The Next Life of the Grateful Dead

Why a new generation of heads—musicians, visual artists, and other seekers—are turning to the sounds and styles of the world's most freewheeling band.

by Jonathan Williger; illustrated by Chris Georges
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Nov 2 2018, 4:14pm

As tall bearded men try to covertly puff from hidden devices, a band rings the opening notes of its second set of the night. A singer steps up to the mic and is almost overpowered by the crowd singing along with every word. I start dancing, joining in the communal joy before the song starts to dissolve. Eventually, as we all know it will, the music gives.

The drums drop out entirely and the lead guitarist explores chromatic figures that veer in and out of tonality. Strangeness and familiarity blur—the structure remains recognizable, but the details, the texture and lead guitar motifs, seem to emerge out of the present moment. Everyone bearing witness is blissfully lost, some with eyes closed in a private state of euphoria, others responding with primal spins and waving limbs.

It's a scene that fans have come to expect when they go see the Grateful Dead's music played live—but tonight, at a small bar in Brooklyn, it’s in newer hands as the locals in High Time play these decades-old songs for a ravenous audience. They are one of a large number of groups opening a new chapter in the evangelism of these sounds, this way of being. The music they play is inherently a relic of the past, but these artists are doing what they can to keep this spirit alive, approaching the songbook in their own uniquely creative way and birthing a new folk form in the process.

High Time
High Time at Union Pool in Brooklyn / Photo by Justin Bazdarich

Over the course of 30 years, the Dead invented their own internal musical and visual language, one that evolved in front of the audience, with the band’s repertoire growing to include hundreds of songs that could shapeshift from night to night. That potent combination of mystery, drama, and tradition, along with an ideology of openness and inclusion, fuels the spread of the culture the Dead engendered. It is a culture of seekers—of wanderers in search of meaning, experience, and connection, dissecting every note in an exhaustive ritual of devoted fandom.

While Deadhead culture has continued to operate as a diminished, but consistent, force since Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, in the last several years, it’s seemed closer to mainstream acceptance than any time since the early 90s. The Day of the Dead compilation, released in 2016, outed indie rock titans as fans, suggesting that if the National, Kurt Vile, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Courtney Barnett found the music worthy of exploration, maybe there was broader appeal than previously thought. Misguided thinkpieces on the resurgence in fashion publications spring up seasonally, with many seemingly baffled as to the Grateful Dead’s newfound popularity. And it would be negligent to not mention that a genuine pop star, the attention magnet that is John Mayer, is currently touring in the Garcia role with three of the band’s original members as Dead & Company.

It is a culture of seekers—of wanderers in search of meaning, experience, and connection, dissecting every note in an exhaustive ritual of devoted fandom.

A catalyzing moment for the current renaissance came in the form of Fare Thee Well, the final performances by the core four surviving members: guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Over two nights in Santa Clarita, CA and three nights in Chicago in June and July 2015, the band played for nearly 362,000 people and over 400,000 tuned in via simulcast, breaking both ticketing and streaming records. The July 3rd show in Chicago was also my first time seeing the Grateful Dead’s music played live.

I heard Weir sing “Playing In The Band,” with the extended jam at the song’s core heading into especially discordant territory, and Lesh bleat out “Box of Rain”—both revelatory experiences. I felt the power of Hart’s Beam, a self-made instrument that produces bulbous waves of sound, during the “Drums/Space,” and was shocked at the overt experimentalism that was being lapped up by tens of thousands of people. It was a coda for the band itself, but the crowd’s overwhelming enthusiasm was a reminder of the influence the Heads themselves wield. It wasn’t just the members of the Grateful Dead that made that final run a turning point—it was the love and appreciation of the audience and the community itself.

Fare Thee Well
The scene at Fare Thee Well / Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Peter Shapiro, the promoter of Fare Thee Well, has had a front row seat to the revitalization of Dead music. As the owner of Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY (the site of several historic Dead shows), as well as the founder of Lockn Festival and the publisher of Dead-zine-turned-glossy-monthly Relix, he has built an empire based around what is nominally known as the jamband scene. In Joel Selvin’s new book, Fare Thee Well, which digs deep into the band’s interpersonal drama after Garcia’s death, the author describes Shapiro as “ebullient, chatty, and eternally boyish”—and that enthusiasm is palpable as I talk to him about his experiences at the center of this world. “There’s just something about these songs,” he says repeatedly, almost as a mantra.

