“I first heard Stu Allen in 2005, at the “Comes a Time” Rex Benefit at the Greek Theatre that celebrated Jerry’s passing 10 years later.I hadn’t heard JGB in a while, and was running around doing my job when I suddenly heard someone singing a Jerry song in a voice that sent chills up my spine.I’ve been listening to Stu ever since,” — Dennis McNally
I was born in Savannah, and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. I was 15 when I picked up the guitar — thanks to my parents for giving me my first one. I was inspired by the guitar-heavy music I listened to — Hendrix, Clapton, Led Zeppelin. I got lessons once a week at House of Guitars in Louisville.
My first exposure to Grateful Dead was probably “Touch of Grey,” when I was in the 8th grade. Since it was the ‘80s, it was the MTV age, so the song was inextricable from the video – I remember the video being very funny, they were the Grateful Dead and there they were as skeletons playing, and that was interesting. And the song was good, but it didn’t fire off a spark just yet.
And then the Dead came to Freedom Hall in Louisville in 1989. The show was great, and what I remember talking about the next day was the keyboard player being – I didn’t know Brent’s name – “That keyboard player was on fire. He was really electrifying” – but the mind blowing part of it for me was the Dead Heads. Driving through the lot – “What is going on here?!?” – and then in the hall, I went out through the lobby to go to the bathroom and people are dancing all over the place, in the halls, and everything they were wearing – “Hang on, what is going on here?!?” So that moved the ball forward a little bit…
(I recalled a Louisville show that engraved itself on my own memory because the quite-enormous parking lot for both Freedom Hall and the Stadium was hosting the Dead Heads, a Jehovah’s Witness encampment, and a motorcycle show, everyone getting along famously.)
That was later, in 1993, because in ’89 at my first show there was camping in the lot, and then right after that it was – right after that – it was no more, and so as a young Dead Head I felt kinda cheated out of that whole experience. “We have to drive after the show now? Come on!” And I also remember coming to Freedom Hall in ’93 and seeing all these tents set up and I felt doubly cheated, because it was the biker rally. They were allowed to camp, and I was “Hey, come on!”
So after the first show, I didn’t see them for a couple of years, so it was about trading tapes, listening to them with friends and talking about the music, what makes one moment or another great. And having your perception and about music evolve.
As a player, I was jamming with guys in the first year. I was in a band or two in high school, nothing that we ever recorded, didn’t make any records or anything. Until college — I went to St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota, south of Minneapolis — I was in an acoustic group, Blue Man Jive, made a record, made a lot of great original music, and that lasted from ’91 to ’96. At the same time, I was hanging out with the guys from the Big Wu, who were also out of St. Olaf.
Moved up to Minneapolis, and one day the phone woke me up. Frist there was this guy, a member of Blue Man Jive, “This is what I think I heard on the radio,” that Jerry was dead. And I’m still waking up and trying to figure it out, get my bearings. Then my friend, who I was listening to tapes with and going to shows with in high school, he says, “Just wanted to make sure you’d heard.” That’s when I knew it for real.
And that seemed like the time to start playing Grateful Dead music – there weren’t any more shows. Someone else was putting a band together and saw a classified ad in a weekly, The City Pages, in Minneapolis, “Grateful Dead: Forming cover band. Need all instruments but bass.” We ended up calling it the Jones Gang, which we took from a show at Colgate College in 1977, where they had trouble with the monitors or something, and to fill in the time, the band started introducing themselves as the Jones Gang. “On guitar, Jerry Jones. On guitar, Bob Jones.” One of them was Julius P. Jones” but I don’t remember who or why. But the double meaning was that the band was now gone and we were all now jonesing for the music.
I lived there until the end of 1998, and then went to Boston to go to Berklee College of Music, and was there for four years, until 2002, then out for a year. And then a guy I’d played with a couple of times in Minnesota by the name of Jeff Cierniak who was in Melvin’s band, called me because Ron Penque was leaving the band. He was the bass player who sang the tunes. And Jeff was playing guitar, but didn’t sing. So they’d lost really two guys, and they thought, “How are we going to find a bass player who sings this stuff?” Melvin threw up his hands and was going to cancel the tour, as I understood it, and Jeff was “No no, we’ll come up with something. I’ll call this guy I know from Minnesota, and I’ll switch to bass.” So Jeff played bass on that tour. And I filled in, and was with him for seven years.
My first gig with Melvin was – he hired me sight unseen – so I met Melvin in the alley behind the bar at the first gig I did with him. And that gig went great. I hadn’t really concentrated on the JGB material, so I felt I was lucky that I had 12 shows to get up to speed. By the end of it, I was on board.
People ask me about the difference between Jerry’s playing with JGB and Grateful Dead, and it’s hard to answer. It’s different music, and so you play something that works with that music. There’s fewer players, and you might think there’s more freedom, but there’s also more space to fill. Since there’s more players in the G.D., there’s more listening and responding – there’s more to interact with. And Phil is playing off the beat, and Kahn is playing on the beat, so Garcia’s playing might emphasize the beat more with the G.D. and be more free to play off of it with Kahn.
Playing with Melvin was inspiring. He can really lift the vibe, the energy of a tune, and then continue to escalate when you think you’re all out, and just keep bringing it up. He can also bring it down to some beautiful places.
Instead of wanting to do a radical re-interpretation of G.D. music, I kind of take it to the opposite – I like to do other music in the style of the Grateful Dead. At our Tuesday nights at Terrapin, we’ll take other classic tunes and play them more like Grateful Dead style, find places to stretch out.
But the Grateful Dead ethos just seems to not only go on but get bigger. I mean, how powerful was Fare Thee Well? It was really something, being back in there after all those years, and you gotta think it was incredibly powerful for people who were never there and had been listening to the music for two decades and then they finally make it in to a show! It gives me goose bumps to think what that must have been like.
Being a Dead Head has gone viral.