Shakedown Street still has the Grateful Dead covered
ASPEN – The Grateful Dead? An institution, no question about it, one of the most institutionalized groups in rock history. The band lasted 30 years, and in the 15 years since the death of Jerry Garcia and the demise of the Dead, the organization is still going strong, with frequent releases of vintage vault recordings, tribute acts, spin-off bands featuring original members of the Grateful Dead, and new batches of Deadheads, many not born during Garcia’s lifetime, still being created. Their credential as an institution was probably sealed for good earlier this year, when the New York Historical Society opened an exhibition of Grateful Dead memorabilia. But just as significant is this tidbit: the Colorado band Shakedown Street, which devotes itself to covering the Dead repertoire, is in its 24th year. That’s right – a Grateful Dead tribute band has itself become an institution.”People refer to Shakedown Street as the mother of all Grateful Dead tribute acts,” said Jake Wolf, who has played drums in Shakedown Street since the late ’90s. “With Dark Star Orchestra” – the 13-year-old group known for re-creating actual Dead performances, song for song – “as the father.”Wolf added that it is not merely the longevity of Shakedown Street that gives it motherhood status. He acknowledges that there were Dead cover bands in the 1970s, when the Dead themselves were at the midpoint of their long, strange trip. Wolf himself played for awhile in Max Creek, an East Coast band that added a bunch of Dead tunes to its repertoire after beginning as a country band. (I recall, in the very early ’80s, seeing another East Coast band, Timberwolf, that played exclusively Dead material.) But Shakedown Street has earned a reputation for its fan-friendliness.”We’re really very in tune with our crowd,” the 35-year-old Wolf, who lives in the Vail area, said. “We’re the family band, the mama. People know they can relate to us. It’s the family vibe. We come in and feel out the crowd and go so far as to ask them what they want to hear.”The setlist on Saturday, Dec. 11 at Belly Up won’t be as fan-driven as usual. Responding to a request from the club, Shakedown Street will re-create an entire album – “Europe ’72,” the much-favored live triple-album that documented the Grateful Dead’s turn from a band exploring the sonic cosmos to one fairly well rooted in country and folk forms. While fans won’t get to influence the song selection, they will get a bonus treat: Keyboardist Tom Constanten, a member of the Grateful Dead for a year in the late ’60s, will sit in as special guest.Wolf has been on-board for only half of Shakedown Street’s own lengthy, unusual journey. But he has been playing the songs of the Grateful Dead for roughly two-thirds of his life. When he was 12, a cousin brought him to his first Dead show, a 1989 concert at RFK Stadium in Wolf’s native Washington, D.C. “I loved the scene. And you emulate the music you love the most,” Wolf said.It was only a couple of years till Wolf helped form the first of his Dead cover bands. Wolf, who was 15 at the time, and his bandmates chose the name “Caution,” after one of the Dead’s earliest songs. “We weren’t that good. We thought it was a good idea to warn people not t come see us: ‘Caution.'”A few years later, Wolf, who has always been involved in projects that focused on original music alongside his cover bands, was in another Dead tribute band – which, coincidentally, went by the name, Shakedown. Fans, mistaking Shakedown for Shakedown Street, would often tell him they had seen him play a Colorado show. Then in 1997, on his birthday, Wolf saw the marquee on Boulder’s Fox Theatre advertising a show by Shakedown Street. He introduced himself to the musicians, including the two – Ted Galloway, the frizzy-haired guitarist who took the Garcia role; and bassist Rick Starkey – who had founded the band, back in the mid-’80s. Wolf ended up sitting in for a few tunes that night. A year later, he got a frantic call from Galloway, insisting that Wolf join the group in time for its next show – which happened to be Garcia’s birthday, a big night for any Dead cover band.Wolf joined up, and in his years with Shakedown Street, has seen the band jam with Grateful Dead keyboardists Constanten and the late Vince Welnick, as well as Melvin Seals, a longtime member of the Jerry Garcia Band.••••For the last three years, Wolf has found himself in a role that at first glance doesn’t fit comfortably with playing Grateful Dead songs in late-night bars. He spends much of the daytime teaching music to students in the Eagle County School District.When he was first invited to interview for the job, Wolf was sure someone was playing a gag. “I was convinced someone was playing a practical joke,” he said. “So I walked in and said, ‘I don’t do paperwork. I don’t follow a curriculum. I don’t follow rules.’ And she said, ‘No problem,'” recalled Wolf, who has no formal music education.Wolf went on to inform the administration that he couldn’t do “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but he could give the kids a “School of Rock” experience. So he uses rock songs to teach kids musical skills. He has brought in DJ Logic, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and members of Colorado jam band Leftover Salmon as guest instructors. His techniques seem to be working: his students did a version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” at Vail’s Ford Amphitheatre with Yo-Yo Ma, and the celebrated cellist came away impressed with the musicianship. And yes, Wolf has incorporated some Grateful Dead into the curriculum. The students have sung the Dead’s arrangement of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” and at an upcoming holiday concert, they will perform the Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie.”While those who have never discovered the charm of the Dead might see playing in a Dead cover band as being stuck in 1968, Wolf has a different take. The scene continues to evolve. “So many generations get turned onto it. I see younger and younger kids at the shows, mouthing every word. It’s like a Chevy truck. It’s just not going to go anywhere. It stands the test of time,” he said. That view is supported by the existence of the Leadheads, a New York City Dead cover band comprising musicians ages 12-15.The music itself evolves. For one thing, the Dead’s style was designed to be wide open to interpretation and experimentation. “It’s so organic. It’s always changing. The song is the same, the structure, but the way you play it is different every night. And being the drummer, I get to control the groove and change it all the time,” Wolf said. He added that he is inspired not only by the Dead’s rhythm section of Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, but also by John Molo, the drummer who has become a key figure in post-Grateful Dead acts like Phil & Friends, led by Dead bassist Phil Lesh.A couple of years ago, Shakedown Street saw the departure of its founding members, Galloway and Starkey. It was left largely to Wolf to carry on the tradition. He currently heads a lineup – lead guitarist Josh Rosen, bassist Edwin Hurwitz, keyboardist Joe Weisiger, and rhythm guitarist Scott Swartz, who was in Shakedown Street in the mid-’90s – that has been intact for two years.Wolf sees the current edition of Shakedown Street as being in it for the long haul. Should that prove right, and the band last another 11 years, it will have been around as long as the Grateful Dead itself.”People say it’s an institution,” Wolf said, referring to Shakedown Street. “Ted Galloway would say that all the time: ‘This is an institution; that’s what we started here.'”email@example.com
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