“When I took over Relix ten years ago, no one wanted to be on the cover,” he says of the struggles to get mainstream artists to proclaim their allegiance to jamband culture in the 00s. “No one.” Things have changed of late, though; Shapiro lists off recent covers by Jack White, Leon Bridges, Beck, and Ryan Adams, boasting, “Now Vampire Weekend wants to be on the cover. They want to be Dead.”

"There's just something about these songs," Peter Shapiro says repeatedly, almost as a mantra.

Shapiro has watched the Williamsburg crowds coming to Brooklyn Bowl evolve from skeptics of the scene to converts, packing the room for remote webcasts, tribute acts, and the perennial runs he does with Phil Lesh’s long-running rotating group, Terrapin Family Band. “We didn’t change programming, so the neighborhood and the cooler kids came to it,” he emphasizes.

Peter Shapiro
Peter Shapiro at Brooklyn Bowl / Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

Though the Grateful Dead were careful never to espouse explicit political beliefs, Shapiro points to the general state of turmoil in the world as a major factor in this music’s wider acceptance. “A lot of the stuff that’s going on might be fucked up for the world, but it’s good for the Grateful Dead,” he says. “You want to escape stuff, and music to escape into. This is where you can lose yourself and forget about certain things, be experimental, and move around.”

One of the most conspicuous aspects of Dead culture’s resurgence is the proliferation of the band’s iconography. Even non-fans will likely be familiar with the stealie (the skull with the embedded 13-pointed lightning bolt) and the colorful dancing bears. Few artists have pushed the drawn from imagery of the Grateful Dead and pushed its spirit further into mainstream and underground cultural consciousnesses than Elijah Funk and Alix Ross of the T-shirt company Online Ceramics. Their shirts, oftentimes printed on tie-dye, feature Dead platitudes, imagery drawn from lyrics, and playful references to classic Dead iconography. They came together as lone Deadheads in the midwest underground punk scene.

“We amplified our love for the Dead times ten as some kind of weird sadistic act against everyone around us,” says Ross.

“I latched onto it visually before I did aurally,” says Funk. “It really bothered people. It was more, ‘I’m going to put a stealie on the drum kit, because it would annoy everyone at the punk show.’ I found a flyer recently for my noise/hardcore band from 2010 where I used the Europe ‘72 kid. And that’s what has become our style, mixing different images from Dead world.”

That appreciation of the Dead’s visual language eventually led to a deep appreciation of the music. “I took some of my step-dad’s Grateful Dead CDs and listened to them, and I liked it. But then I got ahold of Europe ‘72, and that’s what really clicked.”

The duo started out posting their Dead-inspired designs on Instagram and hawking their wares in the parking lot outside of Dead & Company shows, but they have have since designed limited-run shirts for John Mayer, The War On Drugs, Wolf Eyes, Weyes Blood, and countless others. They operate in a long, and very much still alive, tradition of visual artists using the parking lot outside Grateful Dead shows, affectionately called Shakedown Street after the Dead’s 1978 album of the same name, to express their love for the music in a similar way as these bands that devote so much time and energy to playing the music. Funk describes their design process as coming deep from their inner-fan.

“It’s that part of you that likes to talk about shows,” he says. “We talk about a certain song, and there are visual cues that just make sense. Its pretty organic. And once the designs start, they just kind of inform themselves. I’ve equated it before, but it’s like playing a Dead song; it leads itself along the way. When I design shirts, it’s like I finally get to talk about what I want to talk to everyone about.”

That impulse to translate fandom into creative practice has inspired many musicians to pick up the mantle themselves in the years since Fare Thee Well, pushing the music of the Grateful Dead in new directions and highlighting different aspects of what keep the Dead relevant.

Los Angeles’ Grateful Shred formed in 2016, when singer and guitarist Austin McCutchen decided to put together an ad hoc band to play Dead covers for a residency at The Griffin in Atwater Village. McCutchen, who typically plays country music that draws heavily on the Bakersfield sound, recruited fellow guitarists Sam Blasucci and Clay Finch, as well as bassist Dan Horne, who has played with Cass McCombs, Jonathan Wilson, and Circles Around The Sun, the group who composed the music played during the set break at Fare Thee Well. They see their interpretation of the Grateful Dead as a ritualistic performance of “indigenous California music.” Untangling the knotty chords that typify Bob Weir’s contributions and concentrating on the vocal harmonies, Grateful Shred’s take stems from sessions sitting around living rooms and campfires singing stripped-down versions of the songs and then electrifying them.

