It hit me quickly after I had arrived at Jerry Jam 2017. It was the kind of revelation that, once discovered, seems obvious. But when it hit me, it felt earth-shattering. Not to mention fear-inducing. I looked down at the note I had just written. “I’m not going to have a lot to write about.” This came to me when I was watching The John K. band Friday afternoon. John Kadlecik’s most notable performances have come as the lead guitarist of Dark Star Orchestra, and yes, I used to refer to him as “the Jerry” too. After working with DSO, he was called up to the big leagues and took the lead guitar space performing with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in Furthur. Kadlecik came into my world playing the songs and recreating the sound of another man. When it hit me that this weekend was dedicated solely to the music of others, I was quick to scrawl down another note in all caps. “FIND AN ANGLE!” Fortunately, it found me. Kadlecik came into my world playing the songs and recreating the sound of another man. When it hit me that this weekend was dedicated solely to the music of others, I was quick to scrawl down another note in all caps. “FIND AN ANGLE!” Fortunately, it found me.
In its 22nd year, Jerry Jam has grown from being a small gathering of friends reminiscing about Dead tour to becoming a full-fledged celebration of the scene that exploded in the shadow left by Jerry Garcia. Performers range from local acts to up and comers to national touring powerhouses. Spoiler alert, they don’t all play the music of the Grateful Dead.
Do you remember that old hippie from your hometown? The one who is still there. Always wearing tye dye. Long white hair with a long white beard. The one who looks like he couldn’t fit in in any 9-5? He was there. Remember that other kid? The younger one who didn’t even get to hear the Dead until after Jerry died? He was there too. Every Dead loving stereotype between was at Jerry Jam this year. Maybe every year. It didn’t take long for me to see the regional freaks who love a good time, the old hippies always looking for an excuse to fire up the VW bus, the biker heads who have been connected to the Dead from the beginning, all mixing in the darkness and the light. It was a psychedelic scene, and I hadn’t even made it off of Shakedown Street yet. That’s the vending section of the festival, for all my relatives reading this and having no idea what I’m talking about. The organizers did a great job of blending small local booths alongside veteran vendors. It was a folksy vibe on the grass streets at Jerry Jam.
After John Kadleick, the first of the weekend’s many Dead cover bands took the stage. At Jerry Jam they have a single stage with two playable areas. When one band finishes, the next band is set up, and the crowd only needs to cast their gaze a few feet over. Grateful Dub had members of Dead Set as well as the guest services of Melvin Seals. It was evident from the parking place backstage reserved for Melvin that we would be seeing him throughout the weekend. Jerry Jam saw him as one degree separated from the festival’s inspiration. Big time. But it wasn’t Melvin who made my ears perk. It wasn’t even “the Jerry” of this band. It was the second lead guitarist; I can’t call him “the Bobby” since he was playing in an almost ska style over the Dead’s classics. It was a different sound, and he was dedicated to blending it in smoothly. It was a different take on the Dead, ironically refreshing.
When the Giving Tree Band took the stage, my initial anxiety about the singularity of the event waned. These were folksy rockers playing mainly originals. If they had been around in the era, they were meant for I am sure they would have been contemporaries of the inhabitants of Haight and Ashbury. But these young men show a connection that is just as strong with the indie rockers of today as with the good ol’ Grateful Dead.
The rest of the night had a healthy dose of Grateful Dead covers, coming from the truer to reality Dead Set with Melvin Seals, and a bunch of originals from Assembly of Dust. Having seen AOD for so many years, it was great to hear them continue to play grooves that are securely in the pocket. As Reid Geanuer told us from the stage, “you guys might not know these songs. Maybe you do. Just let it wash over you.” The trumpet-like vocals of Geanuer over the precise guitar work of Adam Terrell created in me the kind of nostalgia, so many of these older heads were feeling when the Dead’s music was playing throughout the weekend. It was the soundtrack of our lives in the form of a festival.
As enigmatic as strict cover bands are, Pink Talking Fish takes that mindfuck to a different level. They don’t just religiously cover one of your divine bands, they play a large portion of the song list of three...or four when they morph into Pink Talking Fish Plays Dead. In the late night slot on Friday at Jerry Jam, they aggressively blended their primary trio. The LED butterflies and hula hoopers dancing on the deck above the stage over top of the projected fractals may have caused me to black out for part of the set, but I’m pretty sure they played Oh Kee Pa Ceremony (Phish) into Burning Down the House (Talking Heads) into Time (Pink Floyd) into Down With Disease (Phish) into Naive Melody (Talking Heads). I needed to take a seat. Sure they couldn’t play every lick of every recognizable song, but that’s not the point. I found a few cafe tables had been set up by a coffee vendor just outside of the mainstage area. I fell into one where I could still see the night’s last band while I collected myself. A yuppie hippie, one of the stereotypes I missed earlier, fell into the table beside me. Over indulgence personified. Rubbing his face. Distracted gaze. Eyes closing. I too needed some sleep.
