Shakedown Street brings the Dead to life in Aspen
ASPEN – In the music combo he has led since the mid-’90s, which is usually billed as Joshua 3, singer-guitarist Josh Rosen mixes original songs with tunes by his foundational artists: the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Cream. One rule that Rosen follows in crafting a setlist for a particular show is that he’ll play no more than two numbers by the Dead – not because the songs are too jammy, or too closely associated with the ’60s counter-culture. It’s because listeners enjoyed the songs too much.”It was too easy. It was like giving candy to babies. People just ate it up,” Rosen, a thoughtful, 48-year-old father of two young daughters said from his home in Fort Collins, Colo.Three and a half years ago, Rosen took a job that forced him to play more than a couple of songs from the Dead catalog each night. A lot more. As the lead singer and guitarist – aka “the Jerry guy” – in the 25-year-old, Colorado-based Grateful Dead tribute band Shakedown Street, Rosen plays exclusively Dead material. Rosen had been a Deadhead prior to joining Shakedown Street, but the role of playing the Dead repertoire – improvised psychedelic jams, country-and-Western tunes, covers of Chuck Berry three-chord rockers, the slow “weeper” ballads that the late Jerry Garcia excelled at – gave Rosen ample chance to consider just why this particular music seemed to penetrate so completely into an audience.”Why is it so accessible to so many people? Why did it affect so many people so deeply?” he said.Rosen has come up with some answers that go back further than an association with an idealized free-and-peaceful ’60s San Francisco scene from which the Dead emerged. “It’s sort of like Greek myths,” said Rosen, who studied theater at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “There’s an epic scale to a Grateful Dead show. People have an expectation that the hero will do battle with the Cyclops, that you’ll experience the beauty of the Sirens.”Grateful Dead concerts have often been likened to the structure of a journey. Shows generally began with a fast-paced tune to get the crowd moving, and the first set consisted of fairly short songs that touched on topics ranging from Appalachia to the American West, friendship and treachery, romance and the blues. The second set stretched out to encompass the bigger spaces of the imagination: community, transcendence, loneliness, death. Audiences usually touched back down on solid ground with a rocker sung by Bob Weir. To Rosen, this structure was a key to the Dead’s appeal, tapping as it did into something essential about the human experience.”It was taking someone on a trip to the destruction, facing mystery. Then returning home, maybe with their faces bruised and wiser for the journey,” he said. “I think that speaks to people. I think people want adventure.”A big piece of that adventure was the improvisatory nature of the Dead’s music. Even as the band’s concerts solidified into a structure, even as songs were played hundreds of times in the same arenas and amphitheaters to the same shaggy crowd of fans, there remained something unpredictable to the experience. In the music itself, there was nothing less certain than Jerry Garcia’s guitar riffs, which were reinvented each night. On any given night, the results could be embarrassing, but on the overall long, strange trip scale, the sense that things could go horribly wrong added a necessary element to the adventure.”Danger plays a role,” Rosen said. “Garcia would extend way beyond the safety net of known scales and repeatable riffs. He always seemed to play at the edge of the unknown. That takes a lot of courage and a lot of humanity, to take thousands of people along with you on that. It was a noble calling.”Rosen had three older brothers who turned him on to the Grateful Dead’s albums – which barely prepared him for his first trip down the rabbit hole of a live Dead show, in 1980 in Lewiston, Maine.”Going there was an epiphany,” said Rosen (whose first show featured a version of “Shakedown Street,” the Dead’s funky look at postlapsarian San Francisco). “I was not expecting that kind of journey. It was so appealing on so many levels. It was intellectually stimulating, spiritually stimulating. I had no idea it would be like that.”Shakedown Street – a quintet comprising Rosen, bassist Edwin Hurwitz, singer and rhythm guitarist Scott Swartz, keyboardist Joe Weisiger and drummer Christian Teele – will put listeners on more familiar ground Friday at Belly Up Aspen. For the third consecutive year at Belly Up, the band will perform “Europe ’72,” the live album that while documenting one of the Dead’s grandest adventures – the first tour of Europe for the quintessentially American band – is often considered one of the safest points of entry for the uninitiated.”‘Europe ’72 is an album that served as an introduction for so many fans,” Rosen said. “And it was a high water mark for the music. It’s modern, modal, avant-garde, blues, country, rock ‘n’ roll, achingly sweet ballads. No wonder ‘Europe ’72’ has legs – it’s all there.” (Last year, “Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings,” a 73-disc set that included all 22 of the tour’s shows, packaged to resemble a steamer trunk, was released. For the less obsessive and more financially cautious, the Dead also released a two-CD version of selection, “Europe ’72, Volume 2.”)••••Probably more than any band, the Grateful Dead’s legacy rested on the live experience. Their albums didn’t sell particularly well and they didn’t get tons of radio play or TV exposure. Neither did their music translate especially well to the studio setting. It was the live shows where the exploratory nature of the music, the communal bond between musicians and fans, Robert Hunter’s sage and poetic lyrics, the messy mass of colors, smells and stories came together in a way that made Deadheads follow the band across the land. “There’s Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert” read the bumper sticker, but rarely was it heard, “There’s Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Album.”So when Garcia died in 1995, at the age of 53, and the band decided to call it quits as the Grateful Dead – the notion of replacing Garcia couldn’t have been realistically entertained for more than a few seconds – it was easy to see the band’s legacy quickly fading. “When Garcia died, I was heartbroken,” Rosen said. “I said, ‘That’s it.’ Because it was an experiential phenomenon. Garcia was more than a musician or artist. He was shamanic, would usher you in and enlighten you. How are people going to get that if not at a performance or show?”But the Dead have endured; in some ways, there has even been an expansion of the Dead realm. Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh tour regularly in various configurations, even playing some of the venues, like Red Rocks, where the Dead used to perform. Where Weir and Lesh lean heavily on the familiar repertoire and style, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann have gone on to explore new musical styles. (Both have appeared with their current bands at Belly Up over the last year.) There are dozens of tribute bands like Shakedown Street, and Dark Star Orchestra has upped the ante of the tribute act by playing specific Grateful Dead concerts from years past, song for song and in the style of the particular era. The band has released an enormous amount of recorded material, and in spite of the fact that most of the Dead’s concert are available for free, via Youtube, archive.org or bootlegged recordings, the official releases apparently sell well; they continue to roll out in impressive numbers.The current issue of The New Yorker magazine sports an example of the endurance of the Dead. An expansive essay on the band by Nick Paumgarten, a committed Deadhead as well as a regular New Yorker contributor, is not so much a historical piece but a look at how the band’s popularity was established, and how it lives on, through bootlegged recordings, especially cassette tapes endlessly copied. As it happens, one tape that is central to the story, from a concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, was recorded 32 years ago today. I, also a devoted Deadhead, highly recommend a listen, with particular attention to the segue between “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain,” the blistering take on the traditional “Samson & Delilah,” and the jam out of “Playing in the Band.”The New Yorker is just one of the unexpected places to find an embrace of the Dead. “The Music Never Stopped,” an emotionally touching movie from last year, took its title from a Dead song and much of its inspiration from a troubled young man whose bond with his father and with the rest of the world rests on his memories of music, especially that of the Dead. Acts including reggae singer Burning Spear, the punkish Elvis Costello, the hardcore Sublime and gospel group the Persuasions have covered the Dead’s songs.••••Josh Rosen’s affinity for musical adventures seems to be genetic; his father, John, embarked on a colorful musical trip well before there was a Grateful Dead to follow around. Growing up in New York City, the teenage John would journey up to Harlem to sneak into jazz clubs to see his idols. One night he wandered backstage to meet Louis Armstrong. Satchmo invited Rosen, a fellow trumpeter, to Sunday lunch and the two became friends. At 17, Rosen traveled to France and lived in the same apartment as guitarist Django Reinhardt.These days, Josh Rosen’s adventures include going to Newport Beach to jam with his dad, record their sessions, and get first-hand accounts of the early days of jazz. “It’s a wellspring I’m tapping into,” Rosen said. “He’s definitely influenced my style. When I was in a crib, he’d have Dixieland sessions at our house. In my playing I’ve ripped him off left and right. He’ll play something and I’ll think, Oh, that’s where I got that line from.”Whatever the reason, it was evident early on that Josh Rosen’s creativity would be expressed outside the usual boundaries. He started on trumpet at 9, playing in school bands, a structure that only spelled trouble. “As soon as we’d stop whatever we were working on, I’d play variations on the theme, I’d get warnings and check marks,” said Rosen, who grew up in California and Vermont. “So as soon as I could, I switched to an instrument that would allow me to improvise to my heart’s content. That’s the danger of music education – it can’t be at the expense of allowing a student to explore. Improvisation is essential.”In Shakedown Street, Rosen is expected to improvise on guitar lines that were already improvised by Garcia. Which invites a dilemma: How much do you style your playing after what Garcia already did?”When I joined Shakedown Street, I said, I’m going to take this seriously and invest myself. I’m going to play the music as if Garcia were still alive and inventing the music,” Rosen said. “You have to reinvent it, freshen it on a nightly basis. I hear cats try to emulate one past show – and they’re trying to copy an improvisation that came from one night, that Garcia would never have repeated. I try to play it as a new experience, as new as it can possibly be after playing it a hundred times.”That’s the goal – to play it as honestly as Garcia would have played it. To put Garcia’s stamp on it, but play it in a fresh way. That takes a lot of risk. There can be great failures in that.”Rosen understands that there’s an enormous gap between playing the exact licks that Garcia played one night, say on 5/31/92, in Las Vegas, one of Rosen’s favorite shows (“Not a dry eye in the entire Silver Bowl during ‘Attics [of My Life]’…goose bumping just thinking about it,” he wrote in an email. I, too, happened to be at that show, and back in the days of Walkman tape players, a bootlegged copy – boomy, wobbly – of the show copied for me by an old girlfriend was one of my go-to tapes for going on runs), and being anything like Garcia.”He’s such a pivotal figure. What, once every couple hundred years you’ll see someone move music and consciousness forward like that?” Rosen said. “There is some sense of giving people as close an experience as you possibly can You have to be open to the moment and take a lot of risks.”It cheers Rosen that Shakedown Street still draws crowds of Deadheads who saw the band back in the days when blues shouter Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was the focal point, as well as kids who are new to the Dead’s music and curious about this odd phenomenon.”Fifteen years after Garcia died, I look out and see this latest generation has taken the time to get it. It’s like Youtube has done the job,” he said. “And thank god. It’s such an important genre of music unto itself.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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