Let me start by saying that I know I’m a custie. I know I’m a custie, because just the other day, a guy I know used the word custie, and I had to ask him what it meant. Another friend explained: a custie is “a tourist in the world of hippies, as opposed to an authentic head.” A dealer might sell an eighth of weed to a custie for $60, then turn around and sell that same eighth to a real head for $40, the first friend added. I know I’m a custie, because I happen to pay my dealer exactly $60 for an eighth. And because custie is one of those words used to define an outgroup, like “poser” or “muggle”: If you have to ask the question “what is a custie,” the answer is always “you.” I know I’m a custie, but I’m learning to love the Grateful Dead.
Over the last decade or so, the Grateful Dead have been creeping toward respectability, even cult hero status, for art rockers, punks, and indie kids—musicians and music fans who previously might have regarded them as the dorkiest band in America. Like a lot of music nerds my age (27), I started coming around to the idea of the Dead in 2009 or so, when Animal Collective took the press circuit for Merriweather Post Pavillion as an opportunity to sing their praises in seemingly every interview, then sampled them on “What Would I Want? Sky.” (The Dead indie revival had started in earnest a few years earlier with the “New Weird America” scene, but as a teenager intoxicated by Deftones and Def Jux, I didn’t take notice of those hippies until later.)
I dabbled: I could sing along to “Uncle John’s Band,” owned a dusty copy of Skeletons from the Closet, had spun American Beauty a few times. The music sounded pleasant but lightweight, and the idea that so many people had built their entire lifestyles around a bunch of geezers singing songs about willow trees and sunshine daydreams was difficult to fathom. That was pretty much where things stood between me and the Grateful Dead until early 2016, when someone shared the Europe ‘72 version of “He’s Gone” into one of my social media feeds, and the great shaggy beast looming behind decades of American rock music started to emerge from the mist for me for the first time.
Phil Lesh got me first, loping from bar to bar like the giant cosmic boot that adorns the Europe ‘72 album cover, under the blissfully misguided impression that the bass guitar is a lead melodic instrument. Then there were the vocal harmonies, occupying some previously unknown ozone layer between the heavenly cherubs of the Beach Boys and the terminally earthbound growlers of The Band. (Part of the reason they sounded so good was that the Dead overdubbed them in the studio after playing the Europe ‘72 tour, I later learned.) Jerry Garcia was singing about some nameless tormentor, the kind of guy who’d steal the face right off your head. But he’s gone, Jerry assured me, and nothin’s gonna bring him back.
The next song I gravitated toward was “China Cat Sunflower,” whose spindly guitar interplay somehow reminded me of the Canadian post-punks Women, a band as chilly and focused as the Dead is loose and exploratory. I continued picking up little treasures over the next few months: a recording of the 8/27/72 show, a concert to benefit Ken Kesey’s brother’s struggling yogurt creamery(!) that is legendary amongst fans; the 1980 masterpiece “Althea,” whose coked-out majesty presented me with an entirely new side of the band. At some point, almost involuntarily, I was listening to the Dead to the exclusion of everything else. Through it all, I kept a special place for “He’s Gone,” because it was the song that first pulled me into this world, and for a much more embarrassing reason than that. I listened to “He’s Gone” in the sweltering summer heat, as the presidential campaign season dragged on, and thought to myself, This thing is going to be so satisfying to play loud on the day after Donald Trump loses the election.
My dumb hubris aside, however, 2016 has been a particularly fruitful year to delve into the Dead, and some of the best things about it are compiled in the list below. There were books, a solid new Bob Weir album, a five-disc, nearly six-hour tribute box set featuring a who’s who of current indie rock stars interpreting the Dead’s songbook. More than that, there was a crop of exciting new work from younger artists that share some kinship with the Dead’s sprawling legacy, whether it be the virtuosic improvisation, the campfire songwriting, the vision of some celestial truth hiding within American folk music, or simply the capacity for ingesting huge amounts of chemicals and playing through whatever happens next. Crucially for a custie like me, these artists were more comfortable in dingy rock clubs than sprawling festivals, avoiding noodly psychedelic excess, jamming without really being jam bands.
