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In the jam band scene, improvisation is the way of life. From Max Creek to the Grateful Dead, from Widespread Panic to Phish and all the bands in between, there is one common denominator, and that is a dedication to taking music to unexplored depths.
There’s no denying that the Grateful Dead were pioneers and innovators of what many would describe as stoner music, weaving together just about every genre of rock music and exploring the depths by jamming. It is intelligent, if sometimes droning.
This evening at the Putnam Den, Gratefully Yours, a Grateful Dead tribute band with a rotating cast of musicians, will start grooving at 10 p.m. Tickets are $12 at the door, and if you’re under 18, you will have to pay an extra $5.
Alex Mazur is the keyboardist, and the only member who always plays with the band. The cast for tonight is a jam band all-star lineup, with Vinnie Amico sitting in on the drums. Amico is a founding member of scene stalwart moe., a band based out of Utica with a devoted following. Adam Czolowski, who played with Amico in Sonic Garden, is in the lineup, as is Rob Schiff on rhythm guitar and Tom Pirozzi on bass. Burlington, Vt. based guitarist Zach Nugent will play the role of Jerry Garcia on lead guitar.
“It’s a pretty solid lineup,” Mazur said in a phone interview on Friday. “Vinnie, he’s a local guy (he lives in Albany) and he has been part of this scene for years. He’s a special, giving guy and he’s really into playing music. It’s very nice of him. He just likes to get out and play.”
Gratefully Yours is not your typical Grateful Dead cover band. The most well-known Dead cover act is Dark Star Orchestra, which picks a show from the Dead’s 30-year catalog and recreates it for the audience. Other tribute bands construct a set list based off what the band wants to play.
Mazur said his band plays what the audience wants to hear. Fans can head to gratefullyyours.net and build their own set lists, which the band then takes and performs.
“Every musical act depends on an audience,” Mazur, who lives in New Paltz, said. “We are taking it a step beyond that. When I used to see the Dead all the time, the audience was a huge part of the show.”
The band’s name is a reflection on Mazur’s sentiment. He said he looked into the name, found out that it wasn’t being used by another band, and decided upon it.
Mazur first say Jerry Garcia and the band in Colorado in 1979, ad has been on the bus ever since. Mazur is also a founding member of Albany band the Deadbeats, which covers the Dead and “stays true to the improvisational spirit,” according to Mazur. The Deadbeats play every Wednesday night at the Low Beat in Albany.
Mazur also spoke about the current state of the Grateful Dead. In July, the four living members of the band, along with Bruce Hornsby and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, are playing three sold out shows at Soldier Field in Chicago in honor of the band’s 50th anniversary.
“Jerry was a mediating force for the band,” he said. “The guys now seem to be at each other’s throats. I wish they could work together better.”
Mazur said he really enjoys the direction Gratefully Yours is heading, saying he thinks the band has a very positive future ahead of itself.
Tammy D’ercole is the first to admit that she is not the victim, but rather her family members are.
D’ercole, 48 and a Saratoga Springs native, suffers from an anoxic brain injury caused by an ischemic stroke that occurred on Jan. 29, 2006, when she was living in Pittsburgh with an ex-boyfriend. After a night of heavy drinking, D’ercole noticed blood in her urine and went to the hospital.
Doctors quickly found a tumor in her heart (atrial myxoma) and told her she needed emergency surgery, otherwise she might not survive for very long. Before the surgery, a piece of the tumor broke off, went into her bloodstream and essentially stopped the flow of oxygen to her brain.
“Essentially, the right side of my brain stopped functioning” afterward, D’ercole said.
Brain injuries are broken down into two categories: Anoxic and traumatic, which is caused by a physical head injury such as a concussion. March is Brain Injury Awareness month.
Problem was she was unaware that she had suffered a brain injury until a neurologist saw her in 2009 after she began suffering debilitating bouts of pain. After surgery for her tumor, and the ensuing stroke, D’ercole was in a wheelchair for nearly six weeks before being released back into the world.
It’s a story that those with anoxic brain injuries know all too well. An anoxic brain injury, basically, is when the brain is starved of oxygen, thus limiting the way the human brain can function with each passing second without oxygen. If a doctor doesn’t think to run tests, said injury can go undiagnosed for a long time.
D’ercole moved back to Saratoga Springs in 2009 for what she deemed “better treatment.” She admits that looking back upon the way she was treated in Pittsburgh, she wasn’t very happy, and said the doctors around here provide a better level of care.
