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Synchronized Pickaxes For 30 years the resilient songs of the Grateful Dead have repelled the assaults of hundreds of copycat jam bands, the indignity of flabby covers and so-called tribute groups, and intermittent defilement by the band itself. Now, three years after Jerry left for the great shooting gallery in the sky, the Dead have found an opponent with the ability to completely wreck the group's earliest, best work: musical theater. Cumberland Blues, a show based on some 18 Garcia-Hunter songs from American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, closed last week, about 48 hours after it opened. (The show's publicist said the reviews were bad and the box office was "soft." "Thin and patched together," sniffed the Chron's Steven Winn. The Ex's Robert Hurwitt was harsher: "Unimaginatively written and sloppily staged, Cumberland is two hours of unevenly preformed Dead classics ineptly strung together," he wrote.) But Riff Raff was there -- along with a handful of theater patrons -- on opening night. Let us tell you what you missed. The show attempted to thread the songs into some sort of coherent plot about down-and-out Appalachian miners. A plotless play can still dazzle, but this one didn't. It had something to do with the dialogue: "What are you doing out of bed?" "I thought I heard the Dire Wolf calling my name." But then there were the songs. With all the subtlety of, well, "Truckin'," an itinerant son tells his story through "Friend of the Devil" and the cast mourns the patriarch's death with "He's Gone." If the performances were any good, the storyless story might not matter. As our dad used to say, "If we had some ham we could have some ham and eggs, if we only had some eggs." The set looked like a missing segment from Disneyland's Splash Mountain -- a massive visual cliche of burlap, flickering lanterns, and empty wooden barrels. The lights went down and a whistle blew. It's time for work at the Cumberland mine! The 12-person cast, dressed in blackened overalls, came on like a hit of bad acid. The funniest thing about the first song, "Uncle John's Band," was that the cast could sing, which of course the Dead never could. You don't want to hear about the choreographed, synchronized pickax-swinging. As for the story, surprises were rare. A crusty old fart who won the mine in a poker game was about to die. He asked his ostensibly adopted daughter to bring back his wayward sons before he did. They all came. He died. The actors drank moonshine and made faces. They sat down at a poker table and played cards for the deed. And, of course, they sang -- often in confusing ways. Pete Sr., for example, was suffering from black lung, but he was still able to get out of bed and hit the high note on "Black Peter." (Wait, since when does "Black Peter" have a high note?) After 2 1/2 hours, the only redeeming facet of the entire production -- the crack backing ensemble, outfitted as Sgt. Pepper's Confederate Soldiers Club Band -- had lost a little of its energy. Not even the Dead had to do three versions of "Uncle John's Band" a night. (J.S.)

Serious Bank There's occasionally money in music, but one local musician wants to make the reverse true -- or something like that. Gregory Howe has bought the old Wells Fargo Bank on Mission and 29th streets and, with the help of several other creative types, he's working to make the place into the new home of Wide Hive. The name makes it sound like they're constructing a bachelor pad for The Simpsons' bee-suited Mexican TV star, but actually it's an artists' collective that brings together a record company, a recording studio, a retail record store, a cafe, and -- eventually -- a live venue all under one moniker. Owner Howe says the idea to form the collective was a natural progression from his acid jazz band Dissent, which he says mirrored Wide Hive as a loose amalgamation of both musicians and styles. "The band and the record company are already established," says Howe. "It's primarily acid jazz, but it is always changing with new players coming and going. Wide Hive's new home will imitate that spirit." As it stands, the building is going to need a lot of work to transform it into the space Howe envisions, yet each part of the collective will be phased in step by step, the primary focus being the recording studio. "I rebuilt Jackson Browne's old console for the studio, which has this really beefy late-'70s sound," says Howe. "Once installed we'll be offering 24-channel recordings in both analog and digital." The studio will be open for use in about six weeks; it'll have some modern kicks, like an ISDN line that will enable them to record from any venue around the city via Internet. Once the studio is firmly in place, Wide Hive will start work on the actual collective art space, retail record store, cafe, and venue that will occupy the entire bottom floor. "It's going to take awhile and we want as much input as possible from people interested in being involved," says Howe. "We would like it to have a 111 Minna type of feel with art displays and DJ booths, but mainly it's going to be a place for people to indulge in any type of artistic whim." (R.A.)

Recycling the Paycheck Since Amoeba Music opened in S.F. last September it's quickly become the DJ equivalent of an opium den -- local DJs slangin' vinyl for the store to support their own record-buying habits. Amoeba recognized the talent behind the counter and has decided to let those DJs show off their record collections for the enjoyment of the music-buying public. With "Mandala," a weekly lineup of Amoeba DJ performances, the record retailer is buttressing an already impressive roster of live in-store shows. (A mandala is a circular design of concentric geometric forms -- like grooves on vinyl -- symbolizing the universe.) Amoeba's Kara Lane says there's no shortage of talent within the store, but there will eventually be guest spots for outside DJs as well. "As of now we're booked up for the next three months with just our in-house DJs," says Lane. "But we'll have guest DJs open every so often." (One such notable guest is France's DJ Cam on Aug. 28.) The free performances will take place every Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. and feature slices of everything, from hip hop to gothic. (R.A.)

Riff Raff riffraff: Robert Arriaga (R.A.), Johnny DiPaola (J.D.P.), Karl D. Esturbense (K.D.E.), Jeff Stark (J.S.), Silke Tudor (S.T.), Heather Wisner (H.W.), and Bill Wyman (B.W.). Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail it to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.


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