Every Sunday at the Sail, the Noodles get noodling about 4:20 p.m. and roll on until 8 or so, with a solid fan base filling the joint that seems to oscillate in its membership only slightly from week to week. Like I said, I'm no Deadhead, but watching these flower-power baby boomers convene a couple Sundays in a row was fascinating, even slightly liberating. I could probably only name a couple Grateful Dead songs on a good day, but the free-flowing, interpretive dance vibe is infectious, and when I wasn't making fun of some of the sillier choreographies, I was inventing my own.
I'd heard the stories, one from my buddy Vicente the Fox, who told me of his conversion to the twirl dancing that goes on at the Noodles shows. But until I was watching dudes old enough to be my grandpa doing funky-ass Sweatin' to the Oldies moves, I never understood the basic truth of it -- when everyone else is dancing like a drug-addled maniac, you can dance however the hell you want and not give a damn about feeling self-conscious.
The Noodles -- guitarists/vocalists John Reuter and Kim Ladd, bass player/vocalist Guy Ivester, and drummer Jason Kay -- exclusively play from the Grateful Dead catalogue, no exceptions. The whole thing started out as a hobby for Reuter and Ladd back in '97, when they played their first show in Reuter's backyard. Then they started a biweekly stint at the Sail Inn, but, predictably enough, their crowd of Deadheads couldn't remember which week they were on and which they were off, so the Noodles decided it was best to just be there every Sunday.
Though Kay is the only one who considers himself a professional musician (he plays seven days a week in a multitude of bands, including the Saddle Tramps and the Overtones), all have dense musical histories that belie the spacy stoner jams they kick out. Reuter runs the Roberto Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, which he describes as "the Harvard of guitar-making schools." Ladd and Ivester are both graduates of the school, and Reuter and Ladd both play handmade instruments (Ladd plays a limited-edition Rick Turner, made by the Dead's former sound guy). Ladd's even expounded on the skills he learned woodworking guitars -- he's spent the past 28 years making and repairing custom golf clubs. "Not the typical job for your typical Deadhead," he says with a laugh.
When I ask the guys how many times collectively or individually they've seen the Grateful Dead, they can't answer -- I assume many in the crowd at a Noodles show wouldn't be able to, either. Ladd first saw them in 1973, and says he lost count in the '80s. Kay, the youngest of the group and the newest member, spent several years traveling with the Dead.
To the Noodles, and to the regulars who try not to miss a single Sunday there, it is, as one groupie I talked to called it, "Sunday church."
"We see the same faces week in and week out, along with the occasional new face," Ladd says. "They're just people who enjoy the music that we play, which is the music of the Grateful Dead -- we don't for a minute feel as if this is our thing. We're just reproducing something, interpretations or whatever. It's kind of the community aspect that drew Deadheads together in the first place, people who want to be with people of a like mind. It's an opportunity to continue to hook up on a weekly basis. Back when the Dead were still touring, I'd make a pilgrimage a couple times a year to be with 15,000 of my best friends. This is an opportunity to be with 50 or 60 or 70 of them. It's just people coming out for a fun time."
"It's our Sunday golf game is what it is," Reuter adds. "We never know what's gonna happen; some days you play good, other days we don't play so well." The Noodles certainly have enough material from which to cull their sets -- they say they used to have a list of about 125 songs in their repertoire, and they try not to play the same one two weeks in a row.
Not that I would notice personally. I was too preoccupied both times I went with alternately laughing at the twirlers and hand-dancers and joining them, or goading my friends into doing the same. I'm no fan of the Dead, but luckily that's not a requirement to dig the Noodles.