Today, on what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday, it is impossible to fully capture the effect he has had on our scene, still to this day, and music in general. Seventeen years after his passing, one thing however is still very clear: his spirit is alive and well and in many cases, stronger than ever, especially through the plethora of Grateful Dead related projects, some of which are run by his former bandmates. In many ways, this time can be viewed as the Golden Age of post-Jerry music.
Garcia’s former running mates, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir have been touring for the past few years as Furthur. Drawing on other friends and musicians – both old and new – the lineup they have chosen is a perfect example of the mentality that fits the post-Jerry era, and allows things to stay fresh on stage, while remaining true to the Grateful Dead catalogue. For example, by enlisting drummer, and firecracker on the kit, Joe Russo, the former members of the Dead have a 30-something barreling down the track on the skins to inject some much needed enthusiasm into the familiar canon.
Or, we can look at guitarist John Kadlecik, who for years played the Garcia role in the Dead tribute act and scarily good cover band Dark Star Orchestra. While some may view his listing as taboo, it’s clear that his ability to mimic the role of Garcia, while still adding enough of his own flare to the mix, satisfies even Lesh and Weir.
But Furthur is just the most recent example of how things have come to be as of late in this era. Though sporadic since the founding of Furthur, Weir has continued over the years to play with his band Ratdog and that lineup has remained fairly intact, save a few changes. Lesh, on the other hand, has truly drawn from all aspects of the Dead community and cast a net that had enveloped some musicians that one would never have expected to join him onstage, especially in his rotating Phil & Friends lineups. From Trey Anastasio to Ryan Adams to John Scofield to Jackie Greene (who has made the most of his push into the spotlight, I might add both with Phil and in a solo sense), and numerous others are just a few of the examples that span the spectrum of Phil’s willingness to not pigeon-hole the label or stigma of what makes the Grateful Dead music, well, The Dead. He welcomes anyone who he feels can help the music continue to grow and evolve in a true and organic way, no matter their background or where they come from.
Former Grateful Dead drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are also still playing music with their own outfits, but have seemingly moved on from trying to recreate the magic of playing with Jerry, per se. Kreutzmann’s 7 Walkers project still draws on the Dead’s material, but puts an unorthodox slant on things by inserting New Orleans funk into the mix, while Hart is still enraptured by the word drumming roots and soundscapes that the universe has to offer, making some sort of weird, yet good noise wherever he goes.
I don’t think there is any doubt that Lesh has been the main reason the Dead’s music has lived on in such a huge sense after Jerry’s death, at least in still being created on stage night in and night out, but with a fresh tinge to it, just the way Jerry had wanted. After all, Garcia once said that after he created the music on stage, it was no longer his and free to be shared by whomever chose to do so. Lesh has also recently opened his own clubhouse of sorts in northern California, Terrapin Crossroads, modeled after the late great Levon Helm and his home/barn studio, where he hosted his famed Midnight Rambles. Weir has gotten involved in emerging technologies and often broadcasts one of a kind events from his own TRI Studios, with what is undoubtedly the best video streaming quality I have ever seen online, again reaching the masses in a unique organic way. Weir and special guests, including Mike Gordon of Phish, will be broadcasting “Move Me Brightly,” one such event on Friday at 6:30PM PDT celebrating Garcia.
In addition to what is still happening on stage, there are still many other ways to realize that the world of the Grateful Dead is still thriving. Sure, many bands have archival releases well after their time is through, but no one does so in such a grand, majestic and thorough manner. Last year, 40 years after the historic Europe ‘72 tour, the Dead camp released a 70-plus disc recording of the entire, month-long tour. With an initial limited-edition (and pricey) run of 7,200 copies, they sold out in less than four days, showing that the fanbase and community is still as rabid, hungry and loyal as ever, even in 2011, 2012 and beyond.
Also of note are the slew of Grateful Dead inspired music festivals, most notably The Gathering of the Vibes. This past festival in Bridgeport, Conn.(the perfect home for it, I might add) saw every living member of the omnipotent Grateful Dead play with their respective outfits. While they didn’t share the stage at the same time, it still shows that the power of the music is enough to bring them all together to continue carrying the torch in their own respective ways.
In the end, there are hundreds of other examples I did not cite, and just as many, if not more Grateful Dead cover bands out there, seemingly one in every local watering hole. This, in my mind, is one of the greatest things about the Grateful Dead and the impact that Jerry and his mates had on the rest of the universe. They created a catalog of music that is timeless – in the truest sense of the word. However, unlike many other bands that have become shadows or caricatures of themselves after their time together has seemingly passed, the Dead camp, led by Phil, has blossomed into something that reaches many more and new fans than ever before, and still holds true to the original blueprint that Garcia helped create.
Happy Birthday, Jerry. We love and miss you.