VOORHEESVILLE — The dead will come alive in Voorheesville next month, when Grateful Dead tribute band Bearly Dead, from Massacuchessetts, headline the first night of the High Altitude Festival as part of its national tour.
Although they technically cover songs played by the Grateful Dead or any of its core members, guitarist and vocalist Nick Swift told The Enterprise this week that the group “considers ourselves our own band with our own voice … Our approach is to very much put our own spin on the music.”
Rather than pinpoint and recreate a specific era of the Grateful Dead, which toured regularly for 30 years before guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, Swift said that Bearly Dead wrap what he considers some of the best American lyrics of all time in a high-energy, hard-rock sound.
It’s a combination, he thinks, that appeals to dyed-in-the-wool deadheads and those who haven’t been able to connect with the original group’s music.
“I was talking to someone at an event we did, a big Pink Floyd fan, and he was saying that he likes this one Pink Floyd cover band more than the other one because it’s more accurate; it sounds more like Pink Floyd,” Swift said. “But he said, ‘I prefer Grateful Dead bands that do something a little different. Isn’t that funny?’
Swift guessed that the reason “is that the music itself wants you to do whatever you want with it.”
The original Dead famously never played two shows alike, and took big swings during their freewheeling performances, resulting in what Swift said is a common aphorism among the fanbase: “The best show I ever saw in my life was a Grateful Dead show, and the worst show I ever saw in my life was a Grateful Dead show.”
With the Dead’s entire catalog and more on tap, Bearly Dead have no problem coming up with a unique show structure for each of its performances since the group got together in 2015, something that Swift said is critical for both the audience and the band.
“It’s really important to map out the show in terms of peaks and valleys of energy,” he said of making setlists. “You don’t want to play three slow songs in a row at a music club on a Friday, Saturday night where people are looking to party and dance. You want to make sure you’re giving an energetic show with some breathing room here and there.”
For the band, he said, it takes away some of the in-the-moment logistical pressures and keeps the music going.
“When you look at what keys certain songs are in, you can kind of map out a way to play four or five songs in a row without ever stopping,” Swift explained. “Either they’re in the same key, and you can go from one song to the next, or they’re in a relative key, and you can melodically get to the next one. I think that’s where a lot of this stuff shines — when you’ve had the opportunity to give yourself a little bit of a roadmap.”
While there’s a premium on giving people a good time, Swift said the group hopes to carry on the Grateful Dead’s legacy, which includes not just its music, but the culture and community that built up around it.
To his mind, Dead and Company, the name that several of the original members toured under until this year, is itself a tribute band, and Garcia’s death left a space that all the others are trying to fill.
When Garcia died in 1995, Swift said, “It sort of signaled the end of that chapter of the Grateful Dead and the start of a new one. And you definitely see an explosion of Grateful Dead tribute acts and cover bands all over the country that continues to grow because the music is so timeless and because people all over the world want to hear it be played.”
There was a notable surge in the Grateful Dead’s popularity when its remaining members reconvened as the Grateful Dead for the first time for a series of shows in 2015, Swift said. That confluence of younger fans with the older ones only strengthens the community atmosphere that’s existed around the Grateful Dead since its early days.
“It’s kind of cool to see the old guard kind of teaching the new wave how to be a good fan and create that sense of community,” he said.
Just as important is maintaining the thrill of live performances more generally, Swift said, as technology enables people to enjoy music of increasingly high fidelity through their own devices.
“There’s fewer and fewer people who want this form of entertainment,” he said. “In terms of going out to a bar on a Thursday night …. there’s a lot of iPods and Spotfiy playlists being piped in over speakers, and people are having a great time with that.”
To hear Swift describe it, there’s no music better to attract people back to live music than the Dead’s, however it’s played.
“I truly think Robert Hunter is the greatest lyricist in American history …,” Swift said. “They can be about everything and nothing, life and death and the human experience all in one song. They’re almost these impressionist paintings. And the way the music and those lyrics coalesce … with the rhythm section that was like there was this train rolling constantly through it, I think it speaks to a lot of Americans in particular.
“I think they are the quintessential American band,” he continued. “They sort of embody that positive spirit of America where you have the freedom to be yourself and express yourself how you want to express yourself, and I think no band quite captures that spirit like the Dead do.”
The job of Bearly Dead, he said, “is to keep that spirit of the music alive.”
The High Altitude Festival will take place on Friday, Sept. 29 and Saturday, Sept. 30 at 5777 Depot Road in Voorheesville. Tickets for each day cost $30, and camping tickets good for two people are available for $50. Tickets may be purchased on EventBrite. Gates open at 2 p.m. and music starts at 3 p.m.
There will be craft vendors, food, a bounce house, and games, and the festival is ATV friendly. Other musicians include Murali Coryell, the Bob Barker Band, the John Spignesi Band, and Double Barrelled.