Here's Why The Capitol Sessions Was One of the Most Unforgettable Nights of Music Ever
Words by Gary Lambert
Photos by Marc Millman and Taylor Hill
On December 17, an extraordinary cast of artists gathered at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre for a special concert called THE CAPITOL SESSIONS: SONGS FROM THE ORIGINAL ROCK PALACE – an event celebrating the holiday season, the glorious history of The Capitol itself, and the power of music to bring people together in common cause – in this case, to support the voter registration/voting-rights defense organization HeadCount, now more vital than ever at this moment in history. The concept for the show was an ingenious one. Every song performed would be one that had been played at the venue at some point in its fabled 50-plus-year history as a rock venue. Actually, The Cap is 95 years old, but alas, no greatest hits of 1926 were included.
After a brief greeting to the crowd, popular New York radio DJ Ken Dashow introduced the evening’s musical director, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and his partner in music and life, singer Teresa Williams, who got things off to a sanctified start with a passionate acoustic guitar-and-vocal performance of “Samson and Delilah,” a roof-raiser that’s been in the songbook of many a folk, blues, and gospel singer over the course of close to a century, but is likely to be best known to Capitol audiences for the electrified adaptation that became a highlight of many a set by the Grateful Dead. It should be noted that the Dead never had the opportunity to play the song in their original incarnation as they didn’t add it to their repertoire until the mid-1970s, but it has been heard in this old building (which remains gratifyingly resistant to tearing down) since The Cap’s 2012 revival, played by various GD alumni in different configurations (Phil Lesh & Friends, Ratdog, Furthur, etc) as well as younger inheritors/interpreters of the Dead’s musical legacy such as Dark Star Orchestra, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, etc.
Larry and Teresa having set the table in excellent fashion, it was time for the musical feast to really get started, along with the parade of superb musical talent that would serve it up. Larry summoned the players who would form the evening’s amazingly versatile house band – Adam Minkoff on bass, Tony Leone on drums and Marco Benevento on keyboards. They were joined by someone who would light up the room each of the several times she took the stage during the show: the magnificent Lisa Fischer, probably best known for her more than fifteen years touring with The Rolling Stones, as well as her appearance in the fascinating documentary about backup singers, Twenty Feet From Stardom. That title is a bit of a misnomer when applied to Ms. Fischer, though, because she’s clearly a star anytime she steps up to a microphone, as she was about to prove in a big way. The first song of the full-band segment of the show could not have been more aptly chosen, as it was the biggest hit by the very first band to headline the Capitol upon its official opening as a rock venue under Howard Stein’s management on February 6th, 1970. That band (with NRBQ supporting as the Cap’s first opening act, BTW) was The Chambers Brothers, and the song was “Time Has Come Today,” as was instantly and joyously recognized by the audience from the first beat of that unmistakable cowbell intro (arguably more cowbell than “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” even!). Lisa absolutely slayed the vocal, and the band took the instrumental raveup section into some distinctly spacey places - although those Scrooges who make it a point of pride to get through the holidays without ever hearing a note of “The Little Drummer Boy” may have felt a bit ambushed by Larry’s quote of that syrupy yuletide earworm! But that aside, the audience verdict was clear – all souls in the house comprehensively psychedelicized.
To change the pace dramatically, Jackson Browne joined the group and sang a beautiful duet with Lisa on the Curtis Mayfield classic “People Get Ready” – a song written for The Impressions during the 60s civil rights movement that’s as relevant, necessary and inspirational as ever (especially when performed in a show benefiting an organization devoted to preserving and strengthening the right to vote). Alas, Curtis himself never had the opportunity to play the Capitol, but the very same Chambers Brothers whose signature song had just been heard had done their own fine cover of the Mayfield tune, so it fit right into the evening’s theme. The Browne/Fischer performance provided a textbook example of the ways two singers with very different vocal styles can come together to create something new and beautiful out of a familiar work.
As Lisa and Jackson departed with a promise to return later, joining Larry and the band were two artists familiar to many in the Capitol audience: Amy Helm, soulful singer and an integral part of the beautiful community of musicians created and nurtured by her late great dad Levon at his beloved barn in Woodstock (a continuously growing circle of friends that also includes the members of the evening’s core combo); and Connor Kennedy, a brilliant young player and singer equally at home in the Americana and jamband worlds and, in recent years, as part of a continuum of great guitarists with Steely Dan. The two shared lead vocals in a lively take on an early-70s chestnut, “Only You Know And I Know,” first played on The Capitol stage by the band that recorded its best-known interpretation, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, who visited the venue in both 1971 and ‘72 (for the record, the song’s author, Dave Mason, also played the Cap). The same group remained as Amy lent sweet mandolin and her beautiful voice to a poignant performance of one of the great and much-missed John Prine’s most beloved songs, “Angel From Montgomery.”
