Feature: Grateful Dead lives

By GARY GRAFF  |  Nov. 14, 2002 at 12:21 PM
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The Grateful Dead has been gone since guitarist Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995. But its music, its sales and its members remain very much alive and seemingly as active now as when the famed San Francisco group was in the midst of its heyday.

As of the late '90s, the Grateful Dead's corporate enterprises was doing nearly $50 million a year in sales of music and related products and in licensing fees for its skull-shaped logos. It also continues to sell more than 400,000 albums a year, including its existing catalog and new releases culled from the band's prodigious collection of concert recordings.

The four remaining musicians, meanwhile, are keeping the Dead's spirit of improvisation and musical exploration alive in their own bands and, most importantly, with The Other Ones, an ad hoc group formed during 1998 and which is currently on the road for a three-week North American tour.

"I think basically everyone just got lonesome for it," guitarist Bob Weir, 55, says of The Other Ones. "We wanted to get back to the music and the interaction and the history -- the conversation we've been having for years.

"It just seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed like everybody's been out sort of developing and sort of reinventing themselves, and it seemed like it might be fun to get back together and see what new tricks everybody has to bring to the party."

Rising from the dead -- literally, in this case -- can be a dangerous prospect for any band, let alone one as iconic as the Grateful Dead, whose legion of fans, known as the Deadheads, followed the group around the world with a level of devotion unequaled in any form of popular culture. More than 250,000 of them receive the Dead organization's quarterly newsletter; another 100,000 are an on e-mail list.

As biographer and publicist Dennis McNally, author of the new book "A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead," notes, the group "treats their audience like partners." So any reinvention of the Dead's legacy requires a certain degree of care in order not to alienate that rabid fan base.

But McNally feels that The Other Ones more than accomplishes its mission.

"It's completely valid," he says by phone from his San Francisco office. "It's better than the Grateful Dead in the last three years of its existence, because Jerry was highly erratic.

"Now it's a little more structured; that's not to say they don't improvise, but they've rehearsed more and are a little more cognizant about where they want to go than the Grateful Dead were."

Weir, meanwhile, finds The Other Ones to be remarkably similar to the Dead.

"The difference isn't all that great," he says backstage in Royal Oak, Mich., after a performance by his other band, Ratdog. "It's not like Jerry's not there; speaking for myself, he's sitting on my shoulder, kicking me in the ear at all times. And I think it's probably pretty much the same for the other guys."

The Other Ones took its time to come into being, however. Immediately after Garcia's death, the remaining Dead members -- Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann -- generally avoided playing together, except for one-off jams. "There was awhile I couldn't even play (the Dead songs) 'cause emotionally I wasn't ready for it," Weir explains.

But Weir and Hart did carry on by starting the Furthur Festival, a summer tour that featured their own bands as well as kindred spirits such as Los Lobos and the Black Crowes. The Other Ones first appeared on the 1998 edition of the tour, but without Kreutzmann.

And amidst a nasty internal argument over commercial applications of the Dead's recordings, Lesh dropped out for the 2000 Furthur Festival, a hurdle that had to be overcome before The Other Ones -- named after a 1971 Dead song -- could work again.

"The way I want to have the basis of our relationship is for us not to get bogged down by bad business decisions that we made in the past," says Lesh, 62, who's settled his differences with the others. "I think we need to return, really, to what it was that brought us together in the first place, and that's music."

Weir, Lesh, Hart and Kreutzmann joined forces for this summer's Terrapin Station, a two-day festival in East Troy, Wis., that was an instant sell-out and attracted nearly 150,000 viewers to the on-line Web cast. "The crowd was tremendous," Weir says. "There were not to be denied. They came there for an amazing show, and I think you could've put a bunch of homeless people on the stage, given 'em instruments and that crowd would've made them play like angels."

Kreutzmann, 56, says that the success of Terrapin Station convinced the ex-Dead members to continue with The Other Ones.

"It was just fun to be on stage with everybody, to have a great time playing and have it be a joyous time," the drummer says. "It was great to see the audience enjoying the songs again. Hell, it was great to see people in general."

The current Other Ones' lineup is fleshed out by members of Weir and Lesh's own bands, as well as recently added roots rocker Susan Tedeschi. The current tour winds through first week of December, with a New Year's Eve show planned for Oakland, Calif.

There's also the possibility of The Other Ones producing some new music, too. Longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter is on the road with the group, and Kreutzmann says that working on new songs with him would be "ideal." But Weir, while acknowledging that "we certainly talk about it a little bit," cautions that "we have to crowbar time out of our schedules to do that."

Lesh, however, says he's learned never to discount any possibilities with this particular ensemble of musicians.

"Never say never," the bassist says. "We're talking about this and we're talking about that, so you never know what could happen."

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