A&E Columns

This must be the place: Ode to the Grateful Dead, ode to those carrying on the tradition

Dark Star Orchestra at the Salvage Station in Asheville. Dark Star Orchestra at the Salvage Station in Asheville. Garret K. Woodward photo.

Pulling off Interstate 240 in downtown Asheville last Friday evening, I stopped my truck at the intersection of Hill Street and Riverside Drive. The parking lot at the Salvage Station across the street was already full, so were other nearby lots. What to do, eh? 

To my immediate left was a small open field buffering Riverside Drive and the I-240 onramp. There were already several vehicles parked there illegally as it was decided to cruise in and find a spot for ourselves. Dark Star Orchestra was in town for the next two nights. Thousands in attendance throughout the weekend. Better park quick and mosey on into the Salvage Station before the first set gets underway. 

Known as the premier Grateful Dead tribute act, DSO has been chugging along strong and heartfelt for the last 25 years and counting. To note, the actual Grateful Dead were together for 30 years until the passing of its de facto leader and guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. And yet, there’s been countless configurations of the surviving members of the Dead, with the highly-popular Dead & Company outfit now calling it quits after this current summer tour. 

For DSO, it’s been about continuing on with the legacy, legend and lore of America’s greatest rock band — all through the musical lens of historical accuracy, intricate musicianship and the absolute freedom to explore whatever lies just beyond a particular in-the-moment-jam. 

For all of us DeadHeads and the curious alike groovin’ and frolickin’ about in the audience or out in the parking lot in search of a miracle ticket, it’s about continually tapping into a sacred melodic space of humanity — of sound and scope that resides in the deepest depths of our vibrant, cosmic being. 

For myself, a lifelong DeadHead, I’ve been wrestling with the latest news of Dead & Co. finishing things up, with where I stand with the whole whirlwind scene surrounding D&C and anything Dead-related, with really trying to find balance and gratitude towards the Grateful Dead — the one band that truly set the course of my entire life and purpose for waking up into each new day of opportunity and adventure. 

It was 1994 and I was nine years old. Already a music freak. Whatever was on the local Top 40 and oldies radio stations was blasting out of the meager stereo in the corner of my childhood bedroom in a tiny town on the Canadian Border of Upstate New York. Nine years old and I noticed a hat my aunt’s boyfriend was sporting. It had this dancing bear on it. I inquired about the bear and the skull and lightning bolt on the back of it. 

“It’s the Grateful Dead,” my aunt’s boyfriend replied through a bushy beard and Cheshire Cat grin. “Have you ever listened to the Dead, man?” I said no. We walked over to his early 1990s Volkswagen Jetta. He hopped in, rolled the windows down and cranked the stereo. It was the Dead’s “Skeletons From The Closet” album. The first song, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” hit me like a freight train. And nothing really was ever the same after that moment. 

Everything shifted in my adolescent life. I started wearing Dead t-shirts and tacked up Jerry Garcia posters on my bedroom wall. Incense burning on the windowsill. There was even a small shrine to Jerry on my bookshelf for several years after he died. I was all in. The music and message of the Dead resonated within my often-bullied and ignored self. In essence, I’d found my tribe, this wild-n-wondrous ensemble of oddballs, weirdos and all-around jovial folk. 

The Dead has always been about personal freedom — to not only be yourself, but to also seek out the unknown beauty of people, places and things in this big ole world. Have adventures. Pursue wisdom. Radiate love. Be kind. Dammit, be kind. All of these things were placed in my emotional and spiritual toolbox while I began to wander the planet on my own following high school, college and impending adulthood. 

And here I stand. Age 38. That nine-year-old discovering the Dead is still inside of me somewhere. That youngster’s excitement for all things music (especially live), endless curiosity for what lies just around the corner and running with a reckless abandon towards the unknown horizon remains, if anything more so nowadays through the ongoing catalyst that is the written word and empty pages to fill in this weekly newspaper. 

Circle back to last Friday. Standing there in the midst of a raucous sea of humanity, wave after wave of musical notes, body movement, conversation, interaction and celebration. We’re all together once again in the name of the Grateful Dead. Be thankful for moments like this. Be thankful for DSO and what it does to conjure those deeply-held sentiments of love and compassion, of joyous tears shed in the presence of music aimed at connectivity and solidarity. 

Forget that Dead & Co. is coming to a close. It is what it is. Nothing lasts forever. Be thankful for decades of sonic exploration and innumerable adventures in search of those melodic pirates of the high seas that is the Dead. Be thankful to be alive and in-tune at this juncture of history to be able to partake in the mesmerizing sights and sounds spilling off the stage, any stage paying homage to the Dead, its followers and all who may appear thereafter for centuries to come. 

Besides, some Dead is better than no Dead, I’ve always said and honestly felt. As long as the music of that band and its creators remains pure of spirit and intent, then it’ll reverberate throughout the end of time itself — forever connected between you and me and all of us. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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