Music Notes: Dead and Loving It

Written by Jason P. Woodbury Category: Arts Issue: September 2017
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Since first rambling out of Northern California 52 years ago, the psychedelic sound of the Grateful Dead is still reverberating. The original members have split into two touring acts – Dead & Company and Phil Lesh and Friends – but even that redundancy can’t sate the demand for Dead music. A fleet of tribute acts perform around the world, including Phoenix’s own The Noodles and Los Angeles’ Grateful Shred. The latter performs Friday, September 15, at the Van Buren in Downtown Phoenix. To prep for the experience, we’ve readied a primer on the variety of Deadheads you’ll see there.

Wharf Rats
The Rats exist to nullify that famous joke: What did one Deadhead say to the other after the pot ran out? “This music sucks.” Wharf Rats tote yellow balloons and non-judgmentally eschew drugs and alcohol, taking their name from the song “Wharf Rat,” an admonishment about living a life that “ain’t good.”  
The Dead famously permitted recording of their sets, and obsessive tapers like Bob Wagner, Keith Gatto, Betty Cantor and Dick Latvala have helped preserve decades of live Dead shows – no band has been cataloged so exhaustively and extensively. 
Utterly decentralized in leadership, the ideological bent of the Dead has resonated with libertarian writers like Deadhead Matt Kibbe, whose 2010 book Give Us Liberty (coauthored by Dick Armey) was subtitled “A Tea Party Manifesto.”  
Though alternative and punk scenes have proved notoriously hostile to the Dead (see: Kurt Cobain’s infamous tie-dye rant), recent years have seen Dead cover songs by indie rockers like The National, Wilco and Vampire Weekend, resulting in an infusion of younger fans warmed to the exploratory and communal field of Dead-dom. 
Confused John Mayer Fans  
In 2015, Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann recruited an unlikely hotshot guitarist: pop star John Mayer. Though best known for his smooth adult contemporary pop, Mayer has won over many Dead fans with his fiery playing. Though the crossover’s mostly one-sided, you might meet a couple of confused fans waiting for “Your Body is a Wonderland” while discovering the wonders of nature. 

— Jason P. Woodbury