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Great Barrington’s inaugural Jerry Day will celebrate the late Grateful Dead front man and raise money for playground

The 2022 Great Barrington Jerry Day poster
Friends of Grove Street Park / Jerry Day

This weekend, a celebration of the late musician Jerry Garcia – most famously the lead singer and guitarist of the Grateful Dead – will serve as a fundraiser for a public park in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

The last time Daniel Shankin saw Jerry Garcia perform was in 1995, when the Grateful Dead played the Franklin County Airport in Highgate, Vermont.

“It was big," remembered Shankin. "It was huge. It was a field in the middle of nowhere. I had, to this day, the best banana pancakes I ever had in my life. I was just sort of camping, I was just sort of sleeping in my sleeping bag next to the bus I was traveling in and I woke up and next to that was a guy making banana pancakes. And he looked at me and he handed me a plate. And so I got breakfast in bed, which was really nice.”

Tens of thousands flocked to the site in remote northwestern Vermont just a few miles south of the Canadian border to see the band on what would be its final tour.

“Outside, there was chaos. It was beautiful chaos in some ways, it was frenetic in others. I remember trying to find a ticket, and I had finally gotten a ticket and I was walking towards the gate, and I was 20 feet from the gate and it got pushed down. And so everybody who didn't have a ticket pushed the gate down and rushed in. And I remember walking through by past the security guards, holding my ticket in the air, and they just shrugged," Shankin laughed. "But, I mean, it was a beautiful show. I mean, it was really, you know, the people were nice. The music was great.”

Within weeks, Garcia – who had long struggled with substance misuse, poor health, and a relentless touring schedule – would be dead at 53 from a heart attack. While his mortal form may have departed, Garcia’s legacy lives on with countless bands dedicated to celebrating his music and annual events recognizing his birth and death dates on August 1st and 9th respectively.

Shankin, who caught the Dead around 30 times in the 1990s, offered an explanation for why.

“Well, he was the baddest picker in the West," Shankin told WAMC. "So there's that. You know, the guy could really play. People have been trying to emulate and mimic his style for the past 50 years. He had a way of really getting to the heart of things, just through his music. He played music that you could deeply feel and was deeply, deeply relatable. And I think that's why thousands and thousands of people would leave their lives, would change their lives to spend as much time listening to him play as possible, that people from so many different walks of life could all kind of gather around these almost mythical and archetypal themes that were coming through in his songs that really tuned us into the bittersweetness of our predicament as humans, and the necessity of us showing up and taking care of one another.”

All of this leads to Great Barrington’s inaugural Jerry Day: a day-long celebration of Garcia arranged by Shankin through his Friends of Grove Street Park organization that will raise money for public playground equipment.

“I wish I could tell you that it made more sense," Shankin told WAMC. "But these are just kind of two of my passions, and I just smushed them together. There's no direct connection between playgrounds and Jerry that I can necessarily see, it's just that I kind of wanted there to be more Grateful Dead culture in Great Barrington, in the Berkshires in general. I know there's some, but I just wanted to do my part to make sure that there was more. I also want to do my part to make sure that our kids have cool places to play.”

Shankin is a Berkshire transplant by way of the Bay Area – ground zero for not only the Grateful Dead but the transformative psychedelic arts culture the band emerged from.

“It makes me think of the Merry Pranksters, of Ken Kesey’s project with the Merry Pranksters, and how he would create these participatory art and music installations, and he would blur the line between the people on the stage and the people in the audience," said Shankin. "And everybody got to be a part of the magic, and there was one big family atmosphere where the people on stage and the people who were dancing were just as important to one another.”

Great Barrington’s first ever Jerry Day features performances from Rev Tor & The Deal, Wolfman Jack, and Dead Collective, a tie-dye story hour, family yoga, and more.

It kicks off at 11 a.m. Sunday at the gazebo behind town hall.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.