Frank Micelotta, Getty Late July and early August in the heart of summer is…
- Posted on Aug 4th 2010 3:30PM by Benjy Eisen
Henry Diltz, Corbis
Like so many true heroes, Garcia shunned the spotlight. He saw himself as a musician, not an entertainer, and he was one of those rare rock stars that could do without the whole rock star thing; he was just there to jam.
The Grateful Dead, 'Uncle John's Band'
The Grateful Dead, 'Box of Rain'
And jam he did -- not just with the Grateful Dead but also with the constantly evolving Jerry Garcia Band, which traversed R&B, blues and a variety of other genres while covering everyone from Smokey Robinson to Jimmy Cliff. And, in still other ongoing side projects, part-time bands and one-offs, Garcia tirelessly explored new sonic territory, whether dabbling in bluegrass (Old and in the Way), jazz (Legion of Mary), country (New Riders of the Purple Sage) or even just when he grabbed his acoustic guitar, called up a partner-in-crime (such as mandolinist David Grisman) and ran through American folk classics -- his knowledge of music was encyclopedic and the songbook from which he drew from appeared endless.
Garcia never attempted to use his fame for personal gain. Sometimes it seemed he wasn't even truly aware of his fame. Or maybe it was just that he didn't believe it. Either way, he didn't really care. But he did take advantage of all the attention he received to introduce audiences to the wondrous music of all the greats -- Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Merle Haggard and so on. And, of course, no matter what the band or collaboration, he almost always slipped in at least one Bob Dylan tune. In fact, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between his originals and his covers, either because his originals were so good or because he turned whatever music he touched into something all his own.
The devotion of his fans was so strong that, even when he was alive, if he wasn't playing music onstage somewhere, Deadheads would clamor for second best -- they'd go to local bars on Deadhead Night to catch their local Grateful Dead tribute band play favorite songs, and they'd trade cassettes of live concert recordings and exchange stories of nights on tour. Most other music fans do something different when their favorite band isn't touring -- they go see other bands. But to Garcia's followers, that somehow felt like cheating.
Their opinion -- and dedication -- did not waver after Garcia's death. In the 15 years since Garcia passed away, Deadheads have explored every possible way to resurrect their guitar hero without actually, you know, resurrecting him.
The Grateful Dead, 'Sugar Magnolia'
The Grateful Dead, 'Cumberland Blues'
A few of the better Dead tribute bands, such as Dark Star Orchestra, have developed fervid followings of their own, selling out venues that can be even bigger than the ones some of the actual members of the Grateful Dead play these days; almost as if some fans just need something familiar to follow now that their leader is gone. Dark Star Orchestra are particularly notable for several reasons: First, the band doesn't merely cover the Dead's greatest hits -- it re-creates specific concerts in their entirety, even emulating the particular sonic effects and faddish styles that the Grateful Dead were tinkering with during that precise era. What's more, Dark Star Orchestra's version of Jerry Garcia (John Kadlecik, aka "Fake Jerry") became so good at nailing the role of Jerry Garcia that the two key surviving members of the Grateful Dead -- Phil Lesh and Bob Weir -- tapped him for the official current spin-off band, Furthur. Every night, he performs music by the Grateful Dead, with two of its original members, in the style of Jerry Garcia. That means, in a very real way, that every one of his fans kinda likes him because he reminds them of someone else. It also drives home the point that there will never be another Jerry Garcia.
The Grateful Dead survived a lot of setbacks during their 30-year career, including several deaths of band members throughout the years. The band always soldiered on. Yet, following Garcia's death in 1995, they disbanded almost immediately -- partially because they knew Garcia was irreplaceable and partially because they wished to honor him by not even trying. That's where the tribute bands came in. And the multiple series of archival releases -- for a dead man, Garcia certainly releases a lot of new albums. Most of these are culled, of course, from the vast library of live recordings (some from his personal estate, some from the Dead's vaults).
The Grateful Dead, 'Ramble On Rose'
The Grateful Dead, 'Friend of the Devil'
The surviving members of the Dead have continued to play music in various groups, with the common theme being that they've all drawn from the Grateful Dead's catalog, performing Garcia's music without him to guide them through the jams. And they've all regrouped at several points -- initially as the Other Ones in 1998 and then, simply, as the Dead in 2003. The problem with these groups, it seemed, was the obvious: Garcia was missing. Rather than go for an imitator, the remaining survivors often went for someone with his own unique voice and style of play (including, at points, Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers Band). Turns out, that only made many fans miss Garcia all the more. It's a point driven home by the latest project, Furthur. After years of using guitarists that intentionally didn't sound like Garcia, they hired the best imitator out there -- Kadlecik -- and Deadheads have responded feverishly.
And then there were the Furthur Festival tours in the years following Garcia's death, featuring not only bands with various members of the Dead in them but also groups such as Los Lobos and Rusted Root, who have shown the influence and importance of the Dead in their own original music. And so on and so forth. The Grateful Dead's legacy is so sprawling, influential and somehow important that the University of California, Santa Cruz even dedicated an entire wing of its library to the band's living heritage, and other universities have offered courses focusing on one aspect of Dead culture or another. In San Francisco, Garcia has a public amphitheater named after him, and the local Major League Baseball team, the Giants, are holding a Jerry Garcia Night at the ballpark on Monday, Aug. 9, the anniversary of his death.
Look: Every guitarist dies. But, perhaps with Jerry Garcia more than most, his voice continues to shine a light on the lives of so many of his fans, while his guitar continues to make a sound.