Day of the Dead
2016 felt like a capstone year in the Grateful Dead revival largely because of Day of the Dead, the aforementioned tribute album, released to benefit the Red Hot Organization in May. Produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, its lineup included modern acts with an obvious reverence for the Dead–Real Estate, Kurt Vile, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Hiss Golden Messenger–as well as those whose affinity is harder to pin down, like ANOHNI, Perfume Genius, and Tim Hecker. The range of contributors was a reminder both of the ridiculous diversity of music that gets slapped with the “indie” label and of the vastness of the Dead themselves: Hecker’s meta tape music take on ”Dark Star” and Phosphorescent’s honeyed “Sugaree” felt like equally fitting tributes. After years of meaningful looks and backroom dalliances, Day of the Dead was the moment 2010s indie finally shouted its Dead love from the rooftops.
Steve Gunn – Eyes on the Lines
In an interview with Noisey from earlier this year, Steve Gunn began by good-naturedly lamenting how often interviewers ask him about the Grateful Dead, then spent half of the ensuing conversation gushing about his love for the Dead anyway. Gunn is a former Kurt Vile sideman who first struck out on his own as a solo acoustic guitarist before taking the mic and assembling his own band. Of all the acts here, he sounds the most straightforwardly Dead-esque. The songs on Eyes on the Lines are rangy and mellow, filled with Gunn’s dexterous fingerstyle guitar playing, and the lyrics often find him on the road, pushing on the cosmic plan and hoping for the best. Though he has chops to spare, Gunn keeps the tunes mostly under five minutes, understanding what so many Dead-worshipping jammers on the festival circuit fail to grasp: a good solo doesn’t mean much if there isn’t a great song attached to it.
Exploded View – Exploded View, and Body/Head – No Waves
In 2016, Body/Head and Exploded View each picked up the Dead’s commitment to improvised rock music and ran with it in opposite directions, even if neither group would be likely to cite Garcia and company as a formative influence. (At least a couple of Kim Gordon’s old Sonic Youth bandmates are devoted Deadheads, though, so who knows.) For Body/Head, it was expansiveness of sound and economy of means. On No Waves, Gordon and Bill Nace conjured the roar and constantly shifting patterns of the ocean using only two guitars, a voice, and an occasional harmonica. And they recorded the album in true Dead fashion: straight from the soundboard at a show in Tennessee. For the German-Mexican quartet Exploded View, it was all about repetition and concision, two qualities the Dead themselves never cared much for. On their self titled debut, Exploded View reminded me of Can’s sojourns into proper songwriting, songs like “Mushroom,” “Spoon,” and “Moonshake.” Everything was so tight and rhythmic, with every note in its right place, that it was a shock to learn that they’d written none of the songs beforehand, making everything up on the spot.
Bob Weir – Blue Mountain
In the Grateful Dead, Garcia and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir split vocal duties pretty evenly. Though Weir took the lead on plenty of Dead classics–”Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Playing in the Band”–he didn’t project the wisdom that seemed to come to Jerry so effortlessly, and he was always regarded as the more frivolous of the two. But the decades since the Dead’s heyday have imparted his voice with plenty of gravity, and the production on Blue Mountain, his first solo album since 1978, is appropriately hushed and reverent for his newfound status as an elder. Seeing Weir’s grizzly bearded visage staring out from the cover, and hearing him sing the stately opener “Only a River,” it’s hard to process that this is the same guy that used to wear polo shirts and jean shorts onstage, opening set lists with goofy extended jokes. Not everything has changed, though: he still busts the shorts out every once in awhile.
Jesse Jarnow – Heads
When Pitchfork needed a critic to review Day of the Dead and the new Weir album, they called Jesse Jarnow. He is our generation’s foremost Grateful Dead chronicler, and something of a cultural ambassador to the punks and indie kids who might not otherwise pay the band any mind. (Jarnow’s first book was about Yo La Tengo.) Heads is about the Dead–sort of. The book’s subtitle is “A Biography of Psychedelic America,” and it documents the explosion of LSD onto the countercultural scene in the 1960s and its journey into mainstream consciousness over the decades that followed. That story would be impossible to tell without the Dead, and Jarnow spends a good chunk of Heads detailing the way their increasingly massive tours became the main conduit for acid to flow across the country in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The most exciting sections of deal with the transformation of the area we now know as Silicon Valley, from a hub of radical art and politics to the center of the new corporate America. With wonder and perhaps a little disappointment, Jarnow shows us ways in which Deadheads and acid freaks shaped the technology that now governs our lives, from virtual reality to the internet.
