As a regular patron of the New Deal Cafe, I’ve noticed a pattern of Grateful Dead cover bands playing there, and was tipped off by New Deal fixture Bill Barber that there’s a whole culture around those bands, one that I should look into. Love an assignment like that! So here’s what I’ve learned, and it’s music to the ears of this aging hippie.
“DC is like Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s!”
Yes, more than one person told me that, exclaiming about the plethora of Grateful Dead cover bands in the DC area – as many as 10, it’s estimated. So DC may just be the “Deadhead capital of the world,” to quote local Deadhead Bill Doley. People I interviewed told me that’s that’s primarily thanks to two major Dead-related musicians living or performing here:
John Kadlecik of Takoma Park takes on the Jerry Garcia role of lead guitarist and lead vocalist for the quintessential Grateful Dead cover band Further, with original Grateful Dead members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. Wikipedia tells us that Further is “most prominent touring act that’s an incarnation of the Grateful Dead.”
John also performs with his own band – the John K Band – and he’s a member of the New Deal Cooperative, as is his wife Katie Gaughan. Katie’s also very accomplished and well known to Greenbelters from her appearances at the New Deal and leading drum circles in Roosevelt Center and on the 4th of July at Greenbelt Lake. She performs with Djesben, Akoma Drummers and The John K Band.
And Tom Constanten, sometimes performs at the New Deal. He’s the former keyboardist for the Grateful Dead, Rock N Roll Hall of Fame inductee and Woodstock veteran, now living in North Carolina. He loves the New Deal and performs here when he’s passing through the DC area.
Okay, I get the location connections but why is this happening now? I asked Leah Delano, a devout Deadhead and performer with the band Stealing Liberty, whose answer was definitive: “Because Garcia is dead.” So fans go where they can hear his music, if not him.
In addition to Further, there’s the Wharf Rats, Stealing Liberty, Beggers Tomb, Bud Skeleton, Too Big to Fail, The Road, On the Bus, and Better Off Dead, shown in this video of their recent New Deal show.
As explained to me by Bill Doley, some bands play only original Grateful Dead music, some add other pieces performed by the Jerry Garcia Band, and still other cover bands include other classic rock music, a move that can increase the audience size.
I don’t know much about the Deadhead culture, having never traveled the country to follow the original band, but here’s a hub for all things Dead. And I’ve noticed that these cover bands get the crowd on its collective feet – and not doing couple dancing. Instead and what I love is that everyone’s dancing individually and with the crowd and the musicians, which creates a terrific communal vibe. And I’m told that cover bands travel the area to attend each others’ gigs.
Locals can meet other Deadheads and find out what’s happening and where easily on the web. Greenbelter Bill Doley maintains a page for Delmarva Deadheads.
Oh, and there’s merch, too! Tie-die entrepreneur Erin Cassell appears with several cover bands selling Dead-era t-shirts and more. She also provides the tie-died backdrops for the band, which I’ve gotta say goes a long way to transporting me back to the good old days of my college years.
Bill Barber, shown in iPhone-captured dance motion above, first heard Dead originals Jerry Garcia, Pigpen and Bob Weir back in 1967, and he’s been going to Grateful Dead concerts and festivals ever since. Bill grew up in Greenbelt and still lives just outside town, close enough to be a regular on the New Deal dance floor.
Bill Doley, another familiar sight at the New Deal, first saw a Grateful Dead concert in 1978 and he attended them regularly until Garcia died in 1995. Bill tells me that many Deadheads also listen to the music of Phish, which is a (relatively young) band – in their 40s.
New Deal Board member Dorian Winterfeld tells me that Grateful Dead cover bands play there about once a month and that they always draw a crowd. So, Deadheads are great for business!