A number of years back, the folks at a cool brew pub in Portland, Oregon, celebrated Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1st, with a party and put together a band to play some Dead tunes. As these things will, the band enjoyed the show so much they did it again…and again. The Garcia Birthday Band are the noble standard-bearers of Dead Head nation in the Portland area, and Adam King is their keyboardist. Take it away, Adam.

I grew up in Connecticut, in a place that was great for kids. I was kind of a latchkey kid – you know, go ride your bike forever. But we were also pretty close to the city, and a short drive to Boston. It was great. We had a baby grand piano because my dad played. So, some of the earliest music I recall is him playing “Clair De Lune” and Brubeck tunes.

Other than that, we listened to a lot of early Dylan stuff in the house. In fact, now that I remember it, I first got my mom Blood on the Tracks or something like that for her on a CD one year, because she had never gotten past 1970 of her Bob Dylan catalog. Loved the man. Maybe her favorite musician. But she didn’t really keep up. So a lot of Dylan. Crosby Stills and Nash. Mixed in with me and my older brother listening to a lot of Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, and Beastie Boys. Actually, in high school we only had a record player and my mom’s records when we were taking bong hits on the back porch, so we’d be just cranking Jesus Christ Superstar. And I come from a rather non-religious family.

Probably the depth of my knowledge of the Bible came from Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a weird thing to do. But at age 7 I started taking piano lessons from Helen Collins, Mrs. Collins. She lived around the corner, and I would go to lessons at lunch break. She was an utterly phenomenal player, but she would crank these farts that I could feel vibrate through the piano bench, and she would either not hear them or be in denial, but once she smelled it, she would blame it on her cat, and would find him sleeping in a different room and kick him outside. The other thing is since you’re 8 years old and it’s your lunch break, you would have to bring your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which you are supposed to eat during your lesson. And you would take a bite of your sandwich, and she would say something and her elderly spit would fly out and drop on to your sandwich. And then you put the sandwich down. And she would say “well, you got to eat your sandwich, or your mother is going to get real upset with me.” I would be like, “yeah…”

But eventually I went to the Taft School (a very elite prep school), which was just across the street. It was probably a better education than my UVM education, honestly. Plus, suddenly you have classmates who are from all over the country and have parents who’ve sent their 13-year old away to school 3,000 miles away, so it was a really incredible experience. And eventually that’s when it turns over to more kids coming over with acoustic guitars, having jam sessions, playing a lot of it was just playing E, you know, for an hour and a half, you are just playing with no chord changes whatsoever.

I turned 13 in July 1993, and my brother turned 18, his freshman year of college. Which yeah, something happened… My brother was kind of a straight guy. I mean, not too straight but like, you know kind of a nice, simple dude. He went to Stanford, and was at Stanford for a month when something opened him up out there. And he moved back to Connecticut and was just hanging out with my friends. And pretty soon he had bought an old VW bus that kinda ran but basically just sat in front of our house. I do remember one Christmas a couple years before that, and I only needed one more Def Leppard tape. I had every Def Leppard tape except for High and Dry. So I asked my brother for it, and that year my brother gave me the Beatles number one hits and the Best of the Blues Brothers on cassette tape. I was like, “Dude, I needed that other Def Leppard tape”. He was like, “no more Def Leppard. We are moving on.”

So you know, it was kind of one of those awesome turning points – I really remember feeling like I was part of this tradition, that I had a brother who was five years older than me, and he was like, “yeah, start listening to this.” And so then Dead tapes started popping up. And people are hanging around, and crazier people are hanging around, and more things are popping up like that. I really started studying the Dead and the ‘60s, which is so wild to think about in hindsight. I remember also this was around when PBS did that history of rock series, and they had the whole ‘60s one that was called “the blues in technicolor”, and it was amazing. I was like, “oh, shit, these are my people.” Yeah, I so I started really getting into it. My first go for it.

Right, so I really felt like I was part of this tradition of, you have an older sibling who knows what’s up. And I can remember my brother and his friends would be keeping me up at night partying in our attic, but it also felt like they were adamant on making me cool. And I’m seeing these guys, when I turned 18, who were then in their early 20s, and they are like “holy shit, Adam King! Look at you! We did it.”

I remember my first tape – that I don’t feel like my brother gave it to me, I felt like it was sort of lying around… I’m like, “this is mine” – was 5/24/69. That’s at the Seminole Indian Village in Florida, where they just played that hour long set that opens up with this half hour “Love Light” — they are starting the set and the announcer guy is like, “we are working on the organ here, so while we are working on the organ, we are going to remind everybody to stay seated during the show.” And Pig Pen says “screw the organ, we don’t need no organ. Let’s just play some music here. Everybody just stand up and start dancing.” I’m like, “yeah, this is awesome.” So I was I was into it, I was ready to fully jump into the scene.

