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Upstate New York’s Grateful Dead cover band elite to hold Birthday Bash for Jerry Garcia tonight

Jerry Garcia performing at Red Rocks in 1987 with the Grateful Dead.
Mark L. Knowles
Jerry Garcia performing at Red Rocks in 1987 with the Grateful Dead.

Today would have been Jerry Garcia’s 81st birthday, and upstate New York musicians are celebrating with a special concert at Lark Hall in Albany tonight.

Born in San Francisco in 1942, guitarist and singer Garcia made an indelible impact on American music through his songwriting with lyricist Robert Hunter, his interpretation of folk, blues, jazz, and country standards, and his exploratory and highly improvisational work with rock juggernaut the Grateful Dead.

Garcia died in 1995, but the music never stopped, with his influence continuing to grow today.

“My opinion is his feel, and what he had to say. There's a lot of guys that are out there doing it, doing all this stuff. But he had this weird knack of sounding more like a horn player, like Miles Davis," said drummer Vinnie Amico. “It was like, very emotional in the way he phrased stuff and the way he sang. His singing was so emotional, especially on the ballads. And his playing was- You know, he can make you frickin’ cry right out there as a grown man when he did the solo to ‘Stella Blue,’ or ‘Comes A Time’ or something, they just make you like weep like a baby.”

Amico, best known for his role in Buffalo jam band powerhouse moe., saw Garcia with the Dead and his various side projects dozens of times.

“Because we lived in upstate New York and we there was such to an abundance of live Dead shows in the mid to late 80s," he told WAMC. "I mean, you could see them in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, New York City. You could drive two hours in any direction and see the Dead three times a year- You know, fall, winter, and summer tour. So, we were able to- Jeez, I probably saw the Dead by, by 1988, I had probably seen the dead 15 times without ever driving more than two hours.”

His first experience was at SPAC in 1985 at a legendary show so bloated by gatecrashers – some estimates put attendance at over 40,000 – that the Dead were banned from the venue for three years.

“That was my first show, so I'm already like, freaking going, Oh my God, what is this?" laughed Amico. "We got in and we had lawn seats, but we snuck into the balcony. And then, so, we're on the balcony, and there's people hanging over and jumping off the frickin’ balcony and stuff, and you're just like, holy shit, man. You know, Bob [Weir]'s going, guys don't hang off the balcony, someone's going to get hurt.”

Three years later, Amico again returned to SPAC for the Dead’s equally chaotic return in what would prove to be their last concert there.

“And then in ‘88, you know, they capped the – because back then they didn't cap the audience, so they just sold tickets – and then people were jumping the fences and everything. I mean, they said it was 40,000 there then," he said. "I remember the estimates from when we were there was like 51,000 people, because 20,000 people, or 10,000 people jumped over the fence back then. So, that was crazy.”

The ramps into the balcony of the pavilion were shut down because they had begun to sway from the sheer volume of showgoers.

“I just remember being on the lawn and seeing somebody break through the security, started running up the ramp, and there was this big huge security guard that just tackled, like, it looked like they ate the person up, and you hear the crowd all cheering on the guy to get up the ramp," said Amico. "And then when he got tackled by the security guard, you just hear the collective 5,000 people on the lawn just go wooooo- awwwwww. It was just hilarious. The things I remember about Dead shows.”

For Amico and his legions of fellow Deadheads, the magic of the band – led by Garcia and his beatific grin – produces an almost indescribable effect when the chemistry of the music and the crowd react.

“I call it pandemonium," he said. "It was always described that way. Like, when you'd walk out of a show and the whole place exploded, and it was always a- It was a symbiotic thing between the band and the audience. And you know, Jerry's just ripping, and the band behind it is ripping, and the crowd feels it and explodes. And it's all in one big thing.”

Amico joined moe. in 1996, a year after Garcia’s death. As the surviving members of the Dead began charting a course forward, bands like moe. found themselves catapulted up the echelons of the jam band world.

“I went from being in a Grateful Dead tribute band in bars in Buffalo and around the northeast in 1996 and early ‘97, to playing every night on the stage with Mickey Hart and Bob Weir in the summer of ‘97 in the all-star band jam at the end of the night at Furthur Festival," Amico told WAMC. "And then a week or two into it, playing at SPAC, where I saw my first Dead show, and also where I had seen many shows, many Dead shows, and many shows in general, being like, that's the place that I dreamed of playing one day to playing a whole set of music with Bob because we had him on the moe. set, and then playing the jam at the end of the night. Every song was like- I had, the dream had come true to play on that stage with those people. So, it was pretty huge.”

Amico continues his lifelong celebration of Garcia and the Grateful Dead with the NYS Dead Coalition and Buffalo’s Organ Fairchild tonight at Lark Hall.

“It's the music," he explained. "I mean, the songs. The songs are amazing. And the thing is, like, and I'm going to sound goofy about this, when you play them right or correctly, they are a lot a lot of fun to play. It's really great music- I mean, the music stands for itself still stands up, obviously, because the Dead is as popular now as they've ever been, ever. So, I mean, it's really become the Great American Songbook at this point. It was always the real book. Now, you can't do a gig as a musician without knowing some of those songs.”

Jerry’s Birthday Bash kicks off at 7:30.

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.
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