We’re coming to the end of the proverbial Days Between on the North American calendar – that week and change between the anniversary of Jerry Garcia‘s birth (August 1, 1942) and his death (August 9, 1995). For many music fans, it’s a bittersweet time.
Sweet because Garcia was a gifted guitarist, singer and songwriter, but also more than that. He was a cultural icon who taught his devoted followers about love and peace, about being free and finding inner happiness, about being true to oneself. He was a tremendously positive force and this is a time of year to celebrate him and his art.
Bitter, however, because his art is no more. It’s been no more for two decades at this point. Try as relentlessly as his surviving bandmates might – through festival-scale “final concerts” followed by new tour announcements; through documentary appearances and 50th anniversary retrospectives; through an endless, endless parade of live collections mining the legendary Betty Boards – the Grateful Dead are a thing of the past. And the more time passes, the more Garcia and his music drift into the catacombs of memory. But that doesn’t mean his legacy is no more.
Beyond their own masterful recordings, the Dead were also an inspiration for legions of bands – carrying from their own generation to the next to the next. It goes without saying that this includes the global jam band community, The String Cheese Incident-s and the Widespread Panic-s of the world, the artists that do more or less exactly what the Dead did without bringing a heck of a lot new to the conversation. Phish might have sold out two nights at the Mann this week, but that’s the last time you’re going to see their name mentioned in this article, since this isn’t about them. This isn’t about riding the middle and making music that’s fun to get lit and be carefree and dance around a field to, yet doesn’t do anything to advance capital-M Music as a whole.
When the Dead launched in the Bay Area in ’65, they weren’t emulating the biggest bands of their time. They were writing songs inspired by the music they loved, and finding ways through their playing and recording and collective group chemistry to make it new and interesting. There are plenty of musicians doing that today – who, yes, if you asked them would probably cop to being Garcia devotees, even if they don’t necessarily sound like the Dead. Some would probably balk at the comparison (I’d expect Carrie Brownstein would punch me in the face if I asked Sleater-Kinney about it), but the influence is undeniable and Garcia’s spirit lives on.
Certainly, you can remember Garcia on the 20th anniversary of his passing by posting 40-year-old photos of him on your Facebook feed; by listening to “Scarlet Begonias” on repeat; by hitting play on Dick’s Picks Vol. 36 and reminiscing about that show you saw at the Spectrum in ’72 where they spaced out on “Dark Star” for 37 minutes, man. But you can also put your ears to 20 currently-active artists carrying the torch lit by Garcia. We’ve compiled a list for you below; some are more obvious choices, some might surprise you.
There’s always going to be an anniversary of something, an excuse for keeping our sights fixed backwards into the past. In the spirit of Garcia, let’s instead look at the now.
The Weather Station – Echoes of “Rosemary” and “Black Peter” can be heard in the work of Toronto’s Tamara Lindeman, who released her third LP of elegant, acoustic, cosmic folk on this year’s Loyalty.
Woods – They get pegged as a cultish “collective” and branched off into numerous side pursuits, including a record label. They’re meticulous masters of recording. Most significantly, this Brooklyn band parallels the Dead in its attention to songcraft – and its subversion. (ie. Building up a rabid following among the Pitchfork set who’d probably turn up their noses at a copy of American Beauty.)
My Morning Jacket – If you saw their massive guitars-on-guitars XPNFest set this year, there should be no doubt in your mind why they’re included on this list. If not, listen to “Lay Low” below and we’ll talk later.
The War on Drugs – Equally adept at psychedelic space jams and uplifting rock anthems, these Philly luminaries are bursting their way into the mainstream this year, and good for them. Like the Dead, themes of travel, hope and fidelity carry across their work, and the way they can galvanize a crowd in concert is pretty much unparalleled right now.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Garcia and the Dead were true ambassadors for American roots music, from “Doin’ That Rag” to “Ripple.” That’s exactly what San Francisco’s M.C. Taylor has been doing for the past several years, and on last year’s Lateness of Dancers, he finally started to get widespread attention and acclaim for it.
Warpaint – While on the surface they might have more in common with 90s electronica a la Portishead, the way this neo-psychedelic LA four-piece colors its music in a left-of-center style and crafts stunning moods isn’t too far off from, say, Blues for Allah.