“When I first came out to California, I listened to the Dead a lot,” says McCutchen. “I left the Midwest, came to California, and started camping. Sitting in the mountains with a guitar, we almost inevitably play Grateful Dead songs. It’s a really great common ground to find musically.”

“That feels like the origin of our take on the Dead’s music,” adds Horne. “Because at the beginning, Austin, Clay, Sam, and I were just sitting around our living room, singing three-part harmonies.”

Grateful Shred have maintained that communal vibe since their formation, often welcoming notable guests from the world of independent music into the fold, including McCombs, Ryley Walker, and King Tuff, among others. They draw on music from all eras of the Dead, though they especially shine when playing tunes that were Dead set staples during the mid-late 70s—full of clean guitar tones, moderate tempos, and tight arrangements—as well as the cowboy songs that Weir sung throughout the band’s career.

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A High Time setlist at Union Pool / Photo by Justin Bazdarich

On the other coast, New York’s aforementioned High Time uses jazz and heavy psychedelia as a filter when exploring the Dead’s catalog from 1965-74—years when the band was at its most exploratory, going through swift evolutions almost yearly.Their interpretation is fueled by a sense of abandon and exploration. During their ongoing monthly residency at Union Pool, High Time embraces the complexity and expansiveness of the band’s early years, as well as the explicitly psychedelic imagery (a liquid light show). They play with looseness and intensity, emphasizing stretches of dynamic improvisation.

“For me, the key word is ‘catharsis,’” says drummer Adam Kriney, noting that he finds the band’s pre-74 years the most conducive for those feelings of release. “The sound was so circular and round. It had all of that Miles electric-era influence that made it feel free.”

He told me that he rediscovered the Dead’s music as an adult, a common theme among folks I talked to in the community. While studying free jazz and avant-garde improvisation at a music school in New York, he heard a 35-minute version of “The Other One,” a free-wheeling Weir song that directly references Beat-era muse Neil Cassady and the bus Furthur. This particular recording, from the band’s European tour in ‘72, went particularly out, and Kriney was able to draw connections between it and the music he was studying.

“When the arrangements get a little more set, it leaves less room for you to express yourself as a player,” says guitarist Jake Rabinbach. “But if you listen to a ‘Dark Star’ from ‘72, all of a sudden they make up a new song in the middle of it. When there's that expansion already, there’s room for you to be your own person in the music as well.”

High Time goes deep when putting together arrangements of the early material, oftentimes finding one particular performance where the Dead tried out something new or unique and incorporating that into their own version.

High Time
High Time at Union Pool / Photo by Justin Bazdarich

Grateful Shred and High Time shed light on a duality in the Grateful Dead’s music that makes it particularly ripe for reinterpretation and reinvention. The first aspect is the timelessness of the songs themselves. Jerry Garcia started his career as a bluegrass-obsessed banjo player, and the vernacular of traditional music is built in to the Dead’s ethos. The roots of “I Know You Rider” date back to John and Alan Lomax’s song-collecting days in the 30s. Bob Weir learned “Samson & Delilah” from Piedmont blues legend Reverend Gary Davis. “Peggy-O” is based off a Scottish ballad dating back hundreds of years that was imported to the American South. Just as bands are reimagining the music of the Grateful Dead, the Dead themselves turned to traditional music to create their own songbook.

“I think the way the Dead interact with the folk tradition in America is so distinctly American, and if you live in this country and respond to any kind of narrative or folk-tradition music, there’s no other band that took that on as a career in quite the same way,” says Rabinbach.

Secondly, there’s the music’s free-spirited, improvisatory aspect. Because Dead shows were prolifically recorded, there are many templates onto which musicians can affix their personal stamp. No matter how structured the Dead became, extended group improvisation remained a hallmark of the band’s sound. If the power of the songs and lyrics are what draw musicians to initially start playing, it’s the open-endedness that keeps both musicians and fans coming back to them repeatedly, sometimes for decades on end.

Jeff Matson is the current Garcia of Dark Star Orchestra and a founding member of the Zen Tricksters, which began playing Dead music in the late 70s. His immense talent as a guitarist and improvisor allows him to recreate this ecstatic experience with more precision than almost anyone else, and he understands that dynamic intimately. “With the Grateful Dead, you can see them three nights and you don’t see any songs repeated, and if they did repeat a song, they wouldn’t play it the same way twice,” he says. “I think it appealed to people with a sense of adventure. They can take some song they’ve played a thousand times, and the jam will just take off and go in a totally different direction.”

“I think it appealed to people with a sense of adventure," Dark Star Orchestra's Jeff Matson says of the Grateful Dead's dedication to never playing the same show twice.