Actually, I can remember my freshman year at Taft, which was ‘94 going into 95, that this one kid, who had been home schooled prior, but who was another day-student there like me, and he came in one morning, looking kinda bedraggled, and I asked him what was going on. He was like “I went to the Garden last night for the Dead.” I was like, “What?! How did you even know the Grateful Dead were playing? “He was like, “you aren’t on the mailing list?”

And then, Trey (Anastasio) had also gone to Taft, so everybody was into Phish, and everybody was into the Dead. Which was wild. I would honestly say 40% percent of our school went to the Phish show at New Haven Coliseum, fall of 95.

Taft also had great music rooms and all these kids who are already great players, so that turns into some more complex jam sessions, and we are playing a couple chords, and we’re doing other things like that. And then fall of ‘98 I go up to University of Vermont, which my advisor had said was like me “going into the belly of the beast.”

I come from a generation, they call it different things, but they say we are this micro generation from ‘78 to like ’83—this five year generation because we are not Gen X and we’re not Millennials either. We had this unique experience where computers came while we were in school, and the Internet came while I was in high school, so all this stuff was sort of changing. So, I have a lot of people who seem to have these same experiences with me that were from that little blip of time, and it also might be a Northeast kind of thing.

But I was sort of planning on Boston Garden, fall ‘95, that one of those Boston Garden shows was going to be one of my first shows. I used to rock one of those old Jerry Band hats that had the embroidered circle of Jerry blowing in the wind. I just turned 15, I was just getting in to weed and all these things. I had been listening to shit, I was like “game on. I am going to fucking go on Dead tour.” And then fucking Jerry died. It fucked me up.

I have had a lot of death in my life from other friends, which is just a weird part of my existence. But Jerry was the first one and it really sent me into some existential thought about who I was as a person at a very young age. It was like, “this is who I’m going to be”, and then it’s gone. I missed it. Which is all the more why I went to my first Phish show in December ’95. I was like “oh shit, I need to start going to see Phish right now to get in on this.” Which is funny, that was fucking 28 years ago now.

But it was in all my essays. I saved all my writings, all my essays from high school and things from college applications – all of them were like about how I might have dropped out of high school if Jerry was still alive and gone on Dead tour, and all this stuff like that. So, it was a wild thing, I would write poems and all this corny high school artwork about Jerry.

The way I approach playing Grateful Dead music is probably because of that sense that I never saw him and I was so close. So, I’ve never wanted to hear a band pretend to be the Grateful Dead, or I don’t like the guitar players who are trying to be Jerry. You know, like the mimicry of it it just seems so dirty to me in a way that it probably isn’t to some other people.

I love hearing people play Grateful Dead music, I love doing it myself, and I love seeing people expand it in different ways. So I have always had a weird thing, when people are going to try and sound exactly like it – “I’m going to try to have Jerry’s tone exact and play his exact same ideas and stuff.” That’s always just sort of rubbed me this wrong way right from the get-go. Which, yeah, which really came from me just feeling like I had the rug pulled out from underneath me from Jerry dying.

I went to Further Fest in ‘96 at the Hartford Meadows, and I remember even then being like “this isn’t it.” It was RatDog and Mickey was doing his Mystery Box thing. It just, you know, it yeah, it took me a few years to have my first real feeling of what the Grateful Dead should be, I would say.

Anyway, I eventually managed to graduate from UVM. I was actually I got thrown out after my freshman fall because they caught me smoking weed three times. It was three strikes and you are out. So, they threw me out, but let me back in because my grades were fine. My next, sophomore year I was still living in the dorms. They caught me smoking weed on the last day of classes. Kicked me out again. But let me back in again and kept giving me more financial aid every time too, because my grades were fine. So, at that time, the dean told me, “just so you know, you are the only person in the history of this college who has been let in three times,” because of being booted twice…but I managed to get through it.

We were having dorm room jams and when everybody started getting houses, we started jamming more. At this time, I never thought I would really play in a band that would play out of venues. It was just sort of all house party things. And then when a couple friends we really started playing Dead songs and then our own music — I remember we would go see bands play and we would be like, “wait a second, we are better than this… like, we are a lot better than this band.” So, it felt like our college band almost came together out of spite at first.

So, my college band was Turkey Bouillon Mafia, and our first gig was at this hundred person bar in Burlington. We convinced the place to let us play, and then that first night there were lines around the corner because we came in with our Dead scene family, our Phish scene family, and our house party family, and all of this together made a whole scene. Afterwards, they said we should play there all the time, since we just brought in twice as many people as can fit into this place. We ended up doing pretty well for ourselves, going around New England and Philly and New York and stuff and doing great. And then at that same time, you know, we always put a couple Dead songs in there. Really it turned out we’d start doing house parties where we would be getting all high and we played a lot of Jerry band stuff. We were going for, in our heads, a deeper spiritual place. At least, that’s what we thought were trying to do.

