Eternally ‘Grateful’: Peter Shapiro Is Helping Keep Jam-Band Music Alive, One Trip at a Time

Live music vet’s new book chronicles his career through the lens of 50 different shows

Peter Shapiro has worked both on and off the stage with the biggest names in music history and has overseen some of the most beloved venues in the United States. But after more than 25 years in the business, he’s still a super-fan at heart who loves nothing more than rocking out with and talking shop about the artists who’ve shaped his life.

Shapiro, 49, chronicles his remarkable career in his new Hachette book, The Music Never Stops: What Putting on 10,000 Shows Has Taught Me About Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Magic, co-written with longtime collaborator Dean Budnick. Structured as 50 different chapters about specific shows and experiences, the book details a Eureka moment at a 1993 Grateful Dead concert in Chicago (when he was a film student at nearby Northwestern University) that set his professional life in motion, leading to his 1996 purchase of jam-band epicenter Wetlands Preserve in lower Manhattan, his eventual creation of the Brooklyn Bowl venue franchise and his purchase of the jam-band-centric Relix magazine and the iconic, Grateful Dead-frequented Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y.

Throughout The Music Never Stops, Shapiro talks eloquently and honestly about what he’s learned along the way, peppering the text with one amazing anecdote after another (among them: making extra, fake all-access laminates for one of his own Jammys awards shows when the local promoter cut off his supply, watching Bono eat salad with his bare hands during a business meeting in Buenos Aires and observing NBA legend Bill Walton give Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio a backstage pep talk before a high-stakes gig).

SPIN talked to Shapiro about reuniting the surviving members of The Dead in 2015 (spoiler alert: he’s holding Chicago’s Soldier Field in hopes of doing it again in 2025), the future of the jam-band scene and the importance of all the little details that make for a memorable night out.

 

Shapiro with Mick Rock at The End Game Obama Fundraiser at The Hiro Ballroom on October 14, 2008 in New York City. (Credit: Zach Hyman/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

SPIN: To say you’re a busy guy is quite an understatement. When did you find time to get all these stories down?
Peter Shapiro: Well, if you wait until you’re 70, 75, 80, how do you remember all that shit? I did it partially because Dean–who has been around for most of this–asked me, “Have you ever written anything down?” I realized I’ll never have another chance to do it with someone like Dean, who was at Wetlands all the time and directed the movie about it. He did the Jammys with me. He knew so much about my story. We’d get on the phone for hours during COVID, which was the only time in my life I wasn’t out every night. The other thing is, it’s not a memoir. It’s the story of 50 shows, and that got me over the hump. What I do, just like what you do, it’s so fuckin’ hard. Even though it’s a little easier as time goes by, all the details matter. I’m still neurotic about those. In my office now, I have the book, and I look over it and it reminds me, ok, I can do this. It’s like you memorize everything for a test and then you take the test, and you can kind of flush your memory out. I do feel a little bit like I can have an extra swig now (laughs).

The story about Bob Weir passing out on the last night of a nine-night run with Furthur is fascinating, because that was the night at the Capitol when Jerry’s daughter was there for the opening of the Garcia’s room inside the venue. There was so much Dead-related energy in the place that it might have been too much for Bob to handle.
Isn’t that crazy? Someone said to me, that’s what happens when you bring Garcia’s DNA and Weir together. He got fuckin’ knocked out! That and maybe he took an Ambien by accident (laughs). That’s the power of The Grateful Dead. When you’re dealing with that magic powder, it goes in different directions. And the music doesn’t always work, because they take chances. But when it does, everyone feels it. It’s not the same thing every night like most contemporary artists. The world that I inhabit mostly, the improv/jam/Dead thing, that’s what makes the magic — you don’t know what’s going to happen. I also feel like when you’re in a venue where incredible music moments have happened, it’s easier for them to happen again.

You’ve been a key person in spreading and sharing that Dead-related magic dust, after a point when Jerry died in 1995 and nobody knew what would happen with the scene next. You’ve helped give 27 years of additional life to this music and there’s no telling when it will stop, or if it ever will.
It won’t! What’s amazing to me, and you may only get it if you’re a Dead fan, is that a Deadhead can listen to this music over and over and over, and it doesn’t fade. The fans will still come. What’s cool is that some of the newer bands like Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, they play it a little faster. Dark Star Orchestra tries to create it more note-for-note. Circles Around The Sun plays music inspired by The Dead. When Garcia passed away in ’95, that’s one reason I took over Wetlands. I’d been on Dead tours and I knew the fans weren’t just going to go away. They were still going to be hanging out in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, or Gainesville or Boulder, throwing a frisbee and wanting to hear music.

