Extending the Long, Strange Trip
When the Grateful Dead was still alive and touring, it was an accepted truth among Deadheads that there was no substitute for the live experience. There was an experiential flavor to a Dead show – the improvised set lists, the ineffable bond between the band and that night’s audience, the scene and the smells – that couldn’t be captured on a recording, even a bootleg tape of the hottest live show. It’s an oft-repeated tale of the doubter-turned-Deadhead after being dragged to his first show.It follows that the band’s legacy would begin to fall off when the Dead came to a halt – as it did 12 years ago with the death of singer-guitarist Jerry Garcia (Aug. 1, 1942, to Aug. 9, 1995). No more shows meant no more budding Deadheads seduced by the incomparable scene, the X factor between the musicians, the charisma and talent of Garcia.But that’s not what’s happened. The long strange trip has been extended in numerous ways. There are full-blown Deadhead kids who, if they caught the band at all, did so in diapers. Various members of the Dead carry on, revisiting the old style and plowing new musical fields. There are cover bands everywhere, including Dark Star Orchestra which, since 1997, has been meticulously recreating actual Dead shows. Here in Aspen, we have the Grateful Deli – which opened two months ago – serving sandwiches named for Dead songs. None of the musical elements are as enticing as the genuine article, but the activity surrounding the Dead world is sufficient to make the point that it wasn’t merely the party on wheels that attracted people to the Dead.One of the most overlooked facets of the Dead’s appeal, lost in the smoke and the 15-minute jams, is the song writing. The Dead, at least in those bursts when their attention was focused, wrote great songs. Catchy songs, edgy songs, songs filled with lyrical meaning and musical twists and turns. Their songs could be rooted in early American lore, or born of the ’60s psychedelic experience.
Robert Hunter – the band’s primary lyricist – was the band’s secret weapon, a poet with few parallels in rock music. He ran an end around the staple of the rock song – lust and romance – to navigate the culture of the American West, explore the ideals of liberty and bliss, and breath in the wonders of nature. And, simultaneously, he cast an ironic glance on all of it. When Garcia was willing, Hunter had a perfect partner, who could spin chord changes eloquent enough to stand up to the words.Is there a more graceful statement of communal spirit than “Uncle John’s Band,” with its folksy invitation, “Come along or go alone / He’s come to take his children home”? Is there a better invocation of the muse than the soaring climax of “Terrapin Station”: “Inspiration, move me brightly / Light the song with sense and color”? Is there a more stirring up-from-the-gutter tale than “Wharf Rat”: “But I’ll get back on my feet someday / The good Lord willing, if he says I may.”? (To be sure, fellow singer-guitarist Bob Weir, and his various writing partners, lived on a lower plain, but still turned out “Cassidy,” a beautiful meditation on childhood and destiny, and the ominous tale of the rail-riders in “Jackstraw.”)••••OK, I’m a fanatic, sitting here, on Garcia’s birthday, in my T-shirt commemorating his life and death (a VW minibus, shedding a tear out of its headlight). So don’t take just my word for it. A host of singers and instrumentalists have emerged from their niches in the musical realm – many of them universes away from Deadland – to claim an allegiance to the repertoire. Elvis Costello was a huge admirer. He praised Garcia’s unique ability as a guitarist to forget everything he knew each show and allow something new to emerge the next night. Costello also loved the songs; his acoustic medley of “Ship of Fools”/”It Must Have Been the Roses” is featured on “Stolen Roses,” a 2000 collection that is the most eclectic of the many tributes to the Dead and one of the most varied tributes to any band. “Stolen Roses” opens with a straight-up bluegrass take on “Cumberland Blues.” (Worth mentioning: Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics to “Cumberland Blues,” has said the greatest compliment he was ever paid came when he overheard a non-Deadhead say of the song: “I wonder what the guy who wrote this would have thought if he knew something like the Grateful Dead was gonna play it.”) The album ranges from Patti Smith’s gritty take on “Black Peter” to an instrumental version of “Ripple” by the avant-garde jazz group Sex Mob, to Henry Rollins’ industrial deconstruction of “Franklin’s Tower.” “Stolen Roses” closes with the Stanford Marching Band covering “Uncle John’s Band.” Bob Dylan, who doesn’t really need to go searching for outside material, chips in on “Stolen Roses” with a rickety “Friend of the Devil.” For a sharper take on the song, Lyle Lovett’s stately version appears on the 1991 album, “Deadicated.” (Give the Dead another hand for helping usher in the era of the tribute album. “Deadicated” was among the first of the genre; they have since become ubiquitous.) The album is not as diverse as “Stolen Roses,” but the range is still enormous. Jane’s Addiction gives an alt-rock twist to the gentle “Ripple,” while reggae singer Burning Spear keeps more of the heart of “Estimated Prophet” intact, even while giving it a stylistic makeover. Highlights are Dwight Yoakam’s honky-tonk cover of “Truckin,” and Los Lobos’ energized “Bertha”; both became concert staples for the artists.