Early (enough) on Saturday morning I heard the trash crew coming past the camper. The burly Deadhead who had initially recruited Laura to cover Jerry Jam two years ago was on the trash crew. Dan Webb saw Laura taking pictures of Dark Star at the Higher Ground in Burlington and told her “you gotta come cover Jerry Jam.” That is all it took. That’s it. Looking back on that makes me realize what Dan brings to this festival. A man of few words, but those words are heard. Despite being one of the festival’s founders and continued organizers, Dan works the trash crew. You can always tell a good manager if he is willing to do the jobs that no one wants to do. Albeit, this is the greatest t-shirted crew ever to work a festival. How is it that Clean Vibes, or another trash company, hadn’t thought before the Jerry Jam crew to emblazon the shirts of the trash picker with the iconic lyric “one man gathers what another man spills”?
You know what sucks about not smoking? Bumming cigarettes. You know what sucks about bumming cigarettes? Bumming a Newport. Starting my musical day, I got that self-inflicted treat. The kids went with Laura to visit her brother who lived nearby. I went to the mainstage via the river. A clear splashing pool at the end of a sliding rapid was all I needed for a full body refresher. I heard early afternoon sets from young bands that had begun to find their way as musicians by playing the music of another generation. But the vast landscape of influences came through with homage to other artists as well. Van Morrison, Johnny Cash, and others were helping these young musicians approach the edge of the cliff. Someday soon they’ll have the courage to jump off into the abyss of their own original music blending all of these influences.
The day’s first true Dead cover band was Fennario. And you know it was the hottest part of the day. The band felt the heat and played slow swaying music to help keep our cool. Occasional clouds gave us shade. I spotted another Tiger guitar replica. That’s two people who are going so far as to play the same guitar as Jerry Garcia. Fennario kept the vibe positively languid with “So Many Roads” and “Loose Lucy.” The Dead cover bands of the weekend were clearly trying to out do each other by reaching further and further into Garcia’s archive, looking for unique and underplayed tunes. Take it from me, as I was happy to hear plenty of Brent Mydland’s songs. I made a quick trip back to the camper listening to “Eyes of the World” bounce of the hillsides and valleys that are all part of the festival grounds.
The Van Buren’s covered “Bushes of Love” by Bad Lip Reading. If you don’t know what I am talking about, or even if you do, I suggest you commence your Google search now. You have to see it for yourself. You have the keywords. I’ll wait... Now that you have sufficiently split your sides, I’m not sure if the review needs to go further describing what the Van Buren’s are capable of. But if you need more, I’ll leave you with this; a rock and roll cover of George Michael’s “Freedom” with horns. I think this band was a figment of my imagination combining bits of my memories into a hilarious, yet musically tight dramatic interpretation of my life.
Melvin Seals made his penultimate appearance of the weekend with Dead Underground and then it was time for the original music of the night. First up, Kung Fu. They brought the razor’s edge to a festival steeped in balloons, slashing through their set. Tim Palmieri continues to be one of the greatest unknown guitarists, with signature licks and tone that have served his Jedi ways for nearly two decades of touring. The pendulum swung back towards the center of the Grateful Dead universe when Max Creek took the stage. They still have some of the east coast anger in their sound, but 40 years on the road have mellowed Scott Murawski and the original members. You can feel the comfort in their Rolling Stones sing along and their not-at-all self deprecating cover of “Loser.” This band is happy with their “many trips around the moon.” After all, no path could be more original.
Oh yeah. The asshole Pats fan. That's one last stereotype I omitted. Probably because he doesn’t always make an appearance at a music festival. But when he does, he wakes you early from the campsite down the road yelling “Tell me how much you like the Pats!” I wonder if his head even hit the pillow. So that I could assure myself of sleep, I had bailed during the Peach Eaters late night set. The somber tone set with the dedications and tribute to Gregg Allman were a bad mix with my heavy eyelids. Laura and the kids got on the road Sunday morning. The kids had stayed up to watch the fire dancers. Laura called it poi. I thought that was traditional Hawaiian pork? Either way, the kids were beat and needed a night in their own bed. Along with Laura, many of my nearby neighbors left by midday Sunday. Thankfully the Pats fan a few sites down remained. While I was trying to read, I was reassured of his presence every time he yelled at his friends. Otherwise, it was me and an open valley at the foot of the White Mountains. It was small-scale vastness.