“There were a lot of things I was changing about myself, and I wanted to see them through,” she said.
Reflecting back on her life’s experiences, D’ercole said she caused many of her own problems. In 2000, she weighed almost 300 pounds, so she decided to have gastric bypass surgery. She is half her size today. Yet after the surgery, she and her husband of 10 years divorced, and that’s when she said her biggest demons reared their heads.
“I was grieving the loss of food in my life,” she said, before a brief pause. “But then booze replaced it quickly.”
She started relying on alcohol as a mechanism to cope with what was happening in her life. Soon, her husband decided he had enough and left the relationship, which only allowed D’ercole to spiral further out of control.
She had four daughters from the marriage, which she said was a lot of responsibility for someone suffering from alcohol addiction.
Then, the stroke happened.
“When I was released from the hospital, I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t use the left side of my body,” she said. “And the first thing I did was go out drinking.”
D’ercole said she came to the realization that she is an alcoholic when she woke up from her surgery.
“I opened my eyes and my family was there,” she said. “We weren’t really all that close and a lot of that was my doing. I started to see all of the hugs and kisses I didn’t get from my dad growing up. When my eyes opened, I said, ‘Dad, I’m an alcoholic.’ He said: ‘I know,’ and that’s when I understood I had a bad problem.”
D’ercole began her slow road to recovery, both physically and emotionally. She has sought help for her alcohol addiction and currently lives a sober lifestyle in an apartment complex for seniors and people with disabilities.
If she has a negative attitude, then she’s pretty great at hiding it. Every word out of her mouth was positive and forward thinking, and she doesn’t make excuses for anything that has happened.
“As I’ve grown, I realized that I put my family through hell with my drinking and everything that has happened,” D’ercole said. “My kids were the victims, because they had to deal with me all those years.”
In dealing with her brain injury, D’ercole said the biggest thing for her was becoming her own advocate. She took the time to research and fully understand what happened to her brain, so that she can help herself make the most of her life.
Things that come easy to those without brain injuries – filling out paperwork, finding an apartment, even relearning how to eat – became chores. So to get back to where she can live a healthy life, D’ercole said she used all resources.
“We (with brain injuries) become engineers in our own life,” she said. “I have adapted to my environment and worked out a routine that fits best for me. And look at me. I am living the best life I can, but it has taken a lot of years. Many people think that because I have a brain injury, I need someone to do everything for me. Really, I will just ask if I need help, because I am able to take care of myself."
D’ercole has an aide that she can use for up to 23 hours per week, but that she tries to use the aide sparingly.
She is very active on social media support groups, and has become an advocate for others with brain injuries. And she feels that awareness about brain injuries is lacking, but also tries to help out families of those who are suffering, so they can carve out an easier path to recovery.
D’ercole said she calls into an internet radio station that focuses on brain injuries multiple times a week to lend support and give advice. She said she has been approached about the possibility of hosting her own show, but would not say if she is going to do it.
“I guess I want people to know a few things: There are many, many different types of brain injuries out there,” she said. “I also want families and friends of brain injury victims to know that with the right amount of support, and also patience and understanding, that they can live a healthy and productive life."
D’ercole said she is trying to go back to college to get a social work degree and one day hopefully work with brain injury survivors and their families. She also wants to help shed the stigma she says is associated with brain injuries.
“I could say that the injury hurt my life, but it really spun into a blessing,” she said. “My life is a blessing. All life is a blessing. What happened to me isn’t so tragic. Even before the injury, I never dreamed of being where I am today.”
Formula 5, a unique quartet blending jazz, rock, funk and jam, will headline the Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs on Saturday.
Tickets are $10, with doors opening at 8 p.m. The show begins at 9 p.m. and includes supporting acts Capital Zen and The Other Brothers.
With all four members hailing from the Capital District and slightly beyond, this is a hometown show for the band, which is inspired by jam-rock gods, Phish. Guitarist Joe Davis is admittedly obsessed with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s mastery of the six-string, calling his love for him borderline “unhealthy.” Mike McDonald handles keyboard duties, James Woods plucks the bass and Greg Marek keeps the beat. The four rotate vocals.
Pete Mason, a longtime jam band fan who does a lot of work within the community, manages the group. He is the founder of PhanArt.net, a site whose mission is to promote art in all forms, especially concert posters, street art, official prints and fan creations. He is also the publisher of online music magazine NYSMusic.com.