(There was also a biography of the pioneering LSD chemist and onetime Grateful Dead patron and soundman Owsley Stanley released to good reviews this year, but I haven’t gotten a chance to read it.)
Xylouris White – Black Peak
Xylouris White, the duo of Greek lute virtuoso George Xylouris and veteran experimental rock drummer Jim White, contributed one track to Day of the Dead. But their lovely version of American Beauty’s “Till The Morning Comes,” recorded in collaboration with the band Luluc, isn’t the best way to hear the Dead in their music. To do that, you have to see them perform live. Xylouris White’s music is rooted in the traditional Cretan music of Xylouris’s upbringing, and they tackle it in a flurry of improvisation, white White channeling the liquid rhythms of the Dead’s two-drummer lineup all by himself. Last time I saw them play in Brooklyn, the spectacle prompted a fellow concertgoer to half-jokingly call out a request some Dead tunes. (They did not oblige.) Just as the Dead spent their career pulling at the edges of American roots music and exposing its glowing fibers, Xylouris White are exploring the mysteries tucked inside Crete’s everyday folk dances and wedding songs.
William Tyler – Modern Country
Modern Country, the title of journeyman guitarist William Tyler’s third solo album, isn’t so much a genre descriptor as an observation. What does American folk music sound like in a country where the long-haul truckers navigate with dashboard GPS instead of a road atlas and the deserts are criss-crossed with telephone wires? On opener “Highway Anxiety,” Tyler augments his playing with spacious Daniel Lanois-style production and a steady rhythmic thrumming that brings to mind Kraftwerk and Neu! (Think “Route 66” instead of “Autobahn.”) Eight-minute closer “The Great Unwind” recalls George Packer’s prescient 2013 book on the hollowing out of the American working class with its title; in sound, it puts Tyler’s fingerpicking alongside warm analog synths, sampled birdcalls, and slashes of electric feedback. For the last several years including recording of Modern Country, Tyler has said, he has binged on the Dead for at least an hour a day. “I listen to a ton of other stuff too, but it’s almost a routine thing,” the guitarist told the Hartford Courant in March. “They are one of those bands that are an endlessly fascinating universe. Something by them will always lead to something else that’s completely unrelated–another piece of music, or another artist, or a piece of visual art. There’s not a lot of artists like that in rock music.”
Heady Version wasn’t new in 2016–it’s been around since 2010 or so, the creator doesn’t remember exactly–but it’s such an invaluable tool for the aspiring Deadhead, and so emblematic of the way the internet has impacted Deadhead culture, that I’m including it anyway.
A quick primer for the uninitiated: enterprising fans began making bootleg recording of Grateful Dead shows almost from the band’s inception, sparking an underground economy based on bartering and copying tapes. Consequently, nearly every note the Dead played in their decades-long career is on record somewhere, and the most devoted fans have catalogs of favorite shows, favorite years, favorite weeks. “Some combination of the era, the lineup, the set list, the sound system, the recording apparatus, its positioning in the hall, the recorder’s sonic bias, the chain of custody, and, yes, the actual performance” gives each Grateful Dead bootleg “a character and odor of its own, a terroir,” Nick Paumgarten wrote in a New Yorker article about Deadheads in 2012. (For a lot of fans, the actual studio albums are basically an afterthought.)
Eventually, most of those tapes made it to the internet, rendering tape-trading obsolete. On Archive.org, there are 580 Grateful Dead concert recordings uploaded from 1980 alone, and hundreds more for every other year between 1968 and Garcia’s death in 1995, besides their brief hiatus in ‘75. How are you supposed to know where to find the good stuff? Heady Version provides a Reddit-style up-voting system for every known version of every Dead song, allowing its community members to choose the cream of the crop and add their comments. (Phish fans have since created a knockoff called Phinest Version.) Heady Version commenters encourage us, for instance, to listen for drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s triplet drum fills in the 11/11/73 Winterland version of “Ramble on Rose,” and for a particularly strong Garcia vocal in a performance from one month later in Tampa. (“I just LOVE me some December 1973 Dead,” one offers.)
Disclosure: Steve Klebanoff, who created Heady Version, is a friend of mine–the same guy who first explained “custie” to me, incidentally–but I’d be using it and writing about it here even if I didn’t know him.
Honorable mention albums from 2016: Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light, Ultimate Painting – Dusk, Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band – The Rarity of Experience, Oneida and Rhys Chatham – What’s Your Sign?