Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Furthur Update

Checking in with the Deadheads two years after Jerry Garcia's death

By Paul Gerald

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Ever since "the fat man" rocked out and the Grateful Dead called it quits, the big question has been this: What are all those Deadheads going to do now?

Answers have ranged from the cynical ("Now they'll have to get jobs." and "They'll have to find a real band to listen to.") to the sublime ("We're taking the love and positive energy we found in the Dead into the rest of our lives as an example to the world."). But on a more practical level, the Deadheads are still out there, still going to shows, still buying Dead-related stuff, and still communicating with each other.

Deadland always revolved around the tour, and in order to keep that wandering musical thing happening, the family of musicians around the Dead created a wandering musical event called the Furthur Festival. Named for Ken Kesey's bus in the old Merry Prankster days, Furthur made its second trip around the country this summer, with a bill consisting of rockers moe., funky fiddler Sherrie Jackson, part-time Dead member Bruce Hornsby and his band, Jefferson Airplane co-founder and Hot Tuna mainstay Jorma Kaukonen, Arlo Guthrie, Dead drummer Mickey Hart's Planet Drum, Dead guitarist Bob Weir's band Ratdog, and the Black Crowes.

The Deadheads, it would seem, can't quite make up their minds about Furthur. Many can't get over being on a summer tour and not seeing Jerry Garcia up on stage. Others object to the commercial nature of the thing, with in-show vendors getting $4 for a 12-ounce beer and triple digits for Dead concert photos. And the inclusion of the Black Crowes, especially as closing act, seemed to many to be contrary to the Dead-centered nature of the thing.

Then again, it was nice to be out on the road again.

It is fascinating to see what somebody leaves behind when they die. On the one hand, what the Grateful Dead left behind is an ever-expanding merchandising wing, an ugly lawsuit between Garcia's two former wives about his money, and a somewhat disturbing iconoclasm of Garcia that is starting to show shades of Elvisation.

But it also left behind all sorts of music. A prediction a good friend of mine made when the Dead were past their prime has now come true. My friend said this: "I love the Dead, but I almost wish they would just give it up. For one thing, there's six great musicians in that band who could be doing six different, great things, and for another, I'd finally have some time and money to go check out other music."

Indeed, Weir, in addition to touring with Ratdog, is working on a musical about baseball great Satchel Paige. Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and keyboardist Vince Welnick joined the San Francisco Symphony for a performance of music by John Cage. Drummer Mickey Hart continues to play with various ensembles and to record indigenous music around the world. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann has been mostly offstage but has played a few Bay-Area gigs with a new band and even jammed with Jimmy Buffett a few times.

The Dead, such as they are, are still cranking out CDs at the rate of several a year. There's the From the Vault series, under the direction of Lesh, which now has four digitally remixed shows out from the band's own collection of recordings. There's also the Dick's Picks series of less-engineered but more frequent recordings put out by tape archivist Dick Latvala. Dick's Picks 9, hotly rumored to be a 1969 show with Janis Joplin, is due out in October. Another recent CD, Fallout from the Phil Zone, includes Lesh's favorite moments from all 30 of the Dead's touring years. A video of a fantastic summer of '89 show is coming out in October. The radio show The Grateful Dead Hour, featuring news, interviews, and concert selections, is played weekly on dozens of radio stations. It's not on in Memphis, but as in most major cities there is a local Deadhead show -- in Memphis' case, Headjams on WEVL, Thursdays at midnight. And the Deadheads themselves are, as always, trading tapes like crazy. To quote a classic Dead tune, the music never stopped.

And the Deadheads are, believe it or not, into other bands. The most common answer to "Where are all the Deadheads now?" has been "They're out following Phish." But the music most often mentioned in Internet Deadhead sites shows a wide variety: Rusted Root, David Grisman, the Allman Brothers, Zero, Widespread Panic, Bob Dylan, the David Nelson Band, as well as plenty about Phish.

Much Deadhead communication occurs on the Internet, where the Deadheads are one of the most-represented and best-connected online communities. The center of the hubbub is the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.gdead, where something like 150 posts a day cover topics such as which tape decks to buy, which Dead cover bands are the best, the highlights and lowlights of the Furthur tour, best performances of particular songs, "Dead sightings" on The Simpsons, and who's got a high-quality tape of some particular show. There's also an official Grateful Dead Web site (www.dead.net), a place to hear live Dead (deadradio.com), and more Deadhead homepages than you would ever believe, or want to visit.

Dead-family music is also being played live, and not just over the summer. Ratdog tours nearly year-round and is constantly working more and more Dead tunes into the rotation. This spring they even started playing so-called "Jerry tunes" like the 1987 Dead hit "Touch of Grey," which Garcia sang lead on. The Dead's lyricist, Robert Hunter, is out on tour playing his own versions of many of the classics he co-wrote with Garcia, and Welnick has a band called the Missing Man Formation that led its own tour this summer.

Probably the most controversial post-Dead band is an outfit called JGB, which is playing Saturday at the New Daisy. JGB used to stand for Jerry Garcia Band, a swingin', mostly-cover band that was, as you might imagine, built entirely around Garcia's guitar and voice. But without Garcia -- and also without longtime bassist John Kahn, who died of a heroin overdose just months after Garcia went -- JGB continues to go around playing essentially the same tunes. Three of the seven members are new since Garcia died. Many Deadheads scorn JGB as a rip-off that should go away or at least change its name. Many others, though, see it as a bunch of good musicians playing a bunch of good songs that were mostly covers, anyway. The band's been playing places the size of the New Daisy all over the country.

But Furthur Fest is -- like Summer Tour was -- the big thing, and on a sunny August afternoon in the San Francisco Bay area, it looked like a mighty good thing. They played the Shoreline Amphitheatre, which the Dead used to play several times a year, and the old magic showed itself throughout. During Hornsby's set, Lesh made his only (but highly anticipated among Deadheads, since this was a home-town show) appearance of the tour to join a rendition of the Dead's "Wharf Rat" and Hornsby's "Long Valley Road." Then Bonnie Raitt came out, totally unexpected, and jammed out on the Dead classic "Jack Straw," during which Weir and Lesh came back out and Hart, eager to join the fun, elbowed in on Hornsby's drummer.

It went on like that all night. The same crew came back out to join Planet Drum on "Fire on the Mountain." Raitt sat in with Ratdog for "West L.A. Fadeaway." Hunter played some tunes even the Dead rarely did, including the much sought-after "St. Stephen." And the whole gang -- including Weir, Hart, Guthrie, Kaukonen, and Hornsby -- teamed up for a rendition of the Dead classic "Ripple," which the Dead played only a few dozen times in about 2,500 shows, and only twice after 1980.

The closing jam, a feature of every Furthur get-together, consisted of Dead standards "The Other One," "Good Lovin'," and "Turn on Your Lovelight," and up there onstage were three of the original five band members, from all the way back in 1965, plus Hornsby and Kaukonen and all the rest. For Deadheads, that may be as good as it will get, unless probably-crazy-but-unstoppable rumors of a more-or-less Dead reunion pan out.

Call it a nostalgia gig if you will -- and you certainly won't be the first to attach that title to the Dead Scene -- but after 30 years of good music, good friends, and good times, Deadheads have plenty to reminisce about. They also, suddenly, have some more time and money on their hands. So where and how are they? Well, to paraphrase one of their favorite lines, they are everywhere: At work, at their computers, in politics, at live shows everywhere, riding around the country in their buses, in every walk of life and every part of the country. There's bound to be a lot of them on Beale Street Saturday night, too.

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