Believe it or not, the Grateful Dead had a far-reaching influence that stretched way beyond their inner circle of improvisational minded bands. Since playing their first shows 50 years ago the Dead have earned their place in the lexicon of culture as perhaps the quintessential American band. In light of their final shows, which take place 4th of July weekend in Chicago without lead guitarist Jerry Garcia of course, and to commemorate their legacy as a whole, we’ve decided to launch a special column that focuses specifically on the impact of the Dead within many different musical communities. In each installment of Easy Answers (get the reference?) we will question a different musician or band, ranging from the obvious to the not so obvious, about the importance of Grateful Dead on their own life and musical path. We could easily keep this column within the jam band community – and we will most certainly turn our focus to some of those acts – but the goal of Easy Answers is to get insight from musicians who most wouldn’t expect to be influenced by or fans of the Dead.
Catch a performance from the raucous blues rockers Black Pistol Fire and you would never expect that these two Canadians are both major fans of the Grateful Dead. Guitarist and lead singer Kevin McKeown wears boots while careening manically across the stage and taking flying leaps off drummer Eric Owen’s drumset. True to their name, Black Pistol Fire’s songs are abrasive in the best possible way; gritty rock and roll that is meant to hit you like a punch in the gut. The physical intensity, constant movement and speed of their performances is pretty much the opposite of the more stationary, Buddha-like presence of Jerry Garcia, or the perpetual grooving of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.
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Before I ever saw Black Pistol Fire play a gig I met them through a mutual friend at jam band shows in Austin, where they’re based out of these days, and figured they were just chilled out hippies. Of course, I was later blown away after seeing them live, and as they’ve become more well-known they have attracted fans from the jam band community because of the loose spontaneity of their performances, which are always different from the last. Like many of us younger folks, Kevin McKeown and Eric Owen got into the Dead long after Jerry’s passing but felt a calling to the music no different than previous generations. In this sense the duo has a perspective on the music that is relatable for those that weren’t old enough or alive to catch the Dead when they were in full swing, yet still comes with the same sort of enthusiasm. This spring Black Pistol Fire will be hitting festivals like Joshua Tree, Sasquatch and Lollapalooza among other dates. Recently they both took a break from melting faces to reflect on their love of the Grateful Dead.
How did you first get into the Grateful Dead?
Kevin McKeown: Unfortunately I did not get into the band until later, long after Jerry’s passing. I saw Phil and Friends at Rothbury Music Festival in 2008 and that was my first introduction to any Grateful Dead music. A young chap by the name of Jackie Greene was handling Jerry’s duties and I remember being floored by his talent, but I remember being even more impressed with the songs and the musicianship of everybody on stage. The music felt so free without restraint and flowed so effortlessly, it was as easy as breathing! I remember giving in entirely to the music and the scene that was happening all around me, it was definitely an experience I will always remember. That weekend of music opened the door to the jam scene and so much other great music, so that I can be GRATEFUL for!
Eric Owen: I had always heard of the Grateful Dead growing up, but knew nothing about them other than the fact that they were “Hippies”. Then I remember hearing about Jerry’s passing on the news. I was only 11 at the time, but I remember thinking that if the news is reporting about this musician dying, he must be pretty important. I can’t remember the first song that I ever heard, though I imagine it was “Touch of Grey” on the radio at some point. But I had an older cousin that lived in North Carolina that was way into jam bands and played me some Dead tunes that I liked. Though I was wasn’t ALL IN until I saw that music live. No, it wasn’t “The Grateful Dead” – Jerry had long since passed. I saw Phil Lesh and Friends at Bonnaroo 2006 and just about lost my mind. Nothing mattered that Sunday night. It rained down upon us, but it didn’t matter, I still danced for 3 hours straight (including during their set breaks). I had no thoughts, only actions. I was entranced. I was sold.
What is your personal favorite Grateful Dead song and why?
KM: I would Probably have to say “Sugaree”. I know it is such a well known song but it is beautifully written and performed. It also takes on a life of its own live and it was also a song we use to cover when we first started playing in bars. I tell you what, that song is the most fun to play, and in playing that song live we could learn to really stretch it out and see where the jam would take you. That is something we still try to incorporate in our live shows today.
EO: “New Speedway Boogie”. The breakdown and refrain of “One way or another” is just infectious. When you’re in a crowd of people singing that part, it’s pretty hard not to be happy.
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What Grateful Dead offshoot (The Other Ones, Furthur, The Dead, Phil and Friends, Ratdog, etc) did you feel did the strongest job of playing the material?
EO: I saw Phil and Friends twice and The Dead once. I love Warren Haynes, Bobby, Phil and Mickey. BUT, those Phil and Friends experiences just had a greater impact on me, since I had never seen musicians play that way. The flow, the risk, the reward. I should mention that The Dead played “U.S. Blues” on the 4th of July as fireworks burst in the sky. That was pretty surreal and well planned.
Pigpen, Tom, Keith, Brent, Bruce or Vince on keys and why?
EO: Brent – when his voice was on, he really added another voice to the group.
What do you feel is the greatest misconception a lot of people outside the Dead’s circle have of the band?
KM: I think some people might think that the music can sometimes be a bit self indulgent or can only be appreciated with the help of pharmaceutical enhancements. At the heart of it, the Dead were playing music the way they wanted to and didn’t give a fuck about commercial appeal. Jerry was such a beautiful player, but not in an overkill way. Where some people might see a 17 minute jam as just wanking, there was the balls to even go there without just shredding blues scales and the musicianship to pull it off.
EO: I feel that most people don’t understand why people went to follow this band of “burnouts” around the country, going to multiple shows if not whole tours. They couldn’t comprehend why people would go to see a band that didn’t have any hits. What these people don’t realize is that the band created a vibe unlike anything that had been done before. It was as much about the experience as it was the music. And don’t kid yourself, these guys could play. They were amazing musicians that had some great songs, and they just wanted to do things on their terms. If that meant stretching out a 3 minute song into a one hour opus, so be it!
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