I knew Wetlands could be helpful for this whole young jam-band scene. It already existed a bit with Blues Traveler, Phish and Dave Matthews Band, but Jerry’s death led to the birth and growth of that scene, because The Dead were the No. 1 touring band in America in the summer of ’95. Some went bluegrass-y, like String Cheese Incident. Some went more jazzy, like Medeski Martin & Wood and DJ Logic. Some went electronica jam, like Disco Biscuits and Sound Tribe Sector 9. There was southern rock, like Gov’t Mule and Aquarium Rescue Unit. I could go on and on. Wetlands was in the heart of that world. I was young — I was 23 when I took over the club. I didn’t have kids, so I was there at the end of every night and the bands became my friends. The new bands are still coming today, like Goose and Billy Strings. It’s still going. It’s still strong, because there will always be a chunk of people who will want to feel this kind of music.

Shapiro and Chevy Chase during Earth Day 2009 at the National Mall on April 19, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Credit: C. Taylor Crothers/FilmMagic)

Let’s talk about bands like Goose and Vulfpeck, who have pretty quickly jumped from clubs to much bigger venues. Classic rock legends won’t be around and touring forever, and there are younger bands trying to fill that void, even if they were too young to see The Dead pre-’95. They’ve taken that spirit and infused it into their own music.
Right! It’s alive, like a jam. It’s going to new places. Vulfpeck is a little funkier and Goose is a bit Vampire Weekend-ish. By the way, look at Vampire Weekend. Look at The National. A lot of bands, when they play the Cap, they play a Dead tune. Wilco did it. Counting Crows did it. Now we have venues in Vegas and Nashville, and I try to use the Bowl to start booking these type of bands. In Vegas, those bands didn’t have a home. But Goose just played there. Relix is that indie jam thing too. Vampire Weekend, Jack White, The Lumineers and The War On Drugs have all been on the cover of Relix in recent years. Ten years ago, none of those bands would have been on the cover, because they wouldn’t have wanted to. That’s evocative of what you just talked about. They’ve embraced this scene. This is an audience that goes to live shows. I’m a fan too, so I’ve tried to build venues that reflect it. All the little things matter. If one thing throws you off on the way in, it impacts your experience.

You’ve always made sure that there’s a generational exchange of this music, like when Trey Anastasio recently appeared on stage with Goose at Radio City Music Hall.
Yes, 100 percent. I was psyched that Trey talked about that in his quote about the book. He’s a North Star guy for this scene. When you watch him on stage, you can see him engage with the audience and they then kick it back to him. It’s a circular effect.

It’s a crucial part of this music living on that these older guys play with the newer crop of musicians inspired by them. Your Capitol Theatre residencies with Phil Lesh and a rotating roster of backing musicians might be the best example of that.
Oh, yeah. One of the best and most fortunate things I’ve ever gotten to do is work with Phil at the Cap. Phil is 82, but we’re doing nine more shows in October. He has trust in me to put the Phil & Friends lineups together, with his approval of course. Rick from Goose is going to play three nights with Phil on this run. I’ve tried to bring people like Billy Strings, Eric Krasno, Chris Robinson and Robert Randolph into this. I’m working on getting Marcus King on a Phil thing. Phil would rather play with newer, younger people.

It’s also kind of mind-blowing that The Dead debuted songs like “Bertha” and “Wharf Rat” at the Cap in the early ’70s, and now here you are as the owner of the place.
It all starts for me with The Dead. If I don’t go to that March ’93 Rosemont Horizon show, I really don’t think I’m on the phone with you right now. That just put me on a path I’d not been on before that night. I had to know what was going on in that scene, and I went and made a film about it. I had a formative moment at a Dead show. It sounds so corny or trite, but it’s true. It really is.

I was surprised to read that you personally answered angry emails to the generic Brooklyn Bowl email account in the earliest days of the club.
I don’t anymore, but I did for a while (laughs). It was a different world back then with social media. I don’t think we could launch the Bowl in the same way now. We’d be competing with hundreds of podcasts and TV shows. Thirteen years ago, it wasn’t like that. No TikTok. No Snapchat. We hosted one of the first Twitter parties, actually. We were able to open and it hit hard, and we were just holding on for dear life. People would come and wait four or five hours to bowl and not get to. The next morning, they’d be pissed. I’d be at my kids’ soccer games and get the emails. I’d ask them to pick a time to come back and we’d send them tequila shots and comp tickets. We tried to take a negative and turn it into a positive, and some of those people became our best-returning customers.

Your story about Chevy Chase once handing you money as if you were a valet is almost too good to be true.
I felt like I was in Fletch. I’d just executive-produced an Earth Day event on the National Mall and he was the host. I see him the next day, and he turned into the Fletch character. It’s one of those moments I think I’ll see when I die: Chevy being like, “Hey Peter. Here’s $20. Can you go get my car?”

Was Walter Cronkite really at the Green Apple festival in Central Park?
Yep! He got friendly with Mickey Hart, so he came, sat in and played some drums.

You reveal in the book that you’re hoping to reunite the surviving members of The Dead one more time in 2025, which would be the band’s 60th anniversary.
Yeah! We’ll see what happens. Fingers crossed.

IMPACT

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