Ryan Adams – An accomplished songwriter and storyteller with a reverence for American music, Adams has the ability to, with his live band, take audiences on a far-out journey…especially when they launch into “Peaceful Valley.”
Flying Lotus – While your average Deadhead may not be a huge electronica/hip-hop fan, the mellow guitars building into full band jazzy freakouts on Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! are reminiscent of many moments on Live Dead.
Dr. Dog – The Dead parallel wasn’t discussed much during this Philly band’s formative years; music writers seemed content to align them to The Beach Boys and The Beatles. But hey, Dr. Dog has a Bobby in bassist Toby Leaman, and a Jerry in guitarist Scott McMicken. Their songs talk about life and death and existential concerns. And they’ve got an ever-growing following of fanatical fans who freak out at the chance to see them live.
Built to Spill – The Boise indie rock band was still in its infancy in the final days of the Dead, but its career continues on to this day – and like My Morning Jacket, its heady guitar-rock jams can blow minds just as easily on record as it can in concert.
Sleater-Kinney – Olympia power trio Sleater-Kinney got its start in the DIY punk rock world. As such, I imagine they wouldn’t appreciate being mentioned in the same breath as the Grateful Dead. But Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss have always been incredible players, and the more records they released, the less reserved they were about flexing their skill. 2005’s The Woods – their first for Sub Pop – was the most overt show of S-K’s shreddery, particularly the 11-minute epic “Let’s Call It Love,” and if you have any kind of passing interest in hearing world class musicians jam, it’s required listening.
Steve Gunn – NYC-via-Philly guitar virtuoso Steve Gun is revered in art rock circles, but his expansive sonic meditations are straight out of the “Jack Straw” chapter of Jerry’s playbook.
Delta Spirit – These San Diego rockers are approaching their current tour by inviting friends along for the ride and turning it into a big old jam session. Seems like something Jerry would have been into.
Wilco – One of the common themes you’ll probably notice in this list is exceptional songwriting and the ability to transform those songs into something new in concert. You can’t talk about that without talking about Wilco. For proof, check out their performance from the Pitchfork Music Festival from earlier this summer.
Kamasi Washington – 15- to 20-minute songs that go to outer space and back not only describes a great Dead bootleg but also great jazz albums. The Dead utilize the structure of jazz pieces and Garcia’s guitar playing was featured on Ornette Coleman’s Virgin Beauty. Lately, Kamasi Washington has been on the lips of every jazz writer worldwide for good reason. The Epic is an intense album that should satisfy anyone hunkering for a great cosmic experience.
Phosphorescent – Matthew Houck wrote “Song For Zula,” which might just be the “Uncle John’s Band” of this generation. It’s heartfelt, sad, sentimental and something that makes for wonderful communal singalongs.
DIIV – The most extreme end of the Dead’s psychedelic guitar explorations can be heard today in these Brooklyn jammers, who are set to release their sophomore album this fall.
Lee Ranaldo – In 1995, NYC experimental band Sonic Youth closed its album Washing Machine with an elegant 20-minute piece called “The Diamond Sea” and jaded alt-rock dudes sneered “What is this, a Grateful Dead song?” Their guitarist Lee Ranaldo probably didn’t mind that comparison so much. SY have since gone their separate ways, but Ranaldo continues making exploratory music as a solo artist, and lest anybody doubt his fondness for the Dead, he was actively Instagramming from the Fare The Well shows this summer.
Purling Hiss – One of the best guitarists to come out of Philly in recent years, Mike Polizze can shred you into a corner in his more badass moments. That seems to be the primary appeal in his band Purling Hiss, but he also understands dynamics, creating a vibe and seeing where it leads him and his bandmates. That is, in essence, the philosophy behind the Dead’s improv as well.
Ryley Walker – Chicago singer-songwriter-guitarist blew minds on his second album Primrose Green earlier this year, drawing on all manner of late 60s psychedelic folk from the U.S. and U.K. And while he might have more in common with Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention in terms of sound, his expansive playing and adventurous arrangements are sure to impress anybody who revels in the limitless possibilities of music that Jerry Garcia and his bandmates unlocked.
The Key’s Maureen Walsh also contributed to this story.