Mystic Dead: What a long, strange trip it continues to be
There are many ways to be Gratefully Dead.
Which is to say that the Grateful Dead tribute band business is very healthy. According to www.gratefuldeadtributebands.com — yes, there really is such a thing — America has at least 300 acts performing in homage to the most iconic jam band in history. In New England alone, there are 24 Dead acts in Connecticut, nine in Rhody, and almost 40 in Massachusetts. Even in Vermont — the home of Phish, for chrissakes! — there are 11 Dead tribute groups.
In terms of the degree of effort for these bands, it ranges from loose jam nights, based around a casual familiarity with basic repertoire, to full-on physical impersonations of the principal Dead members during a certain stylistic period of the band’s three-decade history — and many of those ensembles laboriously recreate set lists from legendary shows, song-for-song and note-for-note.
“There are a lot of these bands and all are amazing in their own way. They have to be,” says Marty Maroney, bassist/vocalist of Mystic Dead, one of the most popular Dead tribute acts in the northeast. “Given the scope of the Grateful Dead, just to try to do this with any depth or authenticity means you’re probably a fairly amazing player. In fact, the repertoire has kind of turned into the modern equivalent of (the omnipresent compilation of charts used by jazz musicians) ‘The Real Book.’”
Mystic Dead offer a calculated but purest approach to the Dead tributes phenomenon: Their affection for the source material is genuine and passionate, but they also apply the sort of craftsmanship and scholarship that goes far deeper into the Land of the Dead than many of their tie-dyed colleagues.
Along with Maroney, Mystic Dead are drummers Eric Hyland and Jay Hartley, guitarist/vocalists Toby Kniffin and Ian Kelly, and keyboardist/vocalist Jordan Giangreco. They play Friday in Westerly at the Knickerbocker Music Center, which is a regular stop for the band along with other local venues like The Barn in Groton (Feb. 5) and the Strange Brew Pub in Norwich (Feb. 16).
With separate and collective resumes that span jazz, Top 40 and rock bands including the popular but now-defunct Green Tea — and many abbreviated stops in various Dead cover groups all over the region — there’s no question Mystic Dead members have the requisite musicality for the job.
But the band was never intended to be anything but a casual, for-the-hell-of-it exercise.
Fun for the sake of it
“The truth is, in 2018, we started doing a monthly Dead jam at the Daniel Packer Inn,” Maroney says. “It was a way for those of us in original bands to get together without any stress and have a fun time playing music we really love. It was supposed to be this really loose thing, and the DPI is really good about welcoming musicians to express themselves. But from the first gig, it was very well received and basically it just grew from there.”
“Marty was the one who put this all together,” Kelly says. “He and I hadn’t played much together, but we liked similar types of music and were friends. He called and asked if I was interested in doing the Dead thing one night a month. I knew Toby was amazing in his ability to channel Jerry Garcia, so I thought I’d love the challenge of doing Bob Weir. And, like the rest of us, I still had my own music and other gigs. But it was definitely fun.”
In terms of “other gigs,” a principal consideration was that Maroney, Kniffin and Hartley were all in Green Tea, the Westerly-based group that had released five increasingly popular albums of their own material. It was their main gig, and there was indeed reason to be hopeful the band could reach a national audience.
So, while Mystic Dead’s DPI gigs were increasingly well attended and discussed, it remained a side project.
‘People kept coming’
Then COVID hit.
As the nation adjusted and adapted to the downtime and the parameters of safety, Mystic Dead members eventually gathered, safely distanced and out in the woods, to play. Without any conscious effort to publicize these gatherings, crowds started showing up and the band’s popularity grew further.
“People kept coming,” Maroney says. “Our focus gradually shifted to the Dead project because it was what we could do. We’d show up in the woods to play and there would be 250 people there. We thought, ‘Where did they come from?’ It was powerful.”
While that sort of musical magnetism and sense of community resonated with Mystic Dead, the band didn’t realize that it would be incredibly significant in terms of the six musicians’ careers. When the lockdown of pandemic began to lift and the world began shifting gears back to normalcy, a new reality set in.
