Keeping the Dead alive







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Dark Star Orchestra took the stage at Gerald Ford Amphitheater in Vail on Wednesday as part of a four-show holiday weekend run in Colorado. 




In the world of The Grateful Dead, the day of your first show is the day you got on the bus. This is a reference to a line from the song “The Other One.” “The bus came by and I got on, that’s where it all began…”

For me, it wasn’t a bus, it was a 1982 Chevy Citation. It was July 7, 1986. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school. I finally had free will in the form of a driver’s license and a car. What was I going to do with my new found freedom? Drive to Washington, D.C., and see Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead.

I thought the kids in my high school who liked the Dead were a bunch of druggie losers. Then I tried some of those drugs and thought, “These kids might be onto something.”

The song that pulled me into the band was “Throwing Stones.” It was the line “the kids dance and shake their bones” that captured my imagination. Little did I know that “Throwing Stones” is the Dead’s only overtly political song but that’s not what I heard or saw in my mind. I saw a lot of kids dancing and having fun. I wanted in.

It was over 100 degrees at the show at RFK Memorial Stadium in D.C. (capacity 60,000). Jerry Garcia got so dehydrated he did not come out with the band after the “Drums/Space” part of the show. The band finished the concert without him. Three days later, Jerry slipped into a diabetic coma and it wasn’t clear if he would survive. 

I remember thinking, “I finally got to see the Grateful Dead and Jerry is gonna die.” Fortunately, Jerry pulled through and would return to the stage in December 1986.

By the end of 1987, I had exercised quite a bit of my free will and saw 23 Grateful Dead and four Jerry Garcia Band shows. Three of those shows were at Red Rocks, and when Jerry sang, “I’ll shine my light through the cool Colorado rain,” I decided on the spot, in a heightened moment of psychedelic inspiration, that I was going to move to Colorado as soon as I graduated college. The Dead had sealed my fate.







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A ticket from Wednesday night’s Dark Star Orchestra Show in Vail. 




JRAD’s fifth gear

Several months after that night at Red Rocks, I wrote a paper called “The myth of The Grateful Dead.” This is how my 19-year-old self interpreted what was happening around me.

“Over the last 23 years, no band in rock ’n’ roll, or any genre of music, has maintained such steady, unconditional devotion from its followers as the Grateful Dead. But to many, the band remains an enigma and their followers, known to the world as Deadheads, are cast off of social misfits, leftover burnouts from the ’60s and wanna-be hippies. Why exactly has the Grateful Dead developed an almost cult following? What are the social and cultural underpinnings that constitute the strange world of the Grateful Dead? To the surprise of many, partying and taking drugs is not what the band is all about. What draws people to the Grateful Dead is the easy-going, free-flowing music, the life-promoting appeal of the lyrics, and most importantly, the humanitarian sense of community that exists between Deadheads.”

In the 28 years that have passed since I wrote that sophomore-year paper, The Grateful Dead are no longer a subculture or fringe phenomenon. They are as mainstream as it gets. Dozens of pro sports franchises have “Grateful Dead Nights” where they adorn their uniforms in tie dye and celebrate the band. 

In 2024, on any given Friday or Saturday night in America, there are likely at least 200 Grateful Dead cover bands playing in America.

Three of those cover bands can sell out venues like Red Rocks — Dead and Company, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) and Dark Star Orchestra (DSO). In the last five weeks, I saw all three bands: JRAD on May 31 at Gerald Ford Amphitheater in Vail; Dead and Co. on June 8 at Sphere in Las Vegas; and DSO at Gerald Ford Amphitheater last Wednesday.

The first show I saw was JRAD on May 30. JRAD is composed of Joe Russo on drums, Scott Metzger on guitar and vocals, Tom Hamilton on guitar and vocals, Dave Dreiwitz on bass and Marco Bennivento on piano, keyboards and organ. They are the antidote to Dead and Co., who many deride as “Dead and Slow” for their inability to get their music out of third gear.