In 2003 I got an offer to play with this band, Blues For Breakfast, that was led by Mr. Charlie, Charlie Frazier, since the early ‘90s. At the time it was like the Dead band in Burlington and in Vermont and they were looking for a new keyboard player. So, I joined up with Blues For Breakfast, which was a blast. It’s always been a scene up there, it’s one of those cool things where that band evolved through different people, and some of my dearest friends played with me, and I eventually got my good friend Seth Yacovone in there, and it was great. Awesome, old-school VT vibes. We would play Nectars once a month and sell it out, and other cool gigs around Vermont and Upstate New York, and then something happened. There was some disagreement or something, and things got weird and Blues For Breakfast sort of broke up for a little bit.

And then with some of the guys from TBM and B4B, I was like, “there is a void here, there is nobody playing Dead music. Let’s be the band doing it.” So, we did this thing upstairs from Nectar’s at Metronome, that we just called Dead Sessions. Because it was sort of me and the guitar player, Benny Yurco – we would be the staples and try to rotate other people, sort of in and out. Then it got locked into more of a stable crew. Then we kept doing that. And then Blues For Breakfast started happening again. And I was playing in two fairly successful Grateful Dead bands in one of the smallest states in the country. It was a weird thing to be, but it is just a testament to what Vermont is, and what the Dead is. But the Vermont Dead scene is serious.

I finally graduated. I majored in philosophy and minored in religion and music. So obviously so many job opportunities…. Dead sessions was doing well, it was like 2008 or 2009. I was living what a lot of people would say is the dream Burlington life. I was working in my friend’s glass pipe shop, I was playing Grateful Dead music, I was writing music reviews for the record shop. It was pretty awesome. We used to talk about the Burlington vortex – once you get settled in it’s hard to leave because you are just so settled i+n that pocket.

Phish came back from hiatus in 2009. And at the first show back there at Hampton Coliseum, this girl came up to me outside of a hotel in the lot and was like, “hey, Adam King.” And at the time I didn’t recognize her. But she was a friend of friends in Vermont. But I remember I walked into this hotel room with my best friend after. We sat down and he was like, “fuck, King, you just totally fell in love with that girl, didn’t you?” I was like, “I did, I fucking totally did.”

And so I totally fell in love with this girl who was living in she was moving to California, and ended up living in Sonoma. She was living in Colorado at the time. And I was hanging out with her at Phish shows and then trying to convince her that she should be my girlfriend. And she is like, “that is stupid, you live 3,000 miles away from me.” Plus, I had just broken up with one of her best friends. But I just pestered her enough, and kept pestering her and poking her, and she was finally like, “All right. Let’s be stupid and do this.” We had this long distance thing, where it was just talking on the phone every night for a few hours, which was, you know, it was awesome, but it was stupid.

And then she was like, okay, “I am going to go to school to be a naturopath,” and the only places you can actually become a doctor in naturopathy are Portland, Phoenix, Bridgeport or Montreal. And she said she was going to apply to these, I was like, “okay, if you get into this, I could be into moving.” And I don’t think any of my friends thought I’d ever be able to escape the B-Town vortex. But I knew we weren’t going to move to Bridgeport, definitely not going to Phoenix, Montreal is fun but… she got into the school in Portland. I said “fuck it, I’m going to ditch this dream late ‘20s life I have here, my Peter Pan life,” and I packed everything up and drove out to Portland. That was 2011.

When I first moved out here I was just itching to play. I was like I got to play, I got to play I was on Craig’s list looking for gigs. So first I started playing with this ‘80s cover band that was terrible. They were just horrendous. I remember at one point, they were like “we only play songs from the ‘80s, except we obviously play Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” I was like “huh?”

Then it’s funny actually, because Mr. Charlie, since he knows all of this blues… he’s in this whole blues universe… His house, he had to get his floors restructured because his blues CDs were breaking his floor, he had so many of them. Anyway, he offered to hook me up with some of these Portland blues cats. And this woman, Lisa Mann, who is an amazing blues bass player up here, she brought me into some blues jams out here.

And then I can’t remember if it was from that or not, but I got asked to play with this Jerry Band cover band that used to be here. It’s one of those things of somebody knew somebody who knew somebody and said there is a kid who knows how to play Dead keys who just moved to town. So, I was doing that, but it was sort of not the right fit. It was good to be playing but it wasn’t really locking in.