At this point something occurred to us: Just as “Saturday Night Live” has its “Five-Timers’ Club” for a select group of those who have guest-hosted that venerable show at least – you guessed it – five times… The Capitol Theatre has something perhaps even more impressive: a Five-DECADE (and counting) Club, made up of artists who appeared at the venue in the early 70s and have come back to grace its stage in the period since the 2012 reopening. All the surviving core members of the Grateful Dead qualify, of course, having been there near the very start and with each returning with various spinoffs and reconfigurations; Bonnie Raitt is another, having first appeared opening for Poco early in her career (1972) and returning once so far, to share a bill with Marc Cohn in 2013. And there are others, as you’ll soon find out.
Amy and Connor made way for yet another big change in gears. The irrepressible Karina Rykman, probably best known as a bassist and frequent collaborator with Marco Benevento, put on a guitar for the next tune, the quintessential hard-rocker “Mississippi Queen” - made famous by another of the very first bands to play the Cap in 1970, Mountain. Bassist Adam Minkoff positively nailed the late Leslie West’s powerful vocal and the band fully exploited the song’s proto-shred possibilities. Adam then moved across stage to share keyboards with Marco so Karina could pick up the axe to which she’s most accustomed for the next number which found Rykman and Benevento splitting vocals on a delightful trip “Out In The Woods” – that being a song from “Carney,” one of the best albums by Leon Russell (Incidentally: Another Five-Decade Clubber! Leon played the Cap in 1971 with Freddie King, again with Little Feat in 2013 and one final time with Hot Tuna in 2014). Karina, radiating pure joy as always, bounced across the stage for some fun and funky bass-and-keyboard trade with her pal Marco, and the crowd was thoroughly caught up in the infectious energy (hmmm… maybe “infectious” isn’t the best word to use right now, but you get what we mean!).
Adam Minkoff returned to the bass spot and the lead vocal role for the next song, and here Adam, who had been a relatively late substitution for another player in the lineup, proved again to be one of the evening’s real finds to any who might have been unfamiliar with him. Moments after he had perfectly served up the raunchy metalesque essence of Leslie West, he now just as effortlessly took on the gorgeous Blind Faith tune “Can’t Find My Way Home,” originally sung by its author, Steve Winwood. “Five decades?” you ask? “Yep!” we answer, Winwood having first played the Cap with the “John Barleycorn”-era Traffic in 1970 and returned as solo artist multiple times in recent years.
After a brief greeting to the crowd by one of the evening’s co-producers, Greg Williamson, the Winwood love continued with Larry Campbell taking the lead on both vocals and guitar on Traffic’s deathless “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” a song that bands continue to play and audiences continue to love at the Cap to this day.
Next, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time great spirits was evoked, as Elaine Caswell, a highly-sought singer on the New York studio scene, delivered an astonishing recreation of Janis Joplin’s signature song “Piece Of My Heart.” Janis, who played The Cap with the Full-Tilt Boogie Band not long before the end of her far-too-brief life in 1970, felt so utterly present in the room that Elaine’s performance seemed almost like a séance – except with soul and grit instead of mystical trappings.
The show continued to pick up steam as Connor Kennedy, Amy Helm, and Teresa Williams returned and Eric Krasno was added to the guitar army for the next song – another of those rock evergreens instantly identifiable by its opening instrumental lick. And here we come to an interesting thing about a show involving a repertoire such has this. In one sense, a band might have it easy, because they’re playing the equivalent of the best world’s best-stocked classic rock jukebox, and the audience is already pre-sold on every song. But then comes the hard part: once you’ve got them riled up with that unmistakable introductory riff, you’ve got to play that song really well, because the audience has so much memory invested. For this stellar lineup, though, that was no problem all night, as was proven the moment they kicked off the next indelible intro on the agenda, and followed it with an absolutely monumental, perfectly orchestrated and sung (Connor Kennedy on lead) version of the full song: “Layla” (played by Derek and the Dominos on the Cap stage in December, 1970).
After taking us to classic-rock heaven, the only direction to go was to get down, with one of the great pieces of proto-funk: “Express Yourself,” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Band, covered at the Cap by many latter day groovers including Lettuce. Here it was sung (and played) by someone that all in the house were especially delighted to see: James Casey, the hugely talented saxophonist and singer known for his long tenure in the Trey Anastasio Band, and more recently with Bill Kreutzmann’s Billy & The Kids. James was an especially welcome sight as he has recently returned to performing after taking time off to deal with some health issues.