The reggae world has had a particularly fruitful time with the Dead’s material. There have been two volumes of “Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead,” with top reggae singers – Gregory Isaacs, Marcia Griffiths, Toots Hibbert and more – doing a consistently good job of interpreting the material, almost all from the Garcia/Hunter pages of the songbook.
Tossed in among the reggae acts on Volume 2 of “Fire on the Mountain” is Warren Haynes, of the hard-rock band Gov’t Mule and of the Allman Brothers Band. Here, Haynes joins with the Jamaican rhythm team Sly & Robbie to rework Peter Tosh’s “Stop That Train,” a staple of the Jerry Garcia Band’s repertoire. But Haynes isn’t included here just for the novelty; he’s got a serious love of Jerry. On his 2004 solo acoustic album “Live at Bonnaroo,” Haynes plays a pair of Garcia ballads – “To Lay Me Down” and “Stella Blue” – and his own “Patchwork Quilt,” a reflection on Garcia’s life and death.Odder than the reggae contingent paying their respects are the jazz-fusion tributes to the Dead. Jazz Is Dead, released a pair of albums putting an instrumental spin on the Dead’s melodies. The quartet, which used to tour occasionally, featured two players from the Dead-related jam sphere: Jimmy Herring, now a guitarist with Widespread Panic, and T. Lavitz, a keyboardist who played in an earlier lineup of Panic. Both the rhythm section of drummer Billy Cobham and bassist Alphonso Johnson came more from the fusion side. An even more ambitious recording project was 1999’s “Terrapin,” credited to bassist Joe Gallant & Illuminati. That album employed strings, horns and voices to create an accomplished fusion suite out of the Dead’s 1977 album, “Terrapin Station.Jonathan McEuen, the son of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s string wizard John McEuen, wasn’t much of a Deadhead. He said his biggest attraction to the band was through their visual iconography – dancing bears and turtles, skulls and roses. Still, McEuen, with violinist Phil Salazar, give Garcia one heck of a sendoff in a 1999 album, “A Tribute to Jerry Garcia,” that puts a fiddle-swing stamp on the Dead’s output.
The most recent, and most out-there spin on the Dead, is “Dead Symphony,” an orchestral album by Lee Johnson. The Georgia-based composer/conductor may make for an odd fit with the Dead, but his colleagues here are even stranger – the Russian National Orchestra. It comes off as a well-executed novelty; the best part is the cover art of a skeleton playing a violin.There have also been full-album gospel tributes (“Might As Well … The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead”), a Celtic tribute (“Wake the Dead”), and a pair of bluegrass tributes (“Pickin’ on the Grateful Dead” and “Pickin’ on Jerry Garcia”). The respected jazz saxophonist David Murray, who once sat in with the Dead, released an interpretation, “Dark Star: The Music of the Grateful Dead.” Covers of Dead songs have turned up on recent albums by Willie Nelson, the Neville Brothers, Joan Osborne (who has frequently performed with surviving members of the band) and Bruce Hornsby (who was a part-time member of the band in the early ’90s).••••None of this latter-day Dead activity surprises Joe Freeman. A 36-year-old devout Deadhead, Freeman opened the Grateful Deli in Aspen in June, in the spot vacated by the In & Out House. Freeman needed a new name, and didn’t hesitate to settle on the Dead-related name.
“I didn’t do it to attract people. I did it because I love it,” said Freeman, who saw a nearly sold-out show last month by Ratdog, Bob Weir’s current band, at Red Rocks, and is making plans to see Phil Lesh’s Phil & Friends in Denver in September. “But people come in and see the mural, they love it. People are dropping things off – posters, a Shakedown Street sign.”Freeman is amazed at how many of the people, with all different looks, have a history of loving the Grateful Dead. “So many of your average people come in who you’d never think were Deadheads,” he said. “And they say, ‘Oh yeah, I was at this show and that show.”It’s like that bumper sticker says – ‘We are everywhere.'”Still.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com