The Deadbeats just keep on truckin’ – Nevada City tribute band keeps the Grateful Dead alive
Nevada City Advocate
The music never stopped. It multiplied.
Twenty-three years after the death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s reluctant ruler, a charismatic, creative lead guitarist and artful song writer, the music he and the band created that drew thousands of traveling Deadheads has never been more popular.
Garcia’s death effectively ended the Grateful Dead. But it didn’t end the music. Bands have been springing up everywhere, bands that either cover the music note for note or pay tribute to the music in interesting ways.
There are now 547 Dead bands around the world, according to one website that actually names and locates them. They range from multiple U.S. hot spots in New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona to England, Japan and even Israel, where a group performs the songs in Hebrew.
Ground zero is California, specifically the Bay Area, where the group formed in 1965. But one of the best cover bands with incredible musical chops and a huge, loyal following is, you guessed it, the Deadbeats right here in Nevada City.
“There are a lot of hippies in Nevada City,” says Tom Menig, the “Jerry” of the Deadbeats. “When things started going south in San Francisco (in the 60s and 70s) this was the epicenter of the back-to-nature movement.
“A lot of those folks still come to see us.”
The Deadbeats, formed in 1994, a year before Garcia died, have been a popular act even though they only “play out” three or four times a year. Their big gig of the year is the Jerry Bash, celebrating his birthday. This year, it will be held at Pioneer Park on Saturday, Aug. 4. It is usually jammed.
Menig, soft-spoken and friendly, sits in his home recording studio in rural Nevada County, talking about what it takes to play like Jerry, how to master those solos, those bends, those scales.
“I try to keep the feeling like Jerry,” he says. “It’s a relatively clean tone. It’s more a feeling in the way he approaches the music. His style changed over the years. When he was young he was pretty fiery. Older he was laid back. A little more thoughtful.”
Menig, 61, was raised in Orange County, close to Disneyland. “It was all Disneyland to my young stoned mind,” he says ruefully.
He started playing at age 12. Got a fake ID at 18 and hit the open mic scene.
He graduated high school in 1975 and split for Alaska to unload shrimp at the docks.
He then moved on to Humboldt County where he “got heavy into bluegrass,” an interesting move since Garcia was a bluegrass banjo player before forming the Dead and many attribute that experience to Garcia’s sound.
Menig became a major Deadhead in high school. His first show was 1973, UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. But the spark came by listening to Europe ’72, one of the greatest live albums in any genre.
“My first guitar was a Japanese 12-string. I was never a rocker. Jerry was my largest point of reference for electric guitar.”
He says a friend claims he planted the seed for Menig to form a Grateful Dead cover band. Their first gig was at the Mad Dogs and Englishmen Pub behind the National Hotel on Aug. 4, 1994.
“It was going to be a one-shot deal,” he says. “But it continues to this day.”
Since then the lineup has pretty much stayed the same except for the addition of Peter Wilson who replaced Paul Kamm, who left to perform with Achilles Wheel.
“The first year, we were just honing it locally,” he says. “We loved the songs. We had the sound right at the get-go. At one point, we could perform 100 tunes.”
But then, just a year into the band’s success, the unthinkable happened. After years of constant travel and some bad health habits, Jerry died. The Deadbeats soldiered on, although for some fans, it was too soon.
“You would have these real dedicated hardcore fans, the most serious, with their arms crossed, in the back of the room,” he says.
But by 1996, the mourning period was over and the Deadbeats were in demand regionally.
“We played the Oregon Country Fair, anywhere we could reach in one day. There were a few cover bands back East and in California, but not much.”
“The Deadbeats are at the top of their game,” says John Taber, executive producer of KVMR’s Celtic Festival, who once worked for Phil Graham in San Francisco. He loaned Taber to the Dead to “keep the people who knew Grateful Dead separate from the people who the Grateful Dead actually knew.
“It’s the music that holds the magic,” he says. “If properly played, you’re going to find yourself with an audience. The Grateful Dead played 12,000 shows.”
Wilson, the Deadbeats newest member, filling the role of the Dead’s rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, or “Bobby,” is enjoying his new gig. “All the guys in the band are friends, so it’s very natural to step in,” he says.
“It’s the songs,” he added. “They make people dance and twirl.”
Back in Menig’s studio, he is asked to name his favorite Dead song. He hedges a bit, saying he loves all the songs. But we’re not letting him off the hook.
“OK, I guess it’s Stella Blue,” he says. He picks up a 12-string acoustic guitar and starts playing the haunting chords.
Thanks, I say. My favorite too. How long will this Deadbeat thing go on?
“Until it’s no fun anymore.”