Grateful Dead founding member Jerry Garcia once said of his band, “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
For more than 20 years, Cosmic Charlie has been carrying on the legacy of the Grateful Dead, catering to audiences with a hankering for that special kind of licorice.
On April 15, Newnan will play host to two Athens-based institutions – crit racing and Cosmic Charlie.
Just like the Dead, Cosmic Charlie thrives in the live setting and members say they are excited to be back on the road in front of larger audiences after the 2020 pandemic shut things down.
“For us, it’s all about the live experience,” said founding member Michael Wegner.
The Grateful Dead are an American institution, but you’ll invariably get differing opinions when you mention their name.
Some may conjure up images of longhaired fans, spinning or reveling in some kind of drug-induced trance, while others might recite a few songs or favorite shows that served as a soundtrack to their lives.
The music of the Grateful Dead is as varied as their fanbase. With more than 450 songs in their repertoire, there’s always something for everyone, Wegner said.
“If you get past the stereotypes, what you find is that the Dead are Americana,” he said. “There’s elements of country, blues, jazz and pop. People are generally surprised when the preconceived notions of their music are completely unfounded.”
Wegner attended his first Dead show in 1982, four years before the Dead’s “Touch of Grey” single ushered in a mass of new Deadheads. Soon, concerts were seemingly more about the scene than the music, Wegner said.
Additionally, Wegner was playing in bands at that time whose members didn’t understand, or even like, the Dead.
“Eventually, I reconciled with all that and just went for it,” he said. “For their last tour in 1995, I went to all four nights at the Omni.”
Cosmic Charlie was formed in 1999, only four years after the original Dead lineup broke up. Wegner said the idea was to celebrate Jerry Garcia’s birthday with a one-off tribute show with a band made up of local musicians.
But that one-off show turned out to be the beginning of a quarter-century journey that found the band in demand all across the country, averaging around 50 to 60 shows annually.
Over their 30-year history, the Grateful Dead were renowned for performing each show without a set list – preferring instead to allow the process of song selection to occur organically, which is something Wegner and Cosmic Charlie have fully embraced.
“We don’t know what our first song will be when we walk out on stage,” he said. “This approach allows us to be completely in the moment to see what comes up. If someone gets an idea, they play a riff that gives us a hint, but it really forces us as musicians to really listen to each other. You won’t know what’s coming next if you don’t.”
Most deadheads will tell you their favorite era of the band. For some, it’s the “primal Dead” of the late 1960s, while others gravitate towards the jazzier side of their early ’70s output or the two-drummer stadium sound of the ’80s and early ’90s.
For Cosmic Charlie, Wegner said the band incorporates the Dead’s more organic sound of the ’70s with arrangements typically found in the ’80s.
“We’re very fond of the natural keyboard sounds of the ’70s before it got too synthy and artificial sounding,” he said. “But we still enjoy playing some material from the latter-day period like ‘Lazy River Road’ or ‘Standing on the Moon.’”
And like the Dead, Cosmic Charlie isn’t keen on predictability. Over the years, the band has played more than 150 different Grateful Dead songs.
And no setlist is ever the same.
“If we do three shows in a weekend, we don’t repeat any of the songs,” Wegner said. “We’ll do six different sets. The great thing about the Dead is that we’ll never run out of new songs to try.”
Recently, the band began incorporating a “Dark Side of the Dead” portion of their setlist, where they perform Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album in its entirety.
“I’m not sure how we decided to do it, but figured it was a cool thing to do and (it) offered a nice change for us,” he said. “It’s challenging in a different way, but it’s more mapped out and we always know what the next song is.”
Next year, Wegner said, the band will embark on its first American tour since 2004. It’s a tough assignment with a band filled with “lives, wives and reasons to be home,” Wegner said.
But the road conjures up good memories for Cosmic Charlie, including a spectacular show at the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, which also hosted one of the most memorable Grateful Dead shows in 1972.
“It’s the perfect atmosphere, filled with 5,000 super happy people who love to hear those deeper cuts of the Grateful Dead catalog,” Wegner said. “If we can get back there, that would be amazing.”
Wegner said the ultimate item on the band’s bucket list would be the chance to perform in Europe or at Red Rocks in Colorado.
“I think a band like ours from Athens, playing high-energy Grateful Dead music would be a good fit at Red Rocks,” Wegner said. “I don’t see why not.”
With the original Grateful Dead members preparing to close the book on their current “Dead and Company” incarnation this summer, Wegner said the torch is ready to be passed to other tribute bands who like to put their own spin on the music while playing with the same spirit as the Dead.
Cosmic Charlie is often labeled “high energy,” which Wegner said comes from their roots in playing in heavier bands in their respective early years.
“We didn’t grow up strictly digging old-school classic rock,” he said. “I mean, my band was opening for the Dead Kennedys in 1985, and I think we bring that element to our jams. We try to push our jams a little more to see where we can take them.”
That element of mystery is something Wegner said helps create the connection between the band and its audience.
“There are plenty of great, capable musicians better than us who are playing the Dead catalog inside and out, but I think what makes us special is we’re out there playing without a setlist, and none of us know what’s going to happen next,” he said. “Our best moments happen that way and make it a total surprise for the band and the audience.”