Is The Dead dead?

By Howard Whitman

ASK A GRATEFUL DEAD FAN (let’s call them Deadheads) when their favorite band came to an end, and odds are they’ll tell you it was Aug. 9, 1995, when the “Leader of the Band”, primary singer/guitarist/figurehead Jerry Garcia, passed away at age 53.

Fair enough. But while the band — which formed in 1965 and for many personified the San Francisco psychedelic music scene — ceased to exist at that point, the surviving band members regrouped in 1998, touring and recording as The Other Ones (their name taken from a classic Dead song, “The Other One”), and then changing their name to, simply, The Dead in 2003.

However, by 2009 The Dead was … well, dead.

Grateful Dead 1993. Photo by Ken Friedman

But, somewhat typically for a band that’s spawned spinoffs throughout its history, two bands emerged from the ashes in 2010 — the year that marked the 40th anniversary of The Grateful Dead’s defining album, the classic “American Beauty.” Singer/rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh regrouped as Furthur, while the band’s classic two-man drumming team of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann resurfaced as The Rhythm Devils.

These musicians, who’ve been active consistently through their professional careers in a variety of configurations, are still at it — grooving, jamming and keeping Deadheads around the world happy through steady touring and access to the band’s many concert recordings, official and not-so-official. (Probably more than any band in history, The Grateful Dead and its various permutations have spawned a virtual industry in the taping and exchanging of its live shows).

But the questions remain: What really happened to The Dead? And will we ever see them together again?

Bringing Out The Dead
The Other Ones/Dead lineups weren’t all-inclusive. Kreutzmann didn’t tour with The Other Ones in 1998 and wasn’t on the band’s only official live album, “The Strange Remain”, which was released in 1999, although he did return to the fold in 2000 — the same year Lesh quit that version.

Also, Vince Welnick, keyboardist in the final Garcia-led Grateful Dead lineup from 1990 through 1995, wasn’t part of The Other Ones or The Dead; he passed away in 2006.
One keyboardist of note who did take part in The Other Ones’ touring and “The Strange Remain” was Bruce Hornsby, a star in his own right for hits like “The Way It is” and “Mandolin Rain.”

But with the four-man core of classic Grateful Dead players back together, The Dead toured in 2003 and 2004 with a rotating cast of characters that at times included Other Ones keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, singer Joan Osbourne (who had a hit with “One of Us” in 1995 and toured with The Dead in 2003), and Gov’t Mule frontman/guitarist Warren Haynes, who came on board for the 2004 tour.

Solo Truckin’
Following the ’04 jaunt, the band again went on hiatus. Rumor has it members weren’t getting along swimmingly at this point; whatever the case, the always-busy musicians returned to their individual projects.

Lesh toured with Phil Lesh & Friends, which at times included Osbourne, as well as John Molo, Hornsby’s drummer from his former band The Range. Phil & Friends released three albums in the years following the end of The Grateful Dead: “Love Will See You Through” (1999); “There and Back Again (2002); and “Live at the Warfield” (2006).

Weir returned to RatDog, the on-again, off-again band he formed in 1995; Chimenti, a RatDog member since 1997, also returned to the fold.

In 2005, Kreutzmann formed SerialPod, a trio with Trey Anastasio (guitar) and Mike Gordon (bass) of popular jam band (and admitted Dead disciples) Phish. The band only played a few shows in December of ’05, released a soundboard recording of a lengthy soundcheck jam on the Internet as a holiday gift to fans, and hasn’t been active since.

But Kreutzmann’s connection with Gordon continued when the drummer re-teamed with his percussive partner Hart in 2006 to form The Rhythm Devils, a band named after the collective nickname given to the two drummers.

Friend of the Devils
The “Rhythm Devils” tag was actually bestowed upon Hart and Kreutzmann by none other than famed filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola when the pair collaborated with the “Godfather” auteur to record soundtrack music for his 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.”

“Frances was back stage one night [at a Grateful Dead show], I think at Winterland,” Kreutzmann recalled. “He came to Mickey and said, ‘You guys are my rhythm devils,’ and we went, ‘Ah, that’s a good term.’