Dark Star Orchestra, the most popular group of non-original members playing the Dead’s music today, is known for recreating classic setlists and playing them on era-specific gear. This means incorporating MIDI systems when playing setlists from the 90s, with guitar sounds morphing into electronic flute and back again, or favoring piano over organ for 70s setlists. Dark Star Orchestra can sell out major venues like the massive Colorado outdoor amphitheater Red Rocks; at this point, they’ve played more shows than the Dead did in their 30-year run. By striking a delicate balance between authenticity and originality, they have become an institution unto themselves. In recent years, Matson has started noticing younger fans pressing up against the front railing at shows. “That was me in the 70s,” he says with a chuckle.

That fluidity between fans and the musicians they revere, that self-perpetuating nature of Deadhead culture, is one of the most powerful forces this new wave of tribute bands has been able to harness. Online communities of Heads were a crucial part of the early internet, fostering a group cohesiveness that has only strengthened since social media came into the picture. And considering the powerful iconography at hand, it is no surprise that memes have become a major part of how the culture expresses itself.

Perhaps some of the most powerful examples of the resurgence come at the DIY level, an extension of the innovation and spirit of the parking lot scene. In Boston, Nick Williams and Alaina Stamatis host a local Dead night in the basement of their record store Deep Thoughts JP, which frequently is home to performances from Williams’ Dead band Owsley’s Owls (named for Owsley Stanley III, an LSD synthesist and Grateful Dead soundman during their formative years). Williams, who came up in the underground experimental music community, is as close to a Grateful Dead evangelist as you can get.

“The vibe of our night is similar to a mini version of a Grateful Dead concert,” says Williams. “You’ve got some younger folks, but there’s a lady who has been seeing the Dead since [founding vocalist/organist] Pigpen was in the band who comes every week. It’s a real grab bag of people. We have a guy named Arty who is kind of our Bill Graham and Wavy Gravy rolled into one,” he says referencing the San Francisco promoter and Fillmore owner who booked countless Dead shows and the activist and clown with close associations to the band.

“One of the qualities of the music is the meaning it has in people’s lives,” he says. “It’s not so much that you’re pretending you are the Grateful Dead, and it’s not that the audience is pretending they’re at a Grateful Dead concert. They are at a Grateful Dead concert. It’s become its own art form, or folk form. I honestly believe it’ll be around for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’ll see in the future if it resembles more of something like the folk music tradition, or if it resembles more of a religion.”

High Time’s Jake Rabinbach also emphasizes the important synergy between musician and fan. “What happens is the crowd creates the experience for the bands,” he says. “That’s how I experience it. We’re bringing the music in this very particular way, and the community shows up and they make it the actual Dead experience with us. It’s a collaboration, and I think that’s a new, special thing.”

"At this point, we’re all a part of the Grateful Dead," says Online Ceramics' Elijah Funk. "You’re a part of the Grateful Dead."

In my experience as someone who has become enmeshed in this world, losing myself in this complex web of love and admiration, being a part of a community that feels larger than each of its constituent parts, feels just as significant as the music itself. As other communities fracture and feel more isolated, Deadhead culture remains centered around appreciation and inclusion, the gratitude of giving and receiving. The mutual creation of a reality, the reality of a Grateful Dead concert, is powerful to experience first-hand. Paraphrasing Mickey Hart, Online Ceramics’ Elijah Funk says that “it’s not about the band anymore.”

“It’s the people that are the band, and that’s what makes it important.” He continues: “At this point, we’re all a part of the Grateful Dead. You’re a part of the Grateful Dead; Online Ceramics is part of the Grateful Dead. Everyone involved is a part of the Grateful Dead. They allowed that invitation in to it.”

Garcia once said in an interview, “In a way the music belongs to [the fans.] When we're done with it, we don't care what happens to it. If people choose to mythologize it, it certainly doesn't hurt us.” The Dead ceded control of their legacy to the masses who love them. Twenty years after Garcia’s death, the possibility of any future reunions off the table going forward, the people who love the music are now driving the bus. Once you collectivize music, turn it into a tradition, it can never die. When personalization and innovation are built into that tradition, it flourishes in unexpected ways. The music of the Grateful Dead will continue to be relevant as long as there are means of transmission and the desire for novelty, expansion, and a sense of belonging. That love will not fade away.

Chris Georges is an artist based in Brooklyn who throws a Dead night called Macrodose. Follow him on Instagram.

Jonathan Williger loves you more than words can tell. Follow him on Twitter.

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