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A page from a scrapbook from 1987. The pictures were taken at Grateful Dead shows at Ventura County Fairgrounds on the weekend of June 12-14.  




Fifth gear is the domain of JRAD. They play the Dead’s music full throttle. Hamilton and Metzger handle most of the vocals and both absolutely shred on guitar. Benevento solos quite a bit on the keys and some of my favorite songs are when he solos on piano. The bandleader is Russo, whose kit is front and center. His furious backbeat charts the course as Dreiwitz handles the pocket. 

My one complaint about JRAD is they can get a little didactic. They play fast, they jam, then they slow it down, build it up again, rock hard and then repeat. My favorite part of the show was when they ripped through Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” without any jamming whatsoever — from Norfolk, Virginia, to L.A. in five minutes of pure unadulterated rock ’n’ roll heat.

JRAD encored with “The Golden Road (to unlimited devotion)” a rowdy song from the the Dead’s ’60s days whose chorus is “come and party every day.” I had never heard anyone but the Dead play that song, so for me that even trumped “Promised Land” because having seen so many shows, I take great joy in seeing something I’ve never seen before. Well-played, JRAD, well-played.

Help me, Tom E.

Another Aspenite who was at the JRAD show was Tom Engelman. He has lived in Aspen since 1996. Tom has a remarkable memory, loves the music and is the first person I call when searching for the answer to anything Dead-oriented. He is the Obi Wan of the Dead, a true jedi master of setlists, stats and knowledge of the band.

I threw the same question at Tom that I examined in my college essay. Why has the Grateful Dead engendered such a following?

“The writing duos of lyricist Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia the composer, and the duo of John Perry Barlow and Bobby Weir, collectively created the great American songbook,” Engelman said. “The songs are timeless classics. They feature topics including trains, rivers and gamblers. This canon of work will endure for centuries and be studied by scholars well beyond the lives of Deadheads lucky enough to have enjoyed their live performances. 

“Cover bands will continue to play these classics much like Shakespeare is performing today, five centuries after his plays were created.”







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Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) performs at Gerald Ford Amphitheater on May 31. 




In my sophomore essay, I had this to say about the songs. “Many Grateful Dead lyrics have a universal quality which captures the human experience — the joys, the aspirations, the struggles in life. There are life-promoting ideas throughout their songs and singing along to those songs makes you feel inspired. A couple of common themes that run through all Dead songs: realizing one’s potential, the need to keep moving in life and how to deal with hard times.” 

Mayer got cooler

Another bellwether of the Grateful Dead becoming mainstream was when guitarist John Mayer got tapped to be a member of Dead and Company, the band that rose out of the ashes of the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts. 

Much of the fanbase, particularly the men, grisled at the choice. Mayer, after all, was a pop star with matinee-idol looks and a Grammy for best pop vocal performance for the song “Your Body is a Wonderland,” a tune that was as saccharin as it was sexy. 

In 2003, Mayer pivoted from pop star to bluesman and formed the John Mayer Trio with bass player Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. Today, Palladino is the bass player for The Who, Steve Jordan is the drummer for The Rolling Stones and John Mayer is the lead singer in the new version of the Dead. This is the ether of John Mayer.

And while he was  a made man (to use a mafia term) by the age of 28, there was one issue with Mayer. He seemed to be kind of a jerk.

It is well-known that Mayer has dated a dream team of 21st century starlets: Jessica Simpson, Katy Perry, Jennifer Anniston, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Taylor Swift to name a few. In 2010, he told Playboy that Simpson was “sexual napalm.” Even worse, in that same Playboy interview, when asked if he dated black women, he made an extremely racist comment referring to his sex organ as a “white supremacist.”

It’s possible that Mayer has evolved over the last 15 years. After all, if you sing these lyrics from “Scarlet Begonias,” “Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right,” it might just seep in.

Ali Young lives in Denver and is 35 years old. She feels Mayer has redeemed himself since those days. 

“In the early years, I didn’t care much for John Mayer,” she said. “Having come of age during the height of ‘Mayer the Player,’ I was leery of his impact on a community so full of love, community and kindness.

