Twenty years after Jerry Garcia's death, why is enthusiasm for the Grateful Dead still so alive? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Twenty years after Jerry Garcia's death, why is enthusiasm for the Grateful Dead still so alive? 

Gather round, converts: Dark Star Orchestra in Raleigh.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Gather round, converts: Dark Star Orchestra in Raleigh.

August will mark 20 years since the death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead guitarist who, for scores of devotees, was worshipped more after he died than when he lived.

As the anniversary of Garcia's passing and the Dead's 50th birthday both approach this summer, expect Jerry to be extolled beyond proportion, a stoned autodidact beardo transformed into an almost-religious icon.

Longtime Garcia collaborator Melvin Seals and JGB—that is, the Jerry Garcia Band without Jerry Garcia—now bill themselves "Keepers of the Flame." The belief that there is a flame to be tended is as marketable as it is true. Nostalgia culture smiles on fanbases that obsess over specific concert dates with the zeal of the Deadheads. But the encroaching #GD50 frenzy owes to the deeper explanation that Deadhead culture has remained alive, unbroken and extraordinarily active in the two decades since its reluctant leader died.

There are, for instance, the Dead's own morbidly framed Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago, with secondary-market ticket packages being offered (if not necessarily purchased) for $15,000. And in May, Maryland's Merriweather Post Pavilion will host Dear Jerry, a nostalgically branded all-star night featuring the surviving Dead members (not playing together), at least 18 other acts and a house band led by perennial Hollywood producer-bro Don Was. With a weeknight curfew and documentary crew in tow, a little room may even remain for Garcia's favored brand of relaxed music-making.

From there, the options get overwhelming: As summer begins, one can expect a spate of tribute festivals and festival tributes, cover albums and super-sessions involving founding Dead members Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann, plus later addition Mickey Hart. There are exciting-looking books, unheard music and jams to be jammed in the commemorative queue, too.

A sprawling, indefatigable network of Dead cover bands—big and small, touring and local—also persevere. The Dark Star Orchestra played Raleigh in February; this week, at the Lincoln Theatre, Seals and company will offer their singular angle by tackling only the repertoire of the Jerry Garcia Band, where Seals occupied the keyboard chair between 1980 and Garcia's death in 1995.

The joke about Deadheadom as religion would be stale if it didn't seem forever on the verge of becoming true. Second-generation tribute acts like the Dark Star Orchestra draw large crowds loaded with those who never saw the Dead and yet have discovered themselves to be Deadheads. Others immerse themselves in the band's rich recorded archive, connecting with a vast cabal of Dead freaks through a shared love of the group's musical history.

Though the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and other legacy acts continue to foster fresh interest from millennials, with the possible exception of Bob Marley, no other classic artist continues to manifest a complete world (and worldview) like the Dead. A half-century after they formed, the Grateful Dead remain irrevocably attached to LSD and the spiritual apparatus created by the combination of psychedelics and improvised music. Their breakthrough gigs came at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests. Their early benefactor, Owsley Stanley, manufactured the still-legal drug and used his proceeds to fund the band's gear. Sure, modern druggy campouts like Burning Man, Electric Forest and countless dance scenes provide current venues for ecstatic psychedelia, but the Grateful Dead are the original portal here, the shapers of an experience bigger than their own American music.

For their part, Garcia's old keyboardist, Seals, and his JGB maintain the songbook of sweet, tough post-psychedelic spiritualism of the Jerry Garcia Band. That Bay Area bar combo attained grace in part via Garcia's near-death and resurrection in 1986. Seals' churchy Hammond B3 helped. For Garcia, that all meant a repertoire of gospel and R&B, like Charles Johnson's "My Sisters and Brothers," God-channeling Dylan a la "I Shall Be Released" or the anti-dogmatic spirituality of songwriting partner Robert Hunter.

More than anything, it meant playing with as little interference as possible, three or four nights a week when the Dead weren't touring. Even in his darkest reaches of heroin addiction, even at the height of Deadhead culture, Garcia remained utterly dedicated to music. In that way, Melvin Seals and JGB might be truer "keepers of the flame" than most.

The Flame is not a difficult thing to tend. These days, it seems more like a raging fire, with roaring fields of independent scholarship and infinite ways to interpret and draw from the Dead's energy. There are a dozen competing versions of the Grateful Dead and their heritage, from the Grateful Dead belonging to people who spent decades following them around to those who never saw Garcia but now flock to the sentimental creepiness of Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebrations, featuring a later-period Allman Brother in a blazer solemnly playing Dead tunes on one of Garcia's beautiful custom guitars. One can enjoy elements of the band's more avant-garde acid-boho legacy audible in groups like Animal Collective and Megafaun and songwriters like Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Dead fandom can embrace ecstatic scholarship, too; Ohio State musicologist Graeme Boone uncovers deep improvisational structures in Dead jams like "Dark Star" and "Bird Song," while Dead bloggers dig for lost threads in the group's vast countercultural history. The disciples only seem to replicate themselves.

No one has yet to write a "Who are the Grateful Dead?" clickbait listicle. That will likely change when the Chicago shows come, but it also seems that people actually know who the Grateful Dead are, even if they despise them. It's strange not that The Flame has remained after such a long time but that it's growing, like a religion left to spread the good word long after its leader has vanished.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Still your face"

  • Melvin Seals and the Jerry Garcia Band play Lincoln Theatre on Tuesday, March 17th

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