'A moment of silence would be appropriate' 

If the date August 9th, 1995 means nothing in particular to you, then it’s highly likely you don’t consider yourself an ardent admirer of The Grateful Dead.

It was on that day that the long-running rock music warhorses lost their lead guitarist and de facto frontman, Jerry Garcia to complications resulting from heart trouble.

Of course, news of his passing was hardly a shock to those who did not have a significant portion of their own psyches wrapped up in the singer’s life and times.

Garcia was hardly the picture of health. He had undergone protracted and messy battles with lengthy addictions to a number of illicit drugs, as well as a maintained an unfortunately ambivalent attitude toward his own diabetes.

Still, despite his obviously reduced capacity to play at the peak of his powers, he had remained a fatherly and mostly benevolent figure to those in his flock, and for many, his death did more than just derail his band (one of the all-time top grossing concert acts in history). It signaled a wake up call to some acolytes.

While many hardcore Deadheads (or devotees of the group who often planned their lives around the band’s touring schedule and eked out a gypsy lifestyle in order to catch as many gigs as they could) gave up the ghost and migrated to other like-minded roadshows offered by The Dead’s spiritual heirs – such as Phish, Widespread Panic and Leftover Salmon – others merely drifted away, unwilling to let another group occupy the same place in their hearts.

August West is one of the most ardent Grateful Dead fans you’re likely to find, but even he admits that by the time of Garcia’s passing the star’s finest days were – for the most part – behind him.

“I think there is plenty to be critical about when it comes to the Grateful Dead,” he admits. “Especially when you look at the last 10 to 15 years the band was together. Garcia was spiraling

downward on drugs and his playing showed it, as did the band’s energy. Sure, they still had some great nights, but there was a certain lackadaisical attitude that sometimes left the listener wanting.”

However, West – now a member of the Grateful Dead tribute band Cosmic Charlie – says that Garcia’s unreliable nature was accepted by the faithful.

“That was also what people loved about them,” the guitarist and singer says from his home in Athens, Georgia.

“Their gimmick was that they had no gimmick at all -- they simply went out there and jammed. Part of the appeal was the fact that they might fall flat on their face at any moment. It was uncertain from where and when the great inspiration would come. When they were on, it was the greatest thing on earth. And when they weren’t, we all just waited patiently for them to be on again. We loved them like family. That was always a difficult concept to digest for someone who was not already a fan.”

According to West, there was a time, in the early 1990s, when it seemed things were looking up for “Captain Trips.”

“In 1993, there was a rejuvenation of sorts. Jerry had been in rehab and lost about 50 pounds. He looked and played great. I guess it was short-lived. Musically, it became more about good moments than good shows. But we loved them dearly right till the bitter end.”

During their heyday, the band’s international fame assured that there was more than enough demand for their music than could be met by the group themselves , despite incessant gigging. Accordingly, all across the globe, multitudes of essentially anonymous bands were formed to emulate their idols and (hopefully) offer a decent simulation of The Dead’s vaunted live shows to enthusiasts in tiny venues or far flung locales where the real thing never appeared.

Since 1995, when Garcia’s cohorts effectively retired the name and the vast majority of the band’s repertoire form their own subsequent solo projects, such tribute bands have sprung up like wildfire to help fill the void.

Cosmic Charlie began 5 years ago as a one-off show in honor of Garcia’s birthday at the celebrated Athens landmark, the Georgia Theatre. It has since become a regular job for the sextet, which has played some 300 shows to date, and appeared at many of the more notable jam band festivals and showcases in the USA.

West says it took the members almost a full year to come to terms with the fact that they had accidentally formed a serious and viable working band.

“The crowd response was very positive from that first night on,” he recalls, “but we still considered it to be nothing more than an occasional diversion.”

Initially, their keyboardist commuted to Georgia from Frankfurt, Germany (!), flying in for 3 days at a time before returning home. Before long, demand forced them to find a local keyboardist, and once that slot was filled, they began to tour.

While The Grateful Dead’s trademark long-winded improvisational explorations into their own material and traditional folk and blues tunes would sometimes stretch past the half-hour mark, West says it was important to keep that spirit alive while not being dragged down under their own weight, as many felt The Dead often were.

“Well, like I said, they were definitely up and down from the mid-’80s till the end, but in Cosmic Charlie, we try to reclaim the energy that is inherent in these songs, and we definitely play with a drive that Dead fans might not be accustomed to hearing. We try to keep the jams purposeful rather than meandering.”

“Of course,” he smiles, “sometimes you gotta meander a little to find your purpose...”

It’s also worth noting that the recent reformation of all The Grateful Dead’s surviving members (under the shortened moniker The Dead) has had little affect on demand for the experience that West’s group affords diehard fans.

“We’ve taken this music and embraced it in a style that makes sense to us. I have not heard the new ‘Dead.’ But I can remember going to see Dead cover bands in the mid ‘80s, when Jerry and the boys were still in full throttle. It’s not like a Zeppelin or Stones cover band where you gotta sound like the radio hits. It’s really more akin to jazz. When a jazz quartet plays Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, they aren’t considered a ‘cover’ band. It’s simply introducing repertoire as a foundation for improvisational expression.“

He says a great deal of curiosity still surrounds the music and ethos of the most famous jug band of all time.

“I am always impressed by the large numbers of young people that are interested in the Dead experience,” West muses. “I can see that the music of the Dead is here to stay.”

And when asked whether or not emotions tend to run higher in his band around the anniversary of Garcia’s birth, he responds in the affirmative.

“I think so. Whatever you want to say about the current Dead lineup, Jerry was a major central force in the soul of this music. He was the voice, the leader, and the one who could move mountains with his energy. I always find myself feeling an especially strong connection when this time of year comes around.”

“Sometimes it seems like a moment of silence would be appropriate.”

Cosmic Charlie plays Locos Deli & Pub Saturday, August 31st. The show starts at 10 pm with a performance of Grateful Dead music arranged for voice and piano.

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Jim Reed

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