“In the summer of 2020, I heard an interview and my entire perspective shifted. It was as though a completely new person had emerged from the Dead community.  His radical love of the music was so clear. His depth and understanding of Jerry, Bobby, John [Barlow] and Robert [Hunter’s] magical lyrics is clear through his passion for the strings. Some 105 shows later, I’m one of John’s biggest fans. I can see and feel his lovelight shine bright on us all. John truly embodies the evolution of a person — it’s been beautiful to witness his growth as a Deadhead, a man, and a human.”

My theory about Mayer is that he got cooler through osmosis. If you stand within 20 feet away from Oteil Burbridge (Dead and Co.’s bass player) for almost a decade you can’t help but evolve as a person as Burbridge may be one of the coolest people on the planet. In addition to Burbridge and Weir, Mayer is joined in Dead and Co. by Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, organ and piano and Mickey Hart and Jay Lane on drums.







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Bob Weir in triplicate as he was projected onto the screen at Dead and Company’s performance at Sphere in Las Vegas on June 8. 




A giant video game

The show at Sphere was a wonderful walk down memory lane. The visuals were first-rate and the venue itself is truly a marvel. Standing 366 feet tall and stretching 516 feet wide, you can fit the Statue of Liberty inside Sphere, the largest spherical structure in the world.

According to Canyontours.com, a Las Vegas tourism website, Sphere has “1.2 million programmable LEDs., 68 million video pixels with 16K resolution, making it the highest resolution screen in the world, with the world’s largest concert-grade audio system, comprising 1,586 loudspeaker modules, 167,000 speaker drivers, amplifiers and processing channels, as well as 300 mobile loudspeaker modules that deliver a crystal-clear, multi-layered audio experience through beam-forming technology and wave field synthesis.” Wow.

Dead and Co. took full advantage of the visual and audio opportunities. There was plenty of psychedelia and animation that captured the history of the songs and the band. 

As far as the music itself, the first set was relatively mellow which is not a bad thing, as there is truth in the “Dead and Slow” label. If you like to rock, and my Grateful Dead from the ’80s was a rock band, the struggle is real. The last two songs of the set, “Peggy O” and “Sugaree,” were dreamy. 

“Sugaree” has always been one of the most powerful songs for me as I sang it for all four of my kids as a lullaby.

The second set started with “China Cat Sunflower”>”I Know You Rider,” which always takes me back to Red Rocks when Jerry offered me the invocation to move to Colorado as a teen. There were Red Rocks visuals on the screen during the show making the flashback even easier.







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A woman dances at the Dark Star Orchestra show at Gerald Ford Amphitheater in Vail on July 3. 




“I Know You Rider” is my favorite Dead cover, tied with “Morning Dew,” a post-apocalyptic song that offers musical transcendence every time it’s played. Dead and Co. delivered on that promise later in the night when they performed it. John Mayer’s guitar work and Bob Weir’s vocals were passionately delivered and it was the highlight of the evening for me. 

When Dead and Co. played fast songs like “U.S. Blues” and “Johnny B. Goode,” the “Dead and Slow” pace was in full effect. I will never get used to hearing those songs played at three-quarter speed. JRAD, take me away. 

Sphere was enjoyable as a giant virtual reality Grateful Dead video game. That said, I saw one show and that was plenty for me. I’ll take the beautiful open air mini-shed that is the Gerald Ford Amphitheater on a beautiful summer evening to watching animation indoors all day long.

And that is exactly what I got to do last Wednesday when I returned to Vail to see Dark Star Orchestra.

Daddy, daughter, DSO

DSO, as they are frequently called, formed in 1997 and have played over 3,100 shows. They are not so much a cover band as a tribute band “celebrating the Grateful Dead experience.” DSO plays a specific show in its entirety, song by song, and they perform the shows remarkably similar to the way they were originally played. Of all the bands in the Dead universe, DSO sounds the most like the Grateful Dead, which is why they have always been my favorite.

