By Scott McLennan
“They created an alternative to the pop music model, and it’s been very powerful. It’s a whole world unto itself.”
Let there be songs to fill the air.
A diverse group of singers, songwriters and acoustic musicians will bring to life that line from the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” when they pay Tribute to Jerry Garcia on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Club Passim in Cambridge, MA.
Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s guitar guru and de facto leader who died in 1995, would have turned 77 on Thursday, and for the third straight year guitarist Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers organized a concert to acknowledge the deep and broad influence of Garcia’s music.
“The Grateful Dead kept its old audience and keeps getting a younger audience. I think it’s the uniqueness that went along with everything, from the songs to the way they structured their concerts,” Rodgers explains. “They created an alternative to the pop music model, and it’s been very powerful. It’s a whole world unto itself.”
Musicians such as Rodgers and others participating in the tribute show entered that world as fans then drew on that experience to shape their own playing.
Rodgers doesn’t tap the legion of dedicated Grateful Dead tribute artists for these concerts honoring Garcia. Instead, he seeks out songwriters and musicians who have developed their own voices and styles, though they are very much inspired by — and fans of — Garcia and the Dead.
“I want to have people who love Dead music and Jerry music and want to share that by interpreting the music their own way, and have it acoustic and have it be collaborative,” Rodgers says. “There’s a lot of sitting in and a lot of spur of the moment performances.”
The roster Thursday includes Rodgers and his musical partner Wendy Ramsay, Jefferson Hamer, Leslie Mendelson, David Surette and Steve Roy, and Ryan Fitzsimmons and Laurence Scudder. Rodgers will also air of snippets from interviews he conducted with Garcia for Acoustic Guitar magazine.
Rodgers has also written books that teach guitarists how to play Dead tunes. Garcia, typically teaming up with lyricist Robert Hunter, produced a canon that is a beguiling blend — the welcoming and open-hearted is conveyed through complex twists and turns. Traditions are also contorted: allusions to the American past and its myths are shaped to create a contemporary sound.
“I’ve been playing a lot of these songs over the years and I’m always just knocked out by what is in these songs,” Rodgers confesses.
Multi-instrumentalist Steve Roy described himself as a huge fan of the Dead, cultivating a taste for the music while a high-school student. In college he played upright bass and figured he would pursue a career in jazz.
“My reverence for the Grateful Dead was so great that I didn’t want to play their music. I didn’t want to screw it up,” Roy recalls. Instead of jazz, Roy found himself playing in various roots, bluegrass and traditional folk bands. Meeting fellow multi-instrumentalist and Deadhead David Surette a few year ago brought Roy around. The two have been performing an acoustic duo show based on the Dead’s music that emulates Garcia’s work with mandolin great David Grisman.
Surette recalled how he and Roy met at a party, realized that they both loved the music of the Grateful Dead and proceeded to spend the next three hours jamming together in their host’s kitchen
Playing Garcia’s music allows musicians to tap into some interesting contrasts, Surette said. There are those bright, clean articulated notes and disciplined song structures Garcia employed from his work in bluegrass bands, including the supergroup Old and In the Way. Then there is the appetite for improvisation that was a hallmark of the Grateful Dead’s performance career. “When we’re playing the Dead, we never say, ‘Are we taking it too far?’” Surette cracked.
And even though Garcia and the Grateful Dead left a trove of acoustic based performances, this tribute will reach beyond those obvious offerings. The goal will be to put an acoustic spin on songs the Dead themselves only played with amps and electric guitars.
“This is more about paying tribute to the spirit of the music,” Rodgers asserts. “And that is more in keeping with what the Grateful Dead actually did.”
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.