And then yeah, I would say probably 2014, I think, Justin from Garcia Birthday Band, the lead guitar player, called me up because they needed somebody to fill in on a gig. He called me up and was like, “I hear you are great, you can do it.” And in the way of how Grateful Dead music usually goes, I met these guys five minute before we started playing. They asked if I knew everything, I told then I basically knew everything, and then we just started playing. So, I played a full set of music before I spoke more than 10 words to anybody in the band. And then I went full on with them, which was like 2015 or ’16, and we have only grown since then.

We don’t really travel that much because we kind of feel like we have everything we need here. We’ve all got day jobs and families. We’ve got tons of folks who love to see us. We’ve got unique cool places to play. This is sort of our scene. We got Portland, we got Eugene. And the community is wild.

I mean, the thing about Portland is we’ve realized that there are these different rings of Dead Heads. It’s just so prevalent here. So, there’s these people who know us and come see us all the time. Then there is this ring of people who have maybe seen our name or seen us once or twice. Then there is other ring of people who are like, “I don’t go see any Dead music that doesn’t have one of the core four members in it” or something like that. Then there is this other ring of people who are like “no, I don’t really go to anything since Jerry died.” And we realized that we keep tapping into these other rings. We keep expanding outward within our own community.

You know, Dark Star will come through town and sell 1200 tickets to a show, and you go to it, and you are like “who are these people? I don’t see them come to our shows!” And it’s either because they don’t know or don’t care, but it’s just a testament to there being so many heads here that we keep seeing this growth.

I’m not ashamed to say I think we are fucking sounding amazing right now, and we just played at the Good Foot a couple weeks ago, and played this “Slipknot” that went into this other dimension, and really seemed to be a trigger to another level for us, and I said to myself during it that “this is my favorite jam I ever played with this band”. So, I know there are a lot of people who are impressed by how we are playing, but at the same time there is a whole scene going on regardless.

But sometimes people come to our shows, and are like, “oh, shit, I didn’t realize there was a whole scene. I didn’t realize at set break there’s 200 people outside, you know, like participating in the parking lot, and kind of things like that.” Yeah, so it’s wild to sort of watch it grow like that. And we have really been fortunate to get in with the McMenamins (a circuit of clubs and brew pubs) scene, and with sort of the Eugene Country Fair scene. Actually, one of the first gigs I did with the band must have been at the fairgrounds in 2015.

It was this party after the Country Fair called the Teddy Bears’ picnic. It’s just for everybody who works there. I remember walking back to my tent and like, you know there was some woman walking next to me, it was kind of dark, and I couldn’t really see too well, and I say “hey, are you having a good time?” She was like “of course, I’m having a good time. All of my best friends are here.” I tell her to have a great night, and as she walked away, I was like, “oh shit, that was Mountain Girl!” So, I didn’t even know how deep the scene was happening.

So, all these scenes and circles—the McMenamins scene, and the younger kids scene, and the older scene, and the Eugene scene—keep melding together. We used to play this small bar is Salem, and we haven’t played around there for years, but we are about to play this bigger theater in Salem that we would have never done before. But it’s kind of like the Portland circle is getting bigger and the Eugene circle is getting bigger. So those bubbles start blossoming out. It’s like when you watch videos of diseases spreading or something like that. It’s those points where the bubbles touch and it grows into a whole other thing.

We have traveled a bit. We did Terrapin Crossroads a couple times. Drove down to it. And I always feel there are a few states in this country, Vermont being one of them, Oregon being one of them, California being one of them, that when you cross that border you can really feel it. Like if you are coming to Oregon from Washington, you know the air just feels different. In Vermont, as soon as you come up from Massachusetts or New York, you literally feel your shoulders drop.

So, knowing you’re going to California to play Grateful Dead music sort of feels that same way. It sort of feels like in the movie 2001 when they show that ship slowly docking in. It’s like we are coming in for a nice soft landing on to something that is fully ready to embrace you with open arms. We’ve reached a point where this scene up here is so thriving and bustling, and we are really proud of it. We know that we have people who our band means a lot to them. And we have people who are probably prouder of us going to Ventura than we are ourselves. We really feel like we represent the Pacific Northwest, and the heads from here. So, I mean, we go down there with the plan that we love seeing all of these other bands and we love being a part of it. And Scott has gone down before when we weren’t playing. But I’d be lying if I said that going down there to kick ass wasn’t a huge part of the plan.

We don’t plot out very many set lists ahead of time. We are playing these New Year’s gigs, we are just now this morning (12/28) starting to think about what we’re going to play. But for Ventura last year we thought about that set for a couple months. And we’re already thinking about our set, because we want to go down there and have people go, like, “who the fuck are these guys?” That is our favorite reaction: “who the fuck are these guys?” So, we are stoked. We love it. We hope it keeps going, and we can do it every year because we also enjoy the sun which is something that doesn’t exist up here.

Photographs by © Stu Levy

See Adam King with Garcia Birthday Band at Skull & Roses Festival