Five years Dead, the Fat Man still rocks
Jerry Garcia has been dead for five years and two days, and the music just won’t quit. If anything, Garcia’s music – through the new release of tapes recorded long ago, musicians interpreting his music on CD and bands doing nothing but recreating the Grateful Dead – is still in an expansion stage.It is, at least in the world of popular music, an unprecedented phenomenon, just as the Dead was during its 30-year existence. After Elvis Presley died, he got a bump in popularity, but that was much more about the image and the personality than the music. In the wake of the Beatles break-up, the stage show “Beatlemania” was a hit across the country. But there weren’t Beatles tribute bands on the club circuit, or CDs by musicians reinterpreting the music.Numerous musicians, especially since the advent of recorded sound, have seen their music and songs last well beyond their years: John Coltrane, Robert Johnson, John Lennon, Buddy Holly, Louis Armstrong, Jim Morrison. In classical music, the works of Beethoven have endured over 200 years, J.S. Bach’s nearly 300.It’s impossible to know whether Garcia’s music – with the Grateful Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band and various side projects – will endure hundreds of years, or even beyond the lives of those who had the chance to see Garcia perform. But it’s also difficult to say that any musician’s output has been so widely and fervently celebrated in the few years after his death.This past Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of Garcia’s death, a group of local musicians gathered at the Grottos nightclub to pay musical tribute, an Aspen tradition that began the day Garcia died. In the crowd were numerous second-generation Deadheads, those too young to have ever seen the Dead or Garcia, but who have somehow found their way to the music. Last night, the Double Diamond hosted the Aspen debut of The Schwag, a Colorado-based Grateful Dead cover band. (Shakedown Street, another Dead cover band, has been a Double D regular for the past several years.)This weekend, at the State Bridge Lodge near Bond, the Dark Star Orchestra sets up for a weekend of shows – Friday and Saturday, Aug. 11-12, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 13, at 4:30 p.m. In its two years on the road, the Chicago-based Dark Star Orchestra has taken the Dead cover band concept to new heights of tribute: The band recreates actual Dead shows, song-by-song, even going to the extent of changing their instruments depending on what era the selected Dead show is from.Action is equally abundant on the CD front. The past years have seen reggae tributes to the Dead, jazz tributes to the Dead, bluegrass tributes to the Dead. The Dick’s Picks series, named for and started by Dead tape archivist Dick Latvala, churns out multi-CD packages of actual Grateful Dead concerts from the past. The series, begun while the Dead were still playing, has outlived not only the Dead, but its producer as well. Latvala passed on several months ago, but Dick’s Picks, Vol. 18 – which features music from two 1978 shows in Madison, Wisc., and Cedar Falls, Iowa – was just issued, along with the announcement that the three-Picks-a-year pace would now be accelerated. Like Jerry, Dick has gotten more productive in death.David Grisman, Garcia’s favorite acoustic partner, has also been busy making sure Garcia’s picking sees the light of day. Over the past several years, Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label has released live CDs of Old & In the Way, a short-lived mid-’70s bluegrass band that featured Garcia on banjo and vocals, plus Grisman-Garcia folk collaborations (“Shady Grove”) and jazz explorations (“So What?”). The latest Acoustic Disc to feature Garcia is “The Pizza Tapes,” a trio session with guitarist Tony Rice.In a recent interview with The Aspen Times, Grisman noted that releasing CDs featuring Garcia has allowed Acoustic Disc to flourish, permitting Grisman to produce other projects such as the excellent “Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza,” which includes eight of the top mandolinists in the world, and the “Tone Poems” series, which shines the spotlight on vintage acoustic instruments of the highest quality.”Sales have never been a problem, thanks to Garcia,” said Grisman of his 10-year-old label.Just arriving on the shelves is “Stolen Roses.” Like the 1990 release “Deadicated,” “Stolen Roses” gathers together a truly eclectic assortment of acts – Bob Dylan, the Stanford University Marching Band, Henry Rollins, Patti Smith – all of whom offer their version of a Dead tune. Another recent addition to the catalogue is “Dead Grass,” a set of country takes on Dead material led by Old & In the Way fiddler Vassar Clements.In large part, the continuing Grateful Dead phenomenon is a Jerry Garcia phenomenon. Most of the tribute CDs, including “Stolen Roses” and “Dead Grass,” focus largely on songs written by Garcia and his longtime writing partner, lyricist Robert Hunter. A series of in-depth biographies of Garcia have appeared over the last decade. Ratdog, featuring fellow Dead founder, guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, proved to be not much of a draw or crowd-pleaser at the recent GrooveGrass festival at Sunlight Mountain.If the Grateful Dead’s legacy extends much beyond the first-generation Deadheads, the following will center largely around the songs, playing and charisma of Garcia.Representative of the appeal Garcia can have is the case of Jonathan McEuen. The 24-year-old McEuen – a California boy, son of string wizard John McEuen, a superb acoustic player in his own right – wasn’t much of a Deadhead in the day of the Dead. He saw exactly one Dead show, in Atlanta. But McEuen has played with various Garcia associates, including Grisman, Clements and Peter Rowan, all members of Old & In the Way. And on several trips to Hawaii, McEuen ran into the legend of Garcia, who spent much time later in his life scuba-diving in Kona.The combination of stories and music piqued McEuen’s curiosity. He can’t honesty call himself a Deadhead. But he was intrigued enough to record, with violinist Phil Salazar, “A Tribute to Jerry Garcia,” a disc of bluegrassy takes on songs written or sung by Garcia.”I’m a phenomenon fan, more like,” said McEuen, who has been living in the Aspen area of late, starting up the Flying Dog Records label with Woody Creeker George Stranahan. “I had to see what it was about. I was very interested in his career as a musician and his off-stage life. He wasn’t exactly a superstar; he was more a music god. But somehow he turned into this mega-entity guy. It went beyond his own design of himself.”Never having been part of the throng of Deadheads traveling from show to show, McEuen has found several things attractive about the Dead world beyond the usual. He likes the artwork associated with the Dead – distinctive images and styles found on posters, album covers and T-shirts. He admires the way that the Dead’s organization was made up of what he called “maverick types” who added their creative energies to the band. And what he finds captivating about the Dead’s song repertoire was that it came from all different places – early rock and roll from Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, country and folk tunes, as well as the band’s own creations – and still seemed to form an integrated whole.”I think their songs could be considered as one giant song,” said McEuen, who performs today, Friday, Aug. 11, at the Sundeck on top of Aspen Mountain. “People remember them as an experience of a show, or one long weekend. There’s a consistency to it, like there was with the Beatles. You didn’t listen to an album, you were listening to their whole catalogue.”If things are going to last and be true, you can’t be drawing only from your own barrel of shit. You have to be drawing from other sources, other people around you. It was good that they played cover songs and made them their own, and that they had different people, like Robert Hunter, who wrote for them.”McEuen believes that the jam-band movement that has followed the Dead – Phish, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident and the like – will eventually peter out. But the guy who launched the movement is going to have legs.”I think it’ll get old after awhile,” said McEuen. “But he’s the guy everybody will remember as being the consistent guy for 30 years. That’s something.”
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