So it’s very fitting that the members all met in October of 2009 while waiting on line to purchase tickets for two Phish concerts that were to take place in November of 2009 at the Times Union Center in Albany.
“I ended up sitting next to (our old bass player) and we talked all night,” Marek said. “I began playing with him and some kids he was jamming with. We had bass, drums, guitar and a talented female sax player who sang.”
After a few gigs and a bit of rearranging in the band – they added a keyboard player, for one – things weren’t going as smoothly as the group thought they could. Enter Davis and Woods, and Formula 5 had the lineup it wanted.
“We are all jam fans and weren’t doing too much of that with the former lineup,” Marek added.
Davis and McDonald are the chief songwriters, but both said much of the writing is done as a group. Someone will show up with a song, or the makings of one, and the band will work together to come up with something that fits their sound.
Each band members writes his own music for his specific instrument.
“Although Mike and I are the main songwriters, all of us have equal input on our individual parts,” Davis said. “It is still a democratic system but Mike and I tend to guide James and Greg on their own parts on our own vision of the end product.”
Davis’ masterful guitar work stems from a lifetime of listening and practicing. At a young age, Davis borrowed his sister’s acoustic guitar and started learning classic rock songs.
He said his father exposed him to plenty of guitar-driven classic rock growing up, and recalls when he was introduced to Derek and the Dominoes’ album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
“This album rocked my world,” he said.
Years later, Davis discovered the work of Anastasio, who had been selling out arenas with Phish for a few years, and had become one of the largest touring bands in America. That obsession has helped Davis mature into a guitarist with his own style who blends together all of his own influences without sounding like a copycat.
“It’s gotten to the point where I can pretty much either sing or play Trey’s guitar playing on some of Phish’s classic jams from the 1990s,” he said.
The band of 20-somethings has a very bright future. Formula 5 has already headlined official Phish after parties in Saratoga, and also played at the Brooklyn Bowl, a venue seen as hallowed ground for jam bands hoping to grow.
“The real focus is on all the small achievements,” Marek said. “For example, getting our fans to take the extra step. If you come to a show and enjoy yourself, tell somebody. Word of mouth is our biggest friend.”
Find out for yourself and bring a friend on Saturday. Even the shyest person will find him or herself grooving to the styling of Formula 5.
Even 20 years after his death, Jerry Garcia is making his impact felt around the music world, thanks in large part to his sidekick Melvin Seals, who will perform with JGB on March 12 at the Putnam Den.
When news broke on August 9, 1995, that enigmatic leader of the nomadic Grateful Dead, a rock and roll band with bluegrass, country, blues, jazz and psychedelic elements, had passed away, tens of thousands of Deaheads gathered in impromptu memorials across the country as a cathartic final salute to their musical leader
Now, two decades later, Garcia – Captain Trips, if you will – is physically gone, but it’s hard to argue that his spirit has ever been brighter. An integral part of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s and a center figure in Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, Garcia and his mates in the Dead embraced the cliché notion that ‘it’s all about the music.’
The story about the Dead has been written countless times. Within the confines of such a cast of accomplished musicians, it seemed Garcia began feeling trapped toward the end of the band’s 30-year career, often times going through the motions and appearing uninterested. Some blame that on his heroin addiction; others on the grueling nature of the life of a touring musician.
Whatever the case, one thing appears for sure: Garcia felt the most comfortable within his side group, the Jerry Garcia Band, which played everything from original Garcia compositions, to gospel favorites, to Bob Dylan songs and just about everything in between. If you don’t believe me about his passion, go to YouTube and watch one of the many full JGB concerts. Garcia is smiling, dancing his crazy fingers up and down the fretboard, appearing as comfortable as he can be for a man with an admitted fear of the stage.
Carrying on that spirit and ideology is Seals, the 62-year-old organist who fronts Melvin Seals and JGB. Seals was Garcia’s keyboardist from 1980 up until 1995, adding a huge layer of soul and personality to compliment Garcia’s candid, soft voice and ferociously delicate guitar playing.
Seals and his band will be performing at the Putnam Den on March 12, featuring his trademark Hammond B-3 organ and the Garcia Band catalog. He took time on March 3, the opening day of his tour, to speak with the paper about a variety of topics, including an anecdote about Garcia’s nature.
“"You heard that saying, 'He'll give you the shirt off his back'? Well that's really how Jerry was,” Seals explained. “One Christmas -- Jerry liked to have us over for the holidays to sing carols and be merry -- Phil, other JGB members were there, Jerry had this oversize designer chair. I sat in it all night, and Jerry came up and said, 'man, you look great in that chair!' Two days later, without my knowledge or anything, Jerry had it arranged to be delivered to my house. That's the type of stuff that defined Jerry, the man, off stage. He had the biggest heart."
