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A night of the surviving Dead

by Brian Clarey

It’s looking kind of like a Dead show outside the Carolina Theatre Friday night. Kind of. There’s nobody looking for a ‘miracle;’ nobody slinging veggie burritos; no hot hippie chicks with sob stories about boyfriends in jail; nobody selling T-shirts or hair wraps or Guatemalan handbags (or Guatemalan anything as far as I can tell). No acid heads, Wharf Rats, Frisbee tossers, hacky sack kickers, mangy dog walkers or drum circles. There is one couple, Lisa and Ian Coty, selling, ahem, hand-blown glass in the parking lot off to the side of the building. But mostly it’s a collection of the Deadhead nation, mostly gone either underground or legitimate since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, milling around the theater façade before the Dark Star Orchestra show, smoking cigarettes, rehashing old war stories and sporting the tie-dyes, prairie skirts, overalls and ponchos that once marked them as part of the subculture but now labels them as survivors of that bygone era.

You can tell the ones who are brothers from way back, the ones from way way back and also the poseurs, though in this post-Jerry age these labels don’t seem to matter as much.

Some of the Deadheads, this one included, have cleaned up their acts in the last ten years or so.

I haven’t been to a Dead show in a long time. Nobody has, of course. But the years between 1986 and 1994 I managed to catch perhaps 30 of them in stadiums and coliseums and amphitheaters from Saratoga Springs, NY to New Orleans. I liked the music, but I loved the scene before and after the shows in the parking lots and hotel rooms ‘— the wandering freaks and wild children and neo-hippies and all of that. I also used to like to drop a little acid for the Dead shows, which is something else that is conspicuously absent from the pre-show this night in downtown Greensboro. It’s just as well ‘— I’m not sure how my 35-year-old body would react to hallucinogens at this stage of the game, and I’m more comfortable with a $4 Heineken these days anyway.

They’ve got two bars set up in the lobby for the gathering crowd: the Dark Star Orchestra is still a big draw in these parts.

The band started in 1997 as not-just-another Dead cover band. Their concept is to take actual Dead shows, which have been recorded and traded on legal ‘bootlegs’ since the late ’60s, and recreate them on stage, not necessarily note for note, but with the same set lists, general arrangements and stage configurations the Dead used in that particular show. At the end they let everybody know which show it was.

Tonight they open with ‘“Sugaree,’” an early Garcia collaboration with lyricist Robert Hunter and one of my favorites ‘— and also a clue as to the set they’re covering: ‘“Sugaree’” wasn’t performed live until like ’71. But what’s more interesting is the voice of John Kadlecik, the guy who stands in Garcia’s slot. He sounds so much like Jerry it freaks me out a bit.

And it gets weirder.

The next number, ‘“Cassdy,’” what was once a Bob Weir/Donna Godcheaux vehicle, is delivered with stunning mimicry by Bob Eaton, the guy who does Bob Weir. He looks a bit like him but his voice is so similar as to be creepy and he also has adopted Weir’s stage mannerisms from the gentle stroke of the guitar to the way he used to charge the mic to deliver lyrics.

Lisa Mackey, who inhabits the stage persona of Donna Godcheaux, spins and flits just like she’s supposed to and even the two drummers slap the skins with the same mechanics used by the Dead’s drummers, all wrist action, toms and flying sticks.

And the first set rolls on: ‘“Deal,’” ‘“Minglewood Blues,’” ‘“Me and My Uncle,’” ‘“Ramblin’ Rose,’” ‘“It’s All Over Now,’” each delivered with authenticity, honesty and long, long jams. In the balcony of the Carolina they’re swaying and spinning and singing along to the anthems of old. I surprise myself by remembering the words, the names of the songs and the parts I used to like best.

I thought I was over the Dead, thought the more primitive rhythms of New Orleans had driven the quintessential hippie band out of my system. I thought I had moved on. Maybe I was wrong.

By set break everybody’s ready for a breather and in the lobby and out in the smoking area I tell tales with good friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in years and some of whom I just met tonight. And I remember what it was about those old Dead shows I liked best. Sure, I loved the music and yeah, I liked the drugs. But the best part about those shows was the communion with the people, the longhaired and wild-eyed Deadheads all under the same roof for music and fellowship and a kind vibe that you just couldn’t get anywhere else.

But a Dark Star Orchestra show comes close.

To comment on this column, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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