Shakedown Street brings the Dead to life at Belly Up Aspen

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times

If You Go …

What: Shakedown Street

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When: Friday, May 13, 10 p.m.

How much: Free until 10 p.m.; $10 thereafter

More info:

Believe it or not, the Grateful Dead cover band Shakedown Street is now coming up on its 30th anniversary, meaning the Colorado outfit will have been at it as long as the original Dead lineup was between 1965 and Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.

Over the decades since it was formed in 1987 during barroom jam sessions in Manitou Springs, Shakedown has become a Colorado institution and one of the best regarded Dead tribute bands anywhere.

But can you teach an old Dead cover band new tricks? Apparently so.

Over the past six years, Shakedown has made a habit of playing the Dead’s enormously popular triple-disc live album “Europe ’72” at Belly Up and elsewhere. In a new series of shows, they’re picking out specific shows from that vaunted tour and recreating the sets. Tonight at Belly Up they’ll be replicating the Dead’s concert at Tivoli Theater in Copenhagen on April 14, 1972.

“We’ve played the album so many times, so we wanted to change it up,” Shakedown keyboardist Joe Weisiger said last week from Denver.

For the Deadhead faithful and the tape-trading crowd, it’s a highly regarded performance from the great European tour, featuring a much-hailed version of “Dark Star” transitioning into “Sugar Magnolia” and a new-to-the-lineup Keith Godchaux on piano with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan near the end of his tenure on organ.

“It’s one of the only shows that they have both the piano and the organ on,” said Weisiger, who will be covering both parts on keys at the Aspen show. “A lot of the songs are new on there, and it was really one of the better Europe ’72 shows in my opinion.”

The members of Shakedown Street all have soundboard recordings from the whole tour and study the intricacies of them as they’re preparing their own sets. Songs evolved over the tour, of course. So, for instance, solos on “You Win Again” in Copenhagen were completely different from those captured on the “Europe ’72” recording. It’s a new challenge for Shakedown, which in years past has been known to take audience requests and been less strict about its set lists. Musical mimicry is less important to Weisiger and his cohort than capturing the Dead’s spirit of improvisation and discovery in performances that can transport the Deadhead faithful back to iconic concerts of decades yore.

“We try to set up like they did at the time, we use the same equipment they used at the time and we all chat about it a lot,” Weisiger said. “But it’s impossible to play a show exactly like they did. I don’t even think they could do it themselves. But we try to be in the same mindset they were in at the time on those songs.”

Weisiger got into the Dead as a teenager and started going to shows and collecting tapes in 1991. He made it to 30 Dead shows before Jerry Garcia died four years later.

“A lot of people say that’s not very many, and some say it’s a lot,” he said with a laugh. “I guess it depends on where you come from.”

He joined Shakedown Street in 2005. The band has had a rotating cast of players through its three-decade history, but has had the same personnel for the past six years. Rhythm guitarist Scott Swartz played with the band for five years in the mid-1990s, left, and returned in 2010.

Both Weisiger and Swartz attended the 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” Dead shows at Soldier Field last summer. Those concerts, which captured the nation’s attention and featured Phish’s Trey Anastacio filling in for Garcia with the surviving members of the band, have invigorated and expanded the Dead fan base, Weisiger said.

“The 50th anniversary changed things up a little bit, it gave it all a fresh start again,” he said. “More people are coming out and I attribute it to the anniversary and how it went a little mainstream. … The crowds are younger, which is surprising because the Grateful Dead hasn’t really been around since 1995.”

Tonight’s Belly Up show is free before 10 p.m. and $10 thereafter. It’s one of 10 free offseason shows in the club in the next two weeks. This weekend also includes a free show by Denver indie-pop outfit South of France on Saturday and Denver jam band Digg on Sunday. They’re followed by the Colorado bluegrass outfit Canyon Collected on Monday, San Francisco soul group Con Brio (with Aspen’s DJ Naka G opening) on Wednesday and Americana group The Last Revel, out of Minneapolis, on Thursday.

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