Grateful Dead tribute shows are never in short supply — or short, period. But the Deadhead marathon Wednesday night at the Hook & Ladder Theatre (8 p.m., $12-$15) has several meaningful twists.
An all-star local cast — including Javier Trejo and the Big Wu’s Chris Castino and on guitars and vocals, drummers JT Bates and Martin Dosh, bassist Chad Whittaker and keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay -- will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Dead’s legendary three-night stand this week in 1989 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in southeastern Wisconsin, where Phish performed a three-nighter last weekend.
About a 5- to 6-hour drive from the Twin Cities, the Alpine Valley amphitheater is also legendary (in part due to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death in a helicopter crash after a show in 1990), but the venue is just now bouncing back from several relatively dormant years. Willie Nelson also announced he’s bringing Farm Aid there on Sept. 21 to highlight the plight of Wisconsin dairy farmers.
Those Dead shows became a famous concert film for good and bad reasons. The performances were considered some of the last great ones. The title of the film, “Downhill From Here,” plays off the Alpine Valley ski hills but also subtly refers to Jerry Garcia’s struggles with addiction, which eventually claimed his life six years later.
“Many of the Deadheads I knew back in the day were stoked a concert movie was made from those shows,” said the Big Wu’s Chris Castino, who’s handling guitar and singing duties alongside Javier Trejo. “These days, however, I’m intrigued by the fact that these shows existed within a window where Garcia was sober, as are Javier and myself these days. There is a joy and a clarity to his performance that is bittersweet.”
Wednesday’s tribute gig will (of course) feature two sets based off the movie’s tracklist. Ahead of the gig, the musicians involved offered these comments on what the Dead means to them:
Martin Dosh: "The thing that hooked me initially me was the mystery; the name, the imagery, their weird music and how they made it, and the culture surrounding them; it was all incredibly fascinating to my 16 year old self. At their finest (for my money Europe '72) they were the embodiment of skill, abandon and joy. To me, walking into a Grateful Dead show was like driving into manhattan out of the holland tunnel. A new reality: dangerous and beautiful, and full of possibilities. Kind of like America."
Chris Castino: "It says a lot about their songs when you think about how long and how intensely they toured. Just something really special about the material which, as time when on, seemed to evolve and deepen with them. Lyrically? Evocative. Melodically? Accessible. It was the songs as much as it was the jams that took me to wonderful places. And usually both simultaneously."
Javier Trejo: "As a person, the Grateful Dead inspires me to explore, take different paths, try new things and experiment with life. As a musician, the Grateful Dead taught me to explore, take different paths, try new things and experiment with music. They were were like the musical Internet, before the internet. An information super highway. Each member loves different music, I searched out who listened to what, and then what they listened to."
Chad Whitaker: "One important aspect that many fans don't realize or talk about as much is the straight-up staggering quantity of music out there for us to listen to. Virtually every show was recorded over those thirty years they were together. I've started wondering recently if this is one of the key components of what makes me such a lifelong Dead geek. I also love the Police, but I'll listen to their five albums, and three-and-a-half hours later I'm thinking "ok, now what?" That can never happen with the Grateful Dead. There is an almost endless supply of music out there. That, combined with how much they've evolved over the years, keeps it fresh and exciting when I get the chance to hear something new."