Describing someone as a “breakout artist of the weekend” sounds too cliche and too abstract. What is she breaking out of? Or into? Perhaps describing Nicole D’Amico, who fronts August First, as the surprise of the weekend may be more appropriate. I had seen her on Friday, but only briefly, sitting in with someone else. But now, leading August First through a healthy dose of Dead and other covers, this multi-instrumentalist (a banjo-ish instrument, ukelele, vocals) brought her style to every song August First made their own. “Ramble On” and “Harvest Moon” truly showcased D’Amico’s way of taking what is great and reinterpreting it through another form of greatness. Maybe it was the heat and the real cigarette I finally bummed mixing with too much coffee, but I feel confident in saying that their slowed down bluegrass ballad style cover of “Eyes of the World” was one of the best covers of the weekend. Amico, who fronts August First, as the surprise of the weekend may be more appropriate. I had seen her on Friday, but only briefly, sitting in with someone else. But now, leading August First through a healthy dose of Dead and other covers, this multi-instrumentalist (a banjo-ish instrument, ukelele, vocals) brought her style to every song August First made their own. “Ramble On” and “Harvest Moon” truly showcased D’Amico’s way of taking what is great and reinterpreting it through another form of greatness. Maybe it was the heat and the real cigarette I finally bummed mixing with too much coffee, but I feel confident in saying that their slowed down bluegrass ballad style cover of “Eyes of the World” was one of the best covers of the weekend.
I once again ran into Dan as the final night’s headliners were soon to take the stage. Between bites of pulled pork, he told me that he wants to shrink the attendance back to 4000 for next year. A somewhat finite detail to be considered since it is only a difference of 500 people. But Dan noticed the effect that 4500 had on the roads of the festival. Too much infrastructure was needed. Five hundred less would be optimal. By this point in the festival, other organizers may be in cruise control. Not Dan. He is thinking about planning for 2018 and pulled pork.
I recently saw Hayley Jane perform in a comedic/musical duo with Ryan Montbleau called Yes Darling. The songs were all thematically connected, as the was the stage banter, focusing on their (fictitious?) relationship. It was funny, poignant and beautiful, with songs that were just as good. Sunday at Jerry Jam, I saw where that dramatic flare has been nurtured. Heading Hayley Jane and the Primates, Hayley told stories within every song, giving the listener a poetic window into her life. If the music of the band and the poetry of its front woman didn’t have you hooked, then the dramatic interpretation of her words offered up with no inhibition, prejudice or pride kept you from ever looking away. Ever. Its as if she is pushing the emotion out of her physical self into the words that she is singing, all rooted in the emotion that came through the writing. That’s a lot of emotion. It can feel a little uncomfortable, but you can still not turn away from it. It is new. It is original. It is change. It is captivating.
The last official set of the weekend came from Cabinet. By now, there was a palpable energy coming from the staff of Jerry Jam. It had been a marathon of sprinting for some, but the end was in sight. The band fed off of this. The first time I heard Cabinet, it was the thick Dead phrasing from “Scarlet/Fire” mixed into their originals that brought me under the tent at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival to hear more. That had only been a week earlier. How serendipitous that that same phrasing would be their connection to the weekend’s honoree. But this was a different band than the one I heard at Grey Fox. They were freer. I suppose the vibe can dictate the sound sometimes. The sun was setting on the main stage early in the 8 o'clock hour Sunday night. It looked as if the light rig had already been taken down, save a few safety white lights now working hard to illuminate the players. But before Cabinet could put this festival to bed, Dan took the stage. He had only shown himself on the main stage for the last song of Cabinet’s set, dancing side stage with all of the hardworking crew. Dan single-handedly coaxed the last, and the only encore of the weekend and then told us to make our way to the second stage to “keep the party going.” But at the second stage, very quickly the party was just getting started. Despite the never-ending cast of volunteers at Jerry Jam, it was a select few who kept this weekend going and they knew it was time to cut loose. The front of the second stage was tight with crew and organizers. Hugs, back-slapping and immediate reminiscing about the biggest Jerry Jam was the greeting of choice. Old friends connected through the power of this festival in their lives looking at each other and just knowing that they did it again. Jerry Jam lives on. Jerry lives on. This was their moment, so I turned towards home and walked through the campground one more time. It was beginning to look more like outposts with so few sites remaining. It was truly revealed as a magnificent valley. There was just enough light in the sky for me to find my way back to a nearly deserted RV camping section. When I got back the only thing between me and the stars was a faint light in the west over the White Mountains.
On Monday morning I woke up early and finished breaking down camp just before a calm and gentle rain started to fall. Even though I saw the storm coming, I had to take my time with our old camper. I took off my worn out Brent Mydland t-shirt and carefully placed it in the dirty clothes bag, trying not to rip it, and got a fresh t-shirt for the ride. Our camper, my shirt, this scene; many things are held together by their last thread, duct tape, and hope. Oh yeah, the guy who has no shame in wearing a fresh tye-dyed t-shirt he bought at this festival was also here. That’s one more stereotype, I guess. So many of us were here. I was just finishing a book about the multiverse over the weekend of Jerry Jam. It is fascinating to consider the book’s main scientific premise. All decisions in our lives have multiple angles we can approach them from which could result in multiple outcomes. Each of these outcomes produces a reality. The theory of the multiverse is that each of the realities resulting from the multiple choices we can make exist simultaneously and infinitely. I suppose the death of Jerry Garcia created a multiverse within our musical scene. We all went on different paths, making different decisions, discovering different outcomes. In this multiverse, all threads have returned to a place like this. We all return to Jerry Jam. Is your role filled there yet? Have you returned?