If your soul aches for the expansive freedom of noshing on falafel and twirling barefoot under the stars on a grassy field at a Dead show, you’re not alone. And you might want to check out the schedule of performances for Hudson Valley’s longtime popular Grateful Dead cover band, The Deadbeats.
Members Denise Parent of Woodstock and Mike Johnson of High Falls started playing Dead cover songs together as The Deadbeats in 1993 around New Paltz, after Parent saw Johnson’s band perform out one night and reached out to him to see if they needed a drummer or singer (they did). Though the band’s earlier sets were not necessarily just Dead cover songs, the band’s playlist quickly became a lot of Dead much of the time.
These days, they tour around the Hudson Valley and Capital District touting their shows as “a celebration of improvisational, jamming rock ’n’ roll.” Saratoga Living magazine ranked the Deadbeats in the Top Five Local Tribute acts of 2019. They were voted Best Jam Band of 2017 in The Capital Region, and they took second for Best Cover Band and Best Tribute Band.
After 27 years, the Deadbeats continue to play homage to the music of not only the Dead but the Jerry Garcia Band, Phish, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Band, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley and Janis Joplin. And others.
Parent, an office coordinator for Family Services in Kingston , is a self-taught musician. Johnson attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. Fellow band members who round the band off to a party of five include Brian Miller of Albany on bass guitar, who has been strumming with the Deadbeats for about 14 years; Brian Mangini (Ominous Seapods, Raisinhead, Moepods); and Dan Gerken (Groovestick, Timbre Coup).
“Working without a net,” their set lists, arrangements and jams, are left open to the inspiration of the particular moment, drawing the crowd in as active participants in the creative process. They perform their repertoire of over 300 Dead songs. It’s a unique and fun overall experience.
“The Grateful Dead have some of the most beautiful songs out there, even today,” said Parent. “There have been many young artists who are still discovering the songs by the Dead, and they have recorded their songs in tribute. We are no different. The Deadbeats have always put our own spin on the songs, but we use the Dead’s version as the skeleton to follow.”
Nearly a half-century later, what is a Dead fan like? Johnson said there was no average fan: “Doctors and nurses, railroad folks, blue collar, white collar, people on the road and touring — some even selling things.” Not surprisingly, different generations of fans attend together. “There was a grandmother with kid who has been touring with us brings her daughter’s daughter,” Parent said. “People in their seventies and people not old enough to even get in a bar. Kids grew up listening to the parents’ Dead music — or even grew up listening to us — so that’s an interesting twist.”
What is it about the Grateful Dead that draws generations of followers to don tie-dye and groove to that melodious, bluesy beat? “Interesting jams, harmony, and raw emotion that has been consistent and constant from the start 55 years ago,” said Parent. “Melodies, harmonies, rhythm — incredible rhythms.”
Johnson feels the diversity is the appeal. “[The Grateful Dead] cover a wide range of musical genres and a lot of different areas of music,” he said. “Their songs cover a wide range of theoretic ideas of music.”
Although the Deadbeats do play Phish songs as well, the ratio heavily favors Grateful Dead songs.
Johnson got into the Dead as an older teen. “It was around the time I was going to music school but then in New Paltz I was much more exposed to it with all the different live tapes. It was not all over like it is now. It was almost like a negative thing, not very popular — not like classic rock. I met people who had tapes and listened to a lot of different songs before we started playing.”
“How many Dead shows have you been to?” The response varied. Parent has seen over 100 shows with Jerry Garcia and 50 to 60 since he passed. Johnson has seen around 40. Both have met band members. “Sometimes they say not to meet your idols, but I have been very lucky because they have all been very pleasant. I met all but Jerry.” Parent met Mickey Hart at a book-signing for Planet Drum, his solo project involving global percussion sounds.
Johnson said he “sort of” met Bob Weir. “We were playing at a show, and he was at the club we were playing at,” said Johnson. “Accidently, happened to be there.”
The Deadbeats have kept their calendars booked long-term around the Hudson Valley with regular weekly gigs for over a decade. They started at Cabaloosa in New Paltz in 1993 playing every Monday night for ywelve years. They played Tuesday nights in Middletown’s Downtown Tavern for seven years, ending around the late Nineties. They played Wednesdays in Poughkeepsie, and then weekly in Albany in 1994 (where Johnson still plays with friends). That gig went on for a staggering 24 years.
“We started playing more in the Capital Region because it was thriving and we were getting older and not college students any more, and so we got older and with an older crowd,” explained Johnson. These days, Keegan Ales in Kingston features the Deadbeats every other month.
Parent’s other band, Brown-Eyed Women, an all-female tribute to the Grateful Dead, has been gaining local public interest recently. It tours nationally.
You can visit their website at www.deadbeatsny.com.