Happy skulls wearing rose crowns. Multicolored dancing bears. Lyrics and music that flow with positivity, energy, excitement and a cult-like following that influences musicians and artists around the world. This is the Grateful Dead, still alive and influencing local artists in Athens today.
In the summer of 1965, at the beginning of the hippie counterculture movement, military discharged guitarist Jerry Garcia, occasional substitute teacher Bob Weir and blues enthusiast Ron McKernan started a band that would later become known as one of Rolling Stone’s greatest artists of all time.
The band sought to create a unifying and positive feeling throughout their performances. As Garcia said in an interview with Father Miles Riley in 1976, “We’re the Don Quixotes of rock and roll, we’re the ones who care to do what no one else cares to do . . . We’re trying to figure out how to make the experience, which our audience values, filled with good energy.”
Now, in 2022, new generations of artists aspire to create the same experience.
The energy continues
In Athens multiple bands and creators are influenced by or cover the Grateful Dead. Cosmic Charlie, a cover band, picked up on the energy and ultimately ran with it after the band formed during the turn of the century.
“It was the summer of 1999, and we all played in various Athens bands, but decided to get together and do a show at the Georgia Theatre to celebrate Jerry Garcia‘s birthday,” guitarist Michael Wegner said. “It was tons of fun for both the band and audience, so then and there we decided to stick with it.”
The Grateful Dead is famous for its improvisational performances. Bands like Cosmic Charlie emulate the style, and within their improvisations they make music of their own.
“Our musical improvisation is often what leads us from one song into another. That’s kind of the hallmark of The Dead music: being in the moment rather than following a script. So it keeps things interesting with every performance,” Wegner said. “Improvisation is what has influenced us the most. When we walk on stage, we don’t even know the songs we’re going to play, we just decide in the moment.”
Local bass guitarist Bryson Blumenstock is one of the founders of Dire Wolf, another Grateful Dead tribute band. Blumenstock credits their own improvisational style to the Grateful Dead’s music.
“We hope to bring our own thing to the table. I think one of the reasons why the Grateful Dead appealed to us is because they left it open to our own interpretations and improvisations of their music. We’re not trying to recreate specifically what they did, but it allows us to create our own thing and our own vibe.”
Dire Wolf continues to jam and write onto music just like The Dead, and each practice pushes them further.
“They did a lot of improvisation, a lot of experimenting, even on stage during their shows,” Blumenstock said. “One of the best things about them is they recorded all their shows. So you get to hear all these different versions of the songs that they played from night to night.”
Dire Wolf has six members, including Cedar Shoals science department chair Matthew Baker and English teacher Brittany Moore, Blumenstock’s wife. Baker plays guitar while Moore sings vocals and plays tambourine.
“This is something new to me, during COVID we just started playing together,” Moore said. “And my husband has always played in bands, but it was a fun opportunity to play The Dead.”
Blumenstock believes that every time Dire Wolf plays together they get more comfortable with improvisation.
“It takes a good bit of understanding your instrument, so as we get better and as we get more comfortable playing with each other, the door for us to improvise more opens up a little bit wider every time we sit down and play together.”
As musicians and bands develop images similar to this iconic and uniting band, there are other art forms that take inspiration from the Grateful Dead around town.
A new medium
Ceramic artist Scott Smith owns Dancing Bears Pottery. The name “Dancing Bears” references the famous symbol that originally appeared on the back of the album “The History of the Grateful Dead, Volume 1 (Bear’s Choice).”
Smith started his journey with pottery 12 years ago at Good Dirt, a clay studio located in Athens. He says he never thought he would take on such an artistic hobby.
“I was never good at art. As a kid, if you had asked me to draw something, I’d give you my very best stick drawing every time,” Smith said. “It wasn’t until my 42nd birthday that art found its way back into my life. From the moment my hands touched the clay that first evening at Good Dirt, I was hooked.”
Being a fan of the Grateful Dead, he says it seemed like fate that the Dancing Bears would become the symbol of his business.
“I have been a Deadhead for about three decades now. Their songs are timeless and they evolve and grow with you as you age. The dancing bears remind me of a simpler time in my youth, free of responsibility,” Smith said. “It seemed like the right icon and moniker for my artistic endeavors.”
Smith was also influenced by Jerry Garcia’s artistic hobby of painting whilst maintaining the role of the frontman. “He used to paint when he was alive, “ Smith said. “To me, his art was unconstrained, loose, organic. I see a strong corollary between his artwork and his music. They both reflected who he was as a person.”
The Grateful Dead’s music, style, and energy continue to entertain and connect fans of all backgrounds and ages.
“It’s not just about the music, but it’s about the experience. It’s about the people and the atmosphere and everyone hanging out. It brings people together, people from different backgrounds,” Baker said. “You’ll look to the left and you’ll see a bunch of teenagers that are in college, and then to your right there’ll be 75 year olds that were there in the 60s. Once you’re there, everybody’s all together and having a great time.”
In a city known for being the home of bands like Widespread Panic (a band heavily influenced by the Grateful Dead) and R.E.M,
Deadheads and artists of all types continue to keep the cultural attraction of The Dead’s music and legacy alive in one of the most diverse and artistic communities in Georgia.
“It’s pretty amazing, the diversity of music styles and the camaraderie that happens between bands and musicians. We’ve all been a part of a lot of cool collaborations, it’s great to be a part of such a strong artistic scene,” Michael Wegner said.
For Smith, the same spirit of The Dead’s cultural influence is found throughout the artistic community in Athens.
“Every store, restaurant and public space across Athens proudly displays the work of local artists, potters and musicians. It is our local artist community that makes up the lifeblood of our artistic Mecca now,” Smith said. “We are immersed in it every day and I love it. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.”