“We just kind of let that be,” he continued, “and then it just started happening at Grateful Dead shows; [Hart] and I would take it out and do the drum and space time, but we didn’t really call it Rhythm Devils. We just knew we were.”

“Drum and space time” was the name given to Kreutzmann and Hart’s free-form percussion improvisations that became a beloved staple at Dead shows. They would typically grow out of a song involving the full band, and when the rest of the band members left the stage to let the drummers have at it as a duo, that was known as the “space.” (To hear an example of a “drum and space” performance circa 1980, check out track 11 on the 1990 “Dead Set” release titled, naturally, “Rhythm Devils.”)

When the drum team regrouped for the new band in ’06, Rhythm Devils was the name they picked. They brought in guitarist Steve Kimock, percussionist Sikiru Adepoju and vocalist Jen Durkin (formerly of Deep Banana Blackout), as well as Phish bassist Gordon. The band played reinterpretations of Grateful Dead songs with, naturally, an emphasis on the percussion side of things, did some touring, and then seemingly put the “Devils” to rest. But they would be back.
Reunited for a Change

The Dead proper didn’t return to action until 2008, when they regrouped yet again to play two benefit concerts, titled “Deadheads for Obama” (featuring Weir, Lesh and Hart) and “Change Rocks” (which saw Kreutzmann again with the band) respectively, in support of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Following a 2009 tour, which saw the “classic four” united with Haynes and Chimenti, The Dead disbanded, possibly for the last time. However, the long, strange trip wasn’t over yet.

Furthur Back on the Road
Later that year, Weir and Lesh announced the formation of Furthur, a new band in the tradition of The Other Ones and The Dead that would carry on playing their old band’s classic songs live. Furthur got its name from that of the psychedelically painted bus used by The Merry Pranksters — a communal group that, under the leadership of author Ken Kesey, traveled the country, experimenting with psychedelic drugs and following bands like the Grateful Dead. The name was also previously used for the jam-band oriented traveling Furthur Festival, at which The Dead and other Dead spin-off bands have frequently appeared.

Furthur saw Weir and Lesh doing what a number of classic bands have done lately — recruiting a new member from a tribute band. As Yes, Journey, Boston, Judas Priest and others have done to replace their departed lead singers, Furthur brought in John Kadlecik, guitarist and vocalist with well-regarded Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra, to channel Garcia onstage, playing his parts with spooky accuracy. Kadlecik truly was a blast from the past for the band. Weir told Rolling Stone, “A couple of times when I had my back to John, I had this weird sense that it was Jerry.”

The initial Furthur lineup also included the once-again returning Chimenti; drummer Joe Russo of the Benevento/Russo Duo; second drummer/percussionist Jay Lane of Primus; and backing vocalists Sunshine Becker and Zoe Ellis. Lane left the band to rejoin Primus in March 2010 and hasn’t been replaced; Ellis left in May the same year and the band brought on Jeff Pehrson in her place.

Different Drummers
Conspicuously absent, of course, from the Furthur lineup were Hart and Kreutzmann, replaced by Russo and, for a time, Lane. As the band members have often been private about their behind-the-scenes dealings and relationships, the original drummers’ lack of involvement was downplayed in Furthur’s press coverage.

Still, reading between the lines, the Furthur faction gave some indicators on the state of the situation. In an interview with the Lehigh Valley Music blog by John J. Moser posted on Feb. 14, 2010, Weir spoke of the new band as a rekindling of his and Lesh’s sometimes rocky creative partnership.

“Well, after last year’s Dead tour, Phil and I sort of rediscovered our relationship and wanted to continue on in a somewhat new direction,” he said. “And so we talked (about) it and decided, ‘OK, the way to do that would be to start a band, but, you know. We wanted to look into some new players just to show what that would be like. And so that’s what we did.”
In this interview, Weir also confirmed that things hadn’t always been so hunky dory between him and his longtime bass ally: “We fought like cats and dogs for a while. Had different notions about how things should proceed. But during the Dead tour, we discovered that our musical relationship superseded that.”

Weir also spoke of Furthur as a “fresh approach” and a “cleaner slate.” So while he didn’t come right out and “diss” his former drummers, it seems apparent that he and Lesh felt an infusion of young, new blood was better suited to their new outlook. In other words, Hart and Kreutzmann weren’t part of their plans to move their music “furthur.”

