Finding a band surrounded by more mystique than the Grateful Dead would be a fool’s errand that could last longer than the average live Dead jam. Except there is no such thing as an “average” Dead jam. By fusing simple American folk music with bold jazz-like improvisation, the Dead minted the very idea of the “jam band.” Founded in 1965 in San Francisco, they also quickly cultivated one of the most fascinating, loyal and unique subcultures in modern American history, a group far better known as “Deadheads.” But even for non-fans, a few minutes spent browsing the Dead’s online headquarters, dead.net, can be an eye-opening, possibly mind-expanding experience. In the half-century the Dead have been around, books have been written, archives constructed and an exchange of concert recordings (or “tapes”) created that in some ways presaged eBay or today’s Internet forums.
The kicker is that the Dead, who lost their musical driving force and chief spiritual adviser, Jerry Garcia, in 1995, may be more popular now than ever before. In May, 4AD Records released Day of the Dead, a 59-track tribute album for the Red Hot Foundation featuring many of indie-rock and Americana’s top names (The War On Drugs, Wilco, Courtney Barnett, Lucinda Williams, Kurt Vile, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, etc.). Curated by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, it spans five CDs or a whopping ten vinyl LPs (available in September). For their part, the surviving members of the Dead regrouped for a brief tour last year that climaxed in a three-night sold-out stand at Chicago’s Soldier Field dubbed “Fare Thee Well.” Then some of them joined up with reformed pop star John Mayer, called themselves Dead and Company, and kept the long, strange trip right on going.
"Sugar Magnolia," recorded live in 1972 at Houston's Hofheinz Pavilion
In Houston, largest city in a state with a complicated history with the Dead, the rendezvous point for local Deadheads is a three-hour stretch of 90.1 KPFT’s Saturday-afternoon airwaves known as Deadbeat. Beginning at 3 p.m., the show uses the music of the Grateful Dead as an entry point to show, song by song, the “progression that’s passed down from generation to generation, musician to musician, and what you find is that it all goes back to a certain core,” says host Sandy Weinmann. (See the end of this article for an index of the last couple of episodes.) One of KPFT’s raft of volunteer DJs, Weinmann has been at the helm of Deadbeat since 1997, when he inherited a Friday-night program then called Dead Air; some time-slot and personnel shuffling led to the rechristened Deadbeat's landing on Saturdays about six years ago, Weinmann says. So if anybody in town is in a good position to speak on the Dead’s unique place in rock history, it would be him, but Weinmann is a little reluctant to use the word “unique.”
“They’re unique in one way,” he allows. “And that is there was one chance they were not willing to take during live performance. They were able to capture a certain space in the live-performance genre that I think very few bands, if any, have ever captured. And I think that’s really what sets them apart.”
Weinmann, who says he screens so much music for Deadbeat he hasn’t even had a chance to listen to very much Day of the Dead yet, warms to the idea a little bit more.
“Their ability [was] to go into any venue [with a song] that their fans had heard time and time again, and make it unique, make it fresh and make it interesting to the point that you wanted to hear that piece again,” he continues. “And then the next time they played it, it would be slightly different. I mean, how many bands can get away with for that length of time playing that cadre of material?”
Back at Hofheinz, October 1977
In the course of his KPFT tenure, Weinmann says he’s met, interviewed on air and/or befriended several members of the Dead’s inner circle, including original members Bob Weir (guitar) and Phil Kreutzmann (drums), Donna Jean Godchaux (who sang with the band through most of the 1970s), and the band’s longtime publicist, Dennis McNally, with whom Weinmann says he has spoken at length. Starting at Washington’s RFK Stadium in 1973 with the Allman Brothers as openers (“What an introduction to the Grateful Dead!”), Weinmann reckons he’s been to see about 50 Grateful Dead or Dead-related concerts in all, claiming the Jerry Garcia Band as his favorite of the side projects. Those include many of the band’s Texas dates, which, with the exception of the Manor Downs racetrack outside of Austin, tapered off until the rekindling of interest sparked by the left-field Top 10 success of the 1987 song “Touch of Gray.” The Grateful Dead’s last performance in Houston stands at October 20, 1988, at The Summit.
“There was a run that they did that went from San Antonio to Houston to Dallas, and [only] two of the three shows sold out,” recounts Weinmann. “So after that, they decided really not to come here; that was, as I understand it, a Phil Lesh decision. Whether that was true or not — well, that’s what I was told. Phil Lesh didn’t tell me that, okay? You can take it as you want to.
“But the other side of this was they were not happy about law enforcement here,” he continues. “You go to the venues here and you light up, and it’s not received real well. You can go elsewhere, other parts of the country, and everybody lights up and it’s not a problem. Here, it’s like, ‘Wow.’”
Befitting a show devoted to the Grateful Dead diaspora, Weinmann says he keeps a special place in his heart (and on the show) for artists who perform live, as many do. Tomorrow Deadbeat will sponsor an extension of that idea doubling as a fundraiser for KPFT, dubbed “Deadbeat Live,” at Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar; performing will be friends of the show including reunited Last Concert Cafe mainstays Plump, Funky Mustard, Blackout Vipers, Atomic Nightingales, Wild Rabbit Salad, Fahl & Folk, Bomba Chica, Boo Hiss and Zach Person. Again circling back to what the Dead did that no other band could ever quite approach, he recalls the time an all-Dead outfit out of Austin by the name of Deadeye visited the show. (Deadeye will actually play two sets of Grateful Dead music next Saturday at Houston’s Cottonwood, as it happens.)
“I asked them the question, 'Why are you covering the Grateful Dead? You're musicians; you can play anything,'” Weinmann says. “And the answer came back, and it was one I had to think about a little bit, but it really resonated. They said, 'As a public service.' They said in Austin there was an opportunity that they saw because there weren't very many Grateful Dead cover bands going at that time. There was an opportunity, a window if you will, to provide this.
“And I thought about that comment, 'public service.' Wow,” he continues. “And then I think to my own experience, and I go, 'Yeah, it is a public service, because now you're giving the opportunity for someone to pick up on this music. And, let's face it, lyrically and musically, what the Grateful Dead were able to do was again unique.”
That would be a fine spot to end this article, but Weinmann wasn’t quite done. We had been talking about the Dead’s recent spike in popularity, and what their music had to offer even latecomers such as myself, and Weinmann’s next comment really cut to the heart of the Dead’s durable, catholic appeal.
“Garcia was really the master of this,” he explains. “They were able to take bright chords, like a G or a D or a C, and marry them with almost less-bright lyrics, almost blues-soaked lyrics. That is an art all unto itself that I don't think anybody has been able to master throughout the years like the Dead did. Not at all. There's much more there than meets the eye, is what I'm trying to say.”
One from the '80s — August 1985 at Astroworld's Southern Star Amphitheater
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WALKING THE DEADBEAT
June 25, 2016:
David Crosby & Jerry Garcia
Satan Cowboy and the Seven Deadly Sins
Roy Wiffin (live on-air)
July 2, 2016:
Joe DiAmico of Mason Porter (phone interview)
Jerry Garcia Band
KPFT presents "Deadbeat Live" featuring Plump, Funky Mustard, Blackout Vipers, Atomic Nightingales, Fahl & Folk, Bomba Chica, Wild Rabbit Salad, Boo Hiss and Zach Person from 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, July 9 at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, 1031 E. 24th St. Doors open at 3 p.m.; see the Facebook event page for further details.