When Garcia passed away, Deadheads young and old were left with a massive void. The people who made following Jerry and Co. a lifestyle suddenly had nothing. It would be a few years until the remaining members of the Dead would regroup under various monikers including The Other Ones and The Dead, always careful not to use the word ‘Grateful.’ Bassist Phil Lesh is on record saying the band agreed that they couldn’t use the original name since the centerpiece was no longer around.
The Jerry Garcia Band was a huge draw, as well. Deadheads would travel to the middle of nowhere just to listen to Garcia play one song on an out-of-tune guitar. That’s the passion and dedication that brewed inside everyone who was deeply touched by the power of Garcia’s music.
Seals reformed the band in 2004, after a few years of failed attempts.
“After Jerry died, we came out of the gate at large venues, and it backfired a little,” he said. “I’m not sure we had the right group of musicians. For this band, it’s all about the vibe. If the vibe ain’t right, it won’t work.”
Much has progressed since then.
“I liken it to going to church,” he added. “We try to go back in time at our concerts. That’s really all I can offer. When you come see us, I want you to let go of your job, whatever is going on in your life, and enjoy the show, relive a little of the magic from all those years ago. If you never saw Jerry, you can experience some of it with us. I just want everyone to smile and dance and have a great time. It’s exactly what Jerry wanted.”
There are countless tribute bands out there carrying the torch Garcia, Lesh, Bob Weir, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann lit in 1965, when the band changed its name from the Warlocks. Dark Star Orchestra, which recreates Dead shows in their entirety, immediately comes to mind. Each of the living members of the Dead – the Core Four – has his own band, and routinely performs concerts. Over the July 4 holiday weekend, the Core Four are performing three concerts at Soldier Field in in Chicago in honor of the Dead’s 50th anniversary. Filling in the mighty huge shoes of Garcia, is none other than Phish guitarist and jam band scene leader Trey Anastasio. All 210,000 tickets for the event sold out within minutes of the public onsale.
There’s been a lot of chatter about the concerts. Since the early 90s, there has been a notable disconnect between Deadheads and those who follow Phish. A lot of Deadheads feel Phish undeservedly became the scene’s torchbearers when Garcia passed. Others, especially young Deadheads who weren’t able to experience Garcia in a live setting, go to extreme lengths to experience a Dead show. Legendary promoter Bill Graham once said: “The Dead aren’t the best at what they do. They’re the only ones that do what they do.”
Seals said it would have been nice if more of the Grateful Dead Family were invited to perform that weekend. Left out were vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux and fill-in keyboardist Tom Constanten. And while Seals never performed with the Dead – he only saw them live twice, at Garcia’s prodding – he said it would have welcomed an invite.
“Everyone will be there in one way or another,” Seals said. “Would it have been nice to have been invited? Yes. But I certainly am not upset. Those guys did something special for a long time. I am very happy for them, and I am not bothered by it at all. I hope it goes well for them.”
Of the ethos passed along from Garcia to Seals, rotating the setlist every night was on top of that list. Seals said that because so many fans will tour with the band – attend multiple, and sometimes every show of the tour – he doesn’t play the same show twice.
Seals, who played in church bands in the years prior to being recruited by Garcia, recalls the first time he saw Garcia and his band play. Needless to say, Seals’ first impression was that the band was sloppy in the composed parts of songs, but was blown away by the improvisation.
“Jerry told me when I joined, ‘it’s not about crossing your Ts and dotting your Is’ in the band,” Seals said. “It’s all about the jamming and what’s happening in the moment. Outside of the song structure, we did whatever we wanted to do. Nothing was ever the same, except that we might be playing a song we did a few nights prior. I have thought a lot about tightening it up, but that’s not what the fans want. Our fans love the spontaneity, and I’m here for them.”
While the members of the Dead have stated that the Chicago shows are most likely the last time they will all play together, Seals said he has not put a time on how long he will continue to perform.
“In our line of work, most of us die on the road,” he said. “We don’t pick when we’re going to hang it up. For me, it’s all I know how do to, to be a musician and perform. The money now is nowhere near like it was when Jerry was with us, but that’s okay. I love doing what I do, and I want to keep doing it.”
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It sounds like Seals is sticking to Garcia’s mission statement.