock star.