After James got the crowd in such a good mood, HeadCount founder and executive director Andy Bernstein took the stage to restate the purpose for which this event was created: underscoring the power of music as a builder of community, and the longstanding role that singers, songwriters and artists of every stripe have played in helping to effect social change – a mission to which HeadCount has remained dedicated since its formation nearly two decades ago, with more than a million new voters registered.
Getting pretty deep into the show, it was time to get into the songbook with the band that will almost certainly be forever more closely associated with the Cap than any other, the Gratefui Dead – the ultimate Five-Decade Icons!
Joining the expanding group onstage was someone who quite literally has the Dead in his DNA: Grahame Lesh, who’s been around the Dead scene since birth and has developed into a fine musician in his own right, as part of dad Phil’s ever-changing circle of Friends as well as leading his own fast-rising band, Midnight North. The groove-oriented feel of the previous segment continued with the Dead’s own characteristically eccentric take on funk, “Shakedown Street” (another that debuted too late for the O.G. GD to test drive it at The Cap, but played there many, many times by various legacy, spinoff and tribute bands).
The next number was not only one that the Dead did play at The Cap, but one that had its public birth there: “Deal,” which received its first performance on February 19th, 1971, as one of seven new songs the band premiered during its final and astonishing six-night stand at the venue. Eric Krasno contributed a fine lead vocal and stinging lead guitar here. Another that was heard in ’70 and ’71 was next: one of the most beautiful of all Garcia-Hunter collaborations, “Brokedown Palace.” There was something especially resonant and moving about hearing Amy Helm and Grahame Lesh – next-generation bearers of the musical flame - combine on vocals here.
The Dead segment concluded with “Sugaree” – another that was a bit too late for the guys to play at The Cap, but when it’s being sung as powerfully as Teresa Williams did on this version, you don’t quibble! And as a bonus, to play lead guitar on that one, another founding father of the San Francisco scene – and another Five-Decade member in good standing – arrived: The great Jorma Kaukonen, who played the theater in the 70s with both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, and has since returned in the new Cap era with longtime partner Jack Casady, as well as making some memorable guest appearances with Phil Lesh & Friends.
Most of the band departed briefly as Jorma and Larry teamed up for a guitar and fiddle duet on the song that opened the first acoustic Tuna album more than fifty years ago, “Hesitation Blues.” Then Jorma strapped that trusty red Gibson back on and revisited that other band of his, playing the Airplane’s two biggest hits, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love,” with Teresa doing full justice to Grace Slick’s original renditions and Jorma making those guitar lines sound so fresh that it was as though the songs had been written yesterday.
Lisa Fischer returned to pay homage to her former employers, the Rolling Stones.
“But wait,” you might say… “that’s gotta be a cheat. The Stones couldn’t have played the Capitol, could they?”
Why, yes, they did! In 1997 during a period when the venue was being used only sporadically, Mick, Keith, Charlie et al played a private show as a video shoot for an MTV special. So yes, the next songs sung fell fully within the rules laid out for this event. And were we ever glad they did, because Lisa delivered two more stunners: first an interpretation of “Wild Horses” that left us breathless with its beauty; and then the song that was her spotlight moment at many a Stones show – “Gimme Shelter,” on which Lisa would be turned loose, brought downstage to face off with Mick and just lay waste to whatever arena or stadium they were playing with the elemental power of her singing.
After that gorgeous inferno, it’s not surprising that Jackson Browne, next up, rather sheepishly said, “they told me about this show, but they didn’t tell me I was gonna follow Lisa Fischer,” then jokingly added that his doing so “shows how much I believe in voting.” In truth, though, it was entirely fitting that Jackson occupied that headlining slot, as no other performer has been more consistently devoted to the vital causes of defending democracy, protecting human rights working for a cleaner, healthier planet and so much more. And even following Lisa, he didn’t take long to win the crowd over. Although Jackson didn’t make it to The Capitol for the first time until 2015 – so, sorry, no Five-Decade Club for him! - he was starting to find his way into the public eye and ear back in the original Cap era, so aptly opened his two-song stint with the song that put him on the map in 1972, “Doctor My Eyes,” and followed it with one that took him to another level of recognition, the title tune from the great 1977 live album “Running On Empty.”
The entire cast returned to the stage for the perfect finale – one of the great communal singalongs in all of rock, the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends” – but to maintain the conceptual continuity, it was, of course, the Joe Cocker arrangement, as performed by Joe with Mad Dogs and Englishmen on May 8th and 9th, 1970, at… well, you-know-where.
The evening ended with a shared sense of appreciation for all the great musical and social moments shared at The Cap – a sense undoubtedly magnified by all we lost when deprived of those moments over the long period of isolation we all endured over the past two years. Long may this magical building – and the family of artists, audience and that great Cap crew – endure.