Currently the band consists of Rob Eaton on guitar and vocals, Jeff Mattson on guitar and vocals, Rob Barraco on keyboards, organ and piano, Lisa Mackey on vocals, Skip Vangelas on bass, and Rob Koritz and Dino English on drums.

By the end of my Grateful Dead touring days, I had seen 53 Grateful Dead and nine Jerry Garcia Band shows. In the 29 years since Jerry died, I’ve probably seen close to 100 to 150 related bands, so all together I’m at about 200 Grateful Dead-related shows. And of all the shows I’ve ever seen, DSO last Wednesday night will go down as one of my favorites of all time. 

Why? Because my running partner was my 8-year-old, daughter Lollie. It was our first show together and the first concert she had ever been to. I bought her a Barbie doll, not to be opened until we got to the show, to keep her busy. I had looked for a “rings on her fingers and bells on her shoes” Barbie in the product line, but hippie-chick Barbie was nowhere to be found, so we settled on the suburban mom Barbie (who in real life, could be a John Mayer fan). 

Dark Star opened the show Wednesday with one of their three great suites, “Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower.” As I began to stretch it out and get my Grateful Dead groove on, Lollie was shooting me dirty looks as if to say, “Dad, you’re dancing is embarrassing me.” I told her, “Lollie, you can dance anyway you want to here. No one will make fun of you.”

She looked around and saw the freak show beginning to unfold and seemed reassured. Before the suite was over, I had Lollie on her feet and dancing with her rubbery Gumby moves in full effect. 

The show was straight up magical. In the first set, the band played the Robbie Robertson song “Broken Arrow,” a late-era Dead song that debuted in February 1993, not long before Jerry died. I had never seen anyone play it. They finished the set with the song “Take a Letter Maria,” a 1969 song by R.B. Greaves. They completely rocked it. I had never seen anyone play that song either. So that was two songs in one set I had never seen before. I was filled with delight. 







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Aspen Daily News arts and entertainment reporter Geoff Hanson and his daughter Lollie are pictured at last Wednesday’s Dark Star Orchestra show in Vail. It was her first concert ever. 




The second set was the set of the summer for me with Dark Star playing two of my favorite songs back to back, “Terrapin Station” and Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” which was 25 minutes of nirvana (the band sometimes plays concerts that are not replica shows and Wednesday night’s was one of them).

The band came out of “Drums/Space” with a mesmerizing slow version of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” At that point, it was time for us to go. We had to drive back to Aspen and it was getting late. We started walking to the exit of the venue just as the opening notes of “Morning Dew” resounded through the venue.

Nope. Not leaving now. We parked ourselves close to the exit and in doing so we had landed in the area populated by the Spinners. This is the group of Deadheads, adorned in what can only be described as complete hippy garb, who engage in a hypnotic ballet characterized by their frequent 360-degree spins. Lollie was transfixed. 

Dark Star’s lead guitar player and vocalist Jeff Mattson squeezed every bit of transcendence out of the song. At one point, Lollie grabbed my two hands and we danced as we swung our arms back and forth as if we were creating a human hammock. She stared into my eyes and the refraction of her gaze blew away anything I had seen at Sphere. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever had at a Dead show, let alone at any music event. 

As we headed for the door, a woman walked up to me and said, “watching you and your daughter dance made me cry. Thank you.” 

The band closed the set with “One More Saturday Night” as we darted for the bus so we could beat the crowd and get back home. 

As we walked to the bus I said to Lollie, “Do you know the name of the band?” She said,”Billy Strings?” I said, “no.” She said, “Red Rocks?” She had no clue that the music was connected to the Grateful Dead. 

But someday, hopefully, she’ll live into an understanding of the music and how much it means to her dad. To help her remember the night of her first show, I framed up the ticket in a two-sided clear frame (you can find anything at Carl’s). I wrote a quote on the back of the ticket. I picked a line from the opening song of the night.

“Lollie, without love in the dream, it will never come true. Love, Daddy.”

 

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