Speak of the Devils
Naturally, Hart and Kreutzmann didn’t lay low, retire or gripe about the new band they weren’t invited to be a part of. They did what they always do — kept on playing, in this case, resurrecting The Rhythm Devils name for a new band that brought back Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum (a West African drum whose pitch can be regulated so it sounds like it “talks”), along with new recruits Keller Williams (String Cheese Incident, RatDog) and Davy Knowles (Back Door Slam) on guitars, as well as Gov’t Mule bassist Andy Hess. (Williams left in July 2010, with Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips taking his place).

Kreutzmann recounted how the Rhythm Devils spark was re-ignited: “Mickey and I got together last year sometime, and we asked each other, ‘Hey, do you want to go out and do this?’ We invited great musicians … We did two tours, they were separated by a week or two … It’s fun, because Mickey and I got to play with completely different musicians, and we had a really good band.”

Of course, the current Devils lineup plays some Dead songs. “I always do some Dead stuff with the bands I’m in,” Kreutzmann said, laughing. “You can’t help it.”

But the band isn’t only playing classic material. The Devils are also doing some new songs, written in collaboration with longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
And if all goes as planned, those songs will see the light of day soon in the form of a new CD.

“Mickey is in the process of doing the final mixes of the two (Rhythm Devils) tours, so we’re going to release the best of those,” Kreutzmann said.

No Throwing Stones
A class act all around, Kreutzmann is diplomatic when speaking about his former partners’ new band.

“I’m glad (Weir and Lesh) are doing what they’re doing. I’m glad they’re preserving the music, and I’m glad people can go and hear the music. That’s a really good thing. I applaud what they’re doing,” he said.

Kreutzmann also said that relations among the four former Dead members are harmonious these days: “We all get along. We talk and do business, and we’re working on the (Grateful Dead) library at the University of Santa Cruz. They’re taking care of our legacy, years and years of letters and pictures … they’re building a 1,200-square-foot building to house our library, and the thing I’m liking so much is they’re really preserving our legacy as opposed to letting it rot in some old warehouse … I think this will give Deadheads a place to meet each other and talk about these different events that were important in their life. I went down there and visited them, and it just moved me so much to see how hard these people are working. They’re digitizing the whole library, which must be a monumental job.”

As to the band’s substantial recorded legacy, Kreutzmann added that Rhino Records currently handles releases of the band’s live archives and stores the various recordings safely in a “hermetically sealed place where they keep film and that kind of thing. A lot of our recordings aren’t digital; they’re on tape.”

Playing in the Bands
As far what the future holds for The Dead and its various permutations, well, that is anyone’s guess. Besides touring with The Rhythm Devils, Kreutzmann is also active with 7 Walkers, a collaboration with New Orleans musician Papa Mali that recently released a debut CD featuring lyrics by Robert Hunter.

The drummer also will attend the Jam Cruise, a jam-band-fueled ocean cruise to be held Jan. 4-9, 2011, (check out www.jamcruise.com for info). The Rhythm Devils will perform during the voyage, but, in contrast to some musicians who play shows on theme cruises and quickly split, Kreutzmann also plans to get in some “hang time.”

“Me and my girlfriend will be there the whole time, because I want to hang out with these other musicians and play a lot of music,” he stated. “That’s how I am. If there are any mistakes I ever made — and I never made any, of course — when I was in the Grateful Dead, I just played with the Grateful Dead pretty much. I didn’t do too many other bands. The Grateful Dead was very filling, of course. So now I just changed that up; I’m playing with lots of different people.”

As for the “other ones,” Hart keeps busy with a variety of percussion-oriented projects. Lesh and Weir have made Furthur their main focus, putting their own bands on the collective back burner for the time being. But could the four surviving members of the classic Grateful Dead lineup ever get back together and “play in the band” again?

“There’s always a possibility,” Kreutzmann said. “We haven’t been talking about that lately. Those guys are out doing Furthur, and I’m doing 7 Walkers, and Mickey has projects going on, so we’ve just kind of been wanting to experience our own projects, and then, possibly, it might get back together.

“But relations (between the Dead members) are OK. Yeah, I’d say things are very OK.”


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