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Happy Birthday Jerry Garcia: Why The Grateful Dead Still Matters

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See also: Grateful Dead Drummer Mickey Hart Taps the Cosmos See also: Melvin Seals at JGB Aren't the Jerry Garcia Band -- But That's Okay See also: Dark Star Orchestra at McDowell Mountain Music Festival

Switching on the Grateful Dead channel this morning on satellite radio (yes, I have it preprogrammed) and wondering if there would be anything special happening for what would have been Jerry Garcia's 70th birthday (yes, I know that too), it was pretty much business as usual--just one of the hundred or versions of "Cold Rain and Snow" floating in the Grateful Dead universe.

But that got me thinking. There is no need to do something special for Garcia when in fact it's pretty special that a band like the Dead can have its own radio station. It confirms the viability of the band long after its founder, lead guitarist and central figure died. Drummer Mickey Hart, in a promo spot for the station said something to the effect of "it's Grateful Dead 24/7. Who'd have thought that could ever happen?"

Indeed, but no band has ever had the following or influence of the Grateful Dead--an influence still impacting and shaping bands today. In the course of reporting on music for nearly 30 years, dozens of bands have expressed to me the profound influence the Grateful Dead have had on its sound.

Bands like Umphrey's McGee, Phish, String Cheese Incident (in fact, listen to electric mandolin player Michael Kang's tone on many songs--he's channeling Garcia, which he admits), Animal Liberation Orchestra, Codetalkers, Greensky Bluegrass, Hot Buttered Rum, John Butler Trio, Dr. Dog, Keller Williams, and many others, openly embrace a spirit of free form improvisation that prior to the Grateful Dead, wasn't found in rock bands, but was more of a jazz thing. And it's likely that kids today starting bands might not fully realize how the Dead have guided them into a place of jamming, of fleshing out songs, but the Grateful Dead have. This might be especially poignant when they unknowingly hear Dead songs performed by artists such as Los Lobos, Dwight Yoakam, reggae superstar Burning Spear, Lyle Lovett, Bruce Hornsby (who played piano with the Dead on several tours), Jane's Addiction (true, they cover "Ripple"), Elvis Costello, and even Graham Parker--and "like" what they hear and adopt something from it, even if the true source point remains a mystery.

Anyway, Jerry's dead, the Grateful Dead are no longer, though they continue Garcia-less as Further, and "nothing's gonna bring him back." But it doesn't mean Garcia's decidedly individual style of guitar playing, or the Grateful Dead's unique ability to unlock the hidden recesses of song has changed. No group will ever jam the way the Dead did, but that lust for improvisation and the willingness to take chances on stage continues influence others to try.

You don't have to be a spinner to love Jerry and the Dead, but the band is still--and always will be--worth taking out for the occasional spin.

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