As a teenager growing up in Royalton, Zach Nugent would often roam the halls of his high school barefoot, strumming his guitar, playing the music of the Grateful Dead. It being Vermont, no one really batted an eye.
“Vermont as a whole is super supportive of art,” Nugent told Seven Days by phone from his summer tour with his Grateful Dead tribute act, Dead Set. “And the Dead struck me as early as I can remember. I mean, I have a fifth-grade graduation card I got when I was 8 years old, and it was Dead-themed. So, yeah. It was that early.”
Nugent has been on the road playing the music of the Dead and its legendary singer-guitarist, Jerry Garcia, for most of his adult life. A decade ago, after stints playing with Melvin Seals and the surviving members of the Jerry Garcia Band, Nugent launched Dead Set, a weekly residency at Nectar’s in Burlington that became the center of the local Dead scene. Nugent’s current Dead Set lineup features guitarist and vocalist Joe Agnello, bassist Jack Vignone, drummer Cotter Ellis, and Matt Dolliver on keys.
Deciding it was time to level up, Nugent recently relocated Dead Set to South Burlington’s Higher Ground as a monthly residency. The singer-guitarist described the switch as “scary, and a little bit sad at first.”
“Tuesdays at Nectar’s were never that lucrative for me, but those 10 years really brought us together as a band,” Nugent revealed. “And it was a symbiotic thing, in my opinion. I think we were good for Burlington, and it was good for us.”
Nugent had various reasons to reach out to Higher Ground and make the move, from a change of ownership at Nectar’s to the band feeling it was time for a bigger venue.
“It’s been great, and the shows so far have been amazing,” Nugent said. “It’s less of a hang for us and more of a proper professional gig. Higher Ground is the next level, and it felt like it was the right time, so we grabbed it by the horns and made the switch.”
Nugent’s ability to draw so many attendees, not only in Burlington but also in venues across the country on tour, is especially notable when you consider that he’s playing the music of a band that broke up almost 30 years ago. He believes that the Dead’s music and the legacy of Garcia, whose death from a heart attack in 1995 ended the original band’s run, remain vital and accessible to new generations for a simple reason: the songs.
“I never saw the Dead,” Nugent, 34, said. “I was 7 when Jerry died. But my earliest memories are driving around with my parents, listening to their music. It trickled down to me, just like it’s trickling down to another generation now.”
Few things excite Nugent more than looking at the audience and seeing all the X’s on the hands of underage attendees beginning their own journeys into the Grateful Dead’s music.
“Not only is the music so incredible, the songs are relatable,” Nugent said.
He points out that many bands in the jam scene, while being instrumentally impressive, tend to write songs with “silly, made-up words and meaningless lyrics.”
“That’s cool, but what’s great about the Dead is that, yes, the jams are good, but their songs are stories about life,” he said. “One of the most recurring words in their lyrics I sing over and over is ‘home.’ I think that’s beautiful.”
Garcia’s influence is evident in Nugent’s own music. Last year, he released his first album of original material, Good So Far. Another one is due out in the fall.
While he doesn’t have a hard time writing original music, Nugent said he has discovered that it’s a bit trickier to separate his identity as a guitar player from Garcia, whose style he has emulated for decades.
“I love doing my own songs, but once I have a guitar in my hands, it’s a little hard to not do the Jerry thing,” he admitted. “Maybe I’m not even emulating anymore; maybe that’s just how I play. I don’t even know anymore. But I do try to put a little edge in my playing on the original stuff, just to give it my own flavor.”
Nugent, who played one of Garcia’s guitars on Good So Far, recently received his own signature model acoustic guitar from luthier Adam Buchwald, who owns and operates Circle Strings in South Burlington. Building the guitar was a nerve-racking experience for Nugent, who spent two years going back and forth with Buchwald on details. But, he said, the result was “astounding.”
“It’s possibly the greatest guitar I’ve ever played,” Nugent enthused. “But it’s also just so special to have a signature guitar. Fifteen-year-old me would be beside himself.”
Fifteen-year-old Nugent would also be overjoyed by the 40-plus-date national tour on which Dead Set are set to embark. The band will play venues that Nugent has dreamed of visiting, including an August 2 show in Oracle Park, the home stadium of the San Francisco Giants, opening for the Sunshine Garcia Band.
On the home front, the band has two more shows scheduled for the Higher Ground residency: this Friday, July 28, and Saturday, August 26. Nugent said those will be the last two Burlington shows it’ll play for “a while.”
“It’s been incredible [at Higher Ground] so far, and the fall is just jam-packed for me,” Nugent said. “Things change with time, you know. You just need to know when to change with it, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”