“The pandemic was the great equalizer for everything. In the big picture, COVID essentially eliminated original music for us,” Maroney says. “In fact, a lot of the original music scene shut down and some of the Green Tea musicians retired. We basically looked at each other and said, ‘I guess Mystic Dead is what we do now.’”
For some of the band members, the decision that original music is no longer the priority represents an aesthetic reality basically beyond their control.
“What we’re doing now is a fine line between being a product and art — and you have to be OK with the product aspect,” Maroney says. “Given the nature of the Dead, there’s a lot of creative satisfaction. The reality is, the more you explore (the Dead), there’s always some new rabbit hole that’s amazing and fulfilling.”
A new focus
While the group had obviously taken the legacy of the Grateful Dead seriously during their monthly DPI jams, the idea that Mystic Dead was now their primary focus meant they now had the time and incentive to heighten their approach.
“At this level, you don’t just go out and jam,” Kelly says. “Some of this stuff takes a lot of work. As Marty says, we want to pay respect to the people that wrote the songs and understand why they made it their own before you even try it. That makes you work hard at this for the right reasons — and, with the Dead’s music, that makes it fun and challenging rather than the doldrums.”
For just one example of the layers of consideration that go into replicating Dead material, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia were the Dead’s two distinctive guitarists and separately wrote and sang instantly identifiable material. Within the Mystic outfit, Kniffin was already renowned in the area for his ability to replicate Garcia’s voice and instrumental style, and Kelly, sort of by default, took Weir’s role.
“I’ve played with so many Dead outfits,” Kelly says. “Sometimes I had to be the Bob guy and sometimes the Jerry guy. Obviously, they’re very different players. Toby’s so good at Bob that we never actually had a conversation about it. And once I started digging into the Weir stuff, I was amazed by what I didn’t know. And you can apply that to each member of the band.”
While the Grateful Dead had a succession of keyboardists, the main members of the band were Garcia and Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Micky Hart and Bill Kreutzmann — and each of them had a singular set of influences — from jazz, blues. Latin and rock to country,folk, psychedelia and bluegrass and mixtures thereof. Too, over thousands of gigs, and with the different styles of keyboardists Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick, the Dead went through very distinctive changes. For a variety of reasons, Mystic Dead choose to focus on the late ‘80s era.
Behind the scenes
From that period, Mystic Dead’s repertoire depends on a number of considerations beyond which Weir or Garcia bands should be included. The notorious “jam” sections rely on certain musical cues or breaks coming out of solos, and there are dozens of subtle bits and parts that true fans listen for.
“The more we got into this, the more we realized that (in the Dead tribute community), a lot of these songs aren’t played properly. We’ve learned what not to do. And when you DO give the crowd those little melodic ear nuggets or some of the authentic little tricks, the crowd loses their minds.”
It’s also true that the Grateful Dead — and scores of fans — devoutly recorded every one of their gigs, meaning there are myriad versions of the most frequently played tunes. Mystic Dead will select a few takes of each song, comparing and contrasting new versus old to follow the evolutionary roadmap of the tune, then hone in on replicating the essential sections.
And, of course, given the core spirit of the Grateful Dead, there is certainly room for improvisation. “We definitely leave room to be ourselves,” Maroney says. “There’s freedom here. We don’t play parts. That’s not how you do this music.”
Though Mystic Dead isn’t a full-time job for its members — yet — the calendar is increasingly full.
“It would be amazing not to worry about anything else in the world but making people dance,” Maroney laughs. “It hasn’t happened, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do everything I can to MAKE it happen.”
Kelly adds, “The Grateful Dead created a vibe through their music and it translates. I play music for spiritual reasons, and it’s spiritually gratifying to play this music with friends and for the people who come out and help us create this vibe. We’ve made so many good friends from the crowds that come out and do anything to help us.
”Is there something mystical about this music? No way to know for sure, but there are a lot of mystical moments. We all have our day-to-day, and this music offers a different side of life and takes us somewhere.“
If you go
Who: Mystic Dead with Jeremiah Hazed
When: 8 p.m. Friday, doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Knickerbocker Music Center, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly
How much: $15
For more information: www.knickmusic.com, www.mysticdead.com