The Cracked Guide To The Grateful Dead, Part 5: The Dead Today
In 1997, two years after Jerry Garcia’s death, a group of Chicago-based musicians came together to perform Grateful Dead music. Cover bands are certainly not new – I distinctly remember ads in the Village Voice at a Bleecker St. club announcing THE DOORS, then in small print above it “Drink enough and you’ll think you are seeing…” – but this band, the Dark Star Orchestra, hit on a unique idea. Instead of just playing a set of tunes, they would recreate specific nights from the Dead’s deep lore. They’d recreate the setlist, arrangements, and instrumentation.
And here’s the punchline: the DSO has now played over 3,000 gigs. The Grateful Dead itself played around 2,300.
Even better, Dark Star has gained enough popularity to play some of their gigs in the actual venue where the night originally happened (like Red Rocks outside of Denver.) What’s really wild is that surviving members of the Dead frequently sit in with them, and members of the DSO have orbited into other bands that do their own thing. Coloring outside the lines is key to what makes this work.
So even though most people agree that the Grateful Dead ceased to exist when Jerry died, the music never stopped. Bob Weir already had a side project, RatDog, and final Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick quickly joined that group. (Also in the fold, terrific musicians like Rob Wasserman, Jay Lane, and Steve Kimock, all of whom have had remarkable careers.) Mickey Hart also continued a strong solo career, with various projects like Planet Drum, which included percussionists and musicians from around the globe (India’s Zakir Hussein, Brazil’s Airto Moreira, Nigeria’s Babatunde Olatunji, to name but a few) that won the first Grammy for “World Music” in 1991.
In 1996, a traveling jam band festival called Furthur (named for Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus) included Mickey’s new band Mystery Box, RatDog, and Dead associate Bruce Hornsby (plus other cool acts, like Hot Tuna, which emerged – and lasted far longer than – fellow early San Francisco group the Jefferson Airplane.) There was a lot of guest playing with one another in various sets, to the delight of fans. It was clear these guys weren’t done making music.
And this is a key point. Forget, for a minute, whether the guys in the band were through—what were the fans supposed to do? A hardcore Deadhead, of which there was no shortage, could not just … go and get a job! Their job was to follow the Grateful Dead!
One thing that happened to a degree (though some have overstated this move) is the migration to following four wacky stoner-misfit-alchemists from Vermont: Phish. There is a lot of shared DNA with the two bands – like their laissez-faire attitude toward tapers and lengthy jams -- but also a lot that is different, too. (Phish actually sounds more like early Genesis or Roxy-era Zappa than the Dead, if you want to get into all that.) But, immediately post-Jerry, it is true that Phish’s popularity swelled, in part, because a caravan of hippies needed a new place where they could sell veggie burritos on the lot, take drugs, and swirl around to genre-bending music. (And like Jerry Garcia, the group has their own Ben & Jerry’s flavor, Phish Food.)
As time marched on, the Grateful Dead as a company continued. They released (and continue to release) archival albums that fans may have already owned on duplicated cassettes, but can now hear in souped-up digital form. The “Dick’s Picks” series (named for archivist Dick Latvala) goes 36 double CDs deep. Then came 15 or so from the “digital downloads” series, 17 “Road Trips” collections, and 42 (and counting) “Dave’s Picks,” named for archivist David Lemieux, who took over when Latvala died. The band has a YouTube channel, which is not unusual for a very well known retired group, but sells a lot of official garbage like branded wine, $500 watches, and expensive truffle chocolate. There’s a lotta shakin’ on Shakedown Street.
Remaining members of the group reformed multiple times over the years, as The Other Ones (a play on their tune “The Other One,” acknowledging that none of them are Jerry Garcia), as Furthur, and even just called The Dead. RatDog continued, as did Phil Lesh’s group, nowadays just called Phil and Friends, which includes a lot of up-and-comers on the jam scene. Then we get to 2015.
That summer, the living “core four” of the group, Weir, Lesh, Kreutzmann, and Hart got together as The Grateful Dead for a series of “this is it, we’re done” concerts called “Fare Thee Well,” a line from the song “Breakdown Palace” off the American Beauty album. On lead guitar: Trey Anastasio of Phish.
The shows, in Santa Clara and in Chicago (at Soldier Field, location of the final Dead show with Jerry, 20 years later), sold out, were streamed everywhere, and got a lot of attention. They were pretty good. But later that year, three of the four (everybody except Lesh, whose Phil and Friends act keeps him busy) formed something new called Dead & Company.
Unless you pay attention to these sorts of things you’d never know it, but Dead & Company is a money-making monster. When they come to New York City they pack CitiField for two nights. They netted $200 million in 2019. Thing is, it’s not just a graybearded Bob Weir or Mickey Hart’s beam drawing crowds, it’s a surprisingly terrific replacement for Garcia’s slot: John Mayer.
Yes, the very popular John Mayer has a pretty lucrative side gig. He plays guitar in a style that is his own, but richly inspired by Jerry. And it’s a better fit than Steve Kimock or even Trey Anastasio ever were. What’s more, he’s a terrific singer.
When you look at Mayer and Weir side-by-side, they look like a grandfather and grandson. But in an interview Weir spoke eloquently about a vision he had while playing with this band. He was “behind own head” and suddenly it was 20 years later. He realized that John’s hair had turned gray, Oteil Burbridge (Dead & Co.’s bassist, an alum of the Allman Brothers Band, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and elsewhere) had white hair, and the two drummers were different, younger guys. Then he saw himself, and saw his own younger replacement. “It changed my entire perception of what it is we’re up to. The thing about the Grateful Dead is that, all the way through, the combination of players kept changing.” Heavy.
Something else happened in 2015, that maybe speaks even more to Weir’s vision. A side project for many musicians on the jam band scene (some of whom had played with Phil and Friends, or with members of Phish on special tributary tours, plus the bassist from Ween) started gaining some real attention. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) was packing in clubs, and those who were unafraid to say it (me! me!) insisted that they were far more interesting than Dead & Co, Phil and Friends, or the almost scholarly Dark Star Orchestra.
Here was a young(ish), energetic band that took the essence of Dead music and made it their own. In ways sometimes more exciting than the Dead ever did it, they weave in-and-out of compositions, surprising you with themes emerging from deep inside what feels like an improvised jam. (This is inspired, perhaps, by Phish.)
What’s more is that they sell out sizable venues in minutes and are guaranteed to never have a song on the radio. They’ve never even recorded in the studio! (A few live sets are on Spotify.) JRAD, like the Dead themselves, are a phenomenon that one could never plan. It just has to happen. And we fans are grateful.
So that’s the story of the Grateful Dead. Maybe now you get it. Or maybe you clicked some of these embedded videos and wondered, “Uh, does this guy not realize they are all singing out of tune?”
They’re not singing out of tune. You’re listening out of tune. But that’s okay. Let there be songs to fill the air. Believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on. The judge decreed it, the clerk he wrote it. Whooooo!
You can find the rest of Cracked's essay series on the Dead here:
Top image: The Grateful Dead/YouTube