By Trina Calderón

Living to Tell the Tale: Dead Tour Tales Podcast

“I truly loved eating a little acid and just going to a show and being able to focus”  From his mouth to God’s ears—no, actually that’s the words of Blake Lauer of Mountain Song Collective, the first guest on Dead Tour Tales, a new podcast documenting the experiences of Deadheads and legends of the counterculture scene. The audio show is described in the first episode by co-host James Donovan as “a good opportunity to sit down, shoot the shit, and share with you some tales both adventuresome and sometimes tragic, and usually psychedelic.” 

Brandon Swinehart (left) and James Donovan (right)

James and his co-host Brandon Swinehart are founders of Always a Hoot Studios, an art collective that sells classic and original merchandise inspired by the Grateful Dead. The guys both toured in the ‘90s and knew of each other peripherally but became closer later working together at a screen-printing shop in San Francisco. They survived a crazy ride in the ensuing years, got sober, and circled back to start a business together. Now a full-time job, Always a Hoot Studios has a solid online presence and offers merchandising and promotional services for other artists to utilize.

James Donovan (left) and Brandon Swinehart (right)

A mutual friend, a mentor to James in the branding and merchandising industry suggested the guys start Dead Tour Tales. James related, “he’s like, ‘You guys should do a podcast. Your experience, all those years on the road. How it used to be when you were on the road, and how it is now, having a business and being sober.’” They were initially skeptical, but knew it had to happen when Dead & Co announced their final tour.

James’ first show as in 1991 at the Knickerbocker in Albany, New York. Before he made it to the show, he recalled first seeing Grateful Dead imagery. “I was a metal kid. My parents were always worried, this was the ’80s, so there were Dungeons and Dragons and devil worshiping, and I was listening to bands like Kiss and Motley Crew. They were always trying to steer me away from that. Seeing Grateful Dead imagery, I put it in the same category as Iron Maiden. I never really got into it, or ever even listened to it. As a teenager, via bands like The Doors and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, I started veering in that direction. At the same time, I started learning about the Beat Generation and Beat authors, and I got turned on to the Grateful Dead. It became the whole, all-encompassing Grateful Dead, San Francisco vibe—the Beat Generation, the Pranksters, and Cassady.”

His first show changed his life. “I was only 16 and was still fairly new to psychedelics. Cannabis had been in my world for a few years already. But this blew my mind. It was like, ‘Wait a minute. People do this? They do this with their lives? I want to do this.’ I just remember hitting the lot before the show, and being completely blown away, immediately.”  Unfortunately, post Jerry, he fell to the dark side, as many people did, and found himself in and out of jail. He resurfaced and did some tour, catching Phish, Widespread Panic, The Other Ones, and The Dead, but fell to the streets again and was soon facing prison time. He knew he had to clean up and had a hard time reconciling the music and the lifestyle.

“I stayed away for a number of years, and then in 2015, I got sober again. My first show back was the Bobby Campfire shows. Blue Mountain was released. I caught the show at the Wiltern in L.A. As soon as Bobby started playing, it all rushed back to me. All of the good things that I fell in love with in the very beginning. It all hit me like a ton of bricks, and I was smiling from ear to ear. My heart felt full. Mayer came out and played in the second set, and it was like, ‘Man.’ It was all new to me again, but familiar at the same time. It was like I was home again. Then I was seeing Dead & Company at the Hollywood Bowl, and I latched on with the Wharf Rats, because I’d forgotten that was even a thing. Now I’m starting to go to Dead & Company shows. The bug is back, and now that I can stay connected with Wharf Rats, I feel a lot safer about going,” James explained.This reconnect helped him stay and he began making merchandise, joined Facebook groups to get the word out, and partnered with Brandon in a good clean business and a podcast. “There are some Grateful Dead podcasts, but it’s mostly analyzing shows, playing music, and talking about the shows. That’s all rad, but we wanted something a little different. We wanted to have people on that we could shoot the shit with. We can have some of our friends on and it’s a great opportunity to cross promote and get to know people better,” he said. “The music is a living, breathing entity, and it’s alive in so many people. I’m grateful that the music is still alive, and it still lives within the musicians and the listener. I want to hear all the stories, and I think people want to hear all the stories. Even if your entry point is John Mayer, what a great rabbit hole to go down and a rad universe to explore.”

Dead Tour Tales on IG
Dead Tour Tales website

Trina Calderón is an LA-based writer, proud to be a part of the sunshine daydream of the Grateful Dead.