‘Touch of Grey’-tness: The Grateful Dead’s music still Truckin’ through many NYC tribute acts

The Grateful Dead tribute performers
The bands converge: The Disco Dead and The Many Sides of Bob Dylan, clockwise from top left ( green hat ) : Ben Uniacke (Dylan) , Jane Choi (Dylan) , James Denatale (Dylan) , Phil Radiotes ( Dylan), Satoko Mori (Dead) , Josh Santiago (Dead), Chris Mackin (Dead), Brian Reynolds (Dead) , Steve Remp (Dylan) , Will Corona (Dead), Ben Pinnola (Dylan)

The Grateful Dead, it seems, are having a moment. Long after the demise of the great Jerry Garcia and not long since the band’s successor Dead & Co called it quits, the Dead live on on a variety of guises.

From the long running tribute band Dark Star Orchestra to variations on the themes by Grateful Dub (Reggae), Afro Dead (Afrobeat) and an up-and-coming group who call themselves Bertha — a combo from Nashville who perform in full drag — there is no shortage of musicians working to keep the music alive.

Walk down the streets of New York in the summertime and you can’t help but notice Grateful Dead t-shirts on bodies everywhere — frequently on folks who hadn’t been born when Garcia took his leave. 

“Yeah, it’s a thing,” a twentysomething New Yorker informs us. “Sometimes it’s because they like the music and sometimes it’s just for the cool designs.”

If you’re one of those people who are in it for the tunes, you’re in luck. At least four previously unreleased concert discs are released every year (they managed to record almost 2,200 of their 2,350 shows) and an occasional box set that doesn’t skimp on the packaging or quality. And those live Dead tributes are definitely a thing, especially with the “Bushwick’s Dead” monthly series going on at the Brooklyn Bowl on the first Sunday of every month.  

Josh Santiago , far right, takes the lead with the Disco Dead
Chris Mackin of the Disco Dead in the improv zone
Satoko Mori , keys for the Disco Dead, in the spot light
Brian Reynolds , on drums and vocals with the Disco Dead, sometimes takes on the role of conductor
Michael Conklin of the Disco Dead

Chris Mackin and Josh Santiago were just toddlers when Garcia headed for places unknown in 1995, but they developed a love for the jam band aesthetic and especially for the Dead, who arguably did it better than anyone (actually, don’t bother arguing – they did it better than anyone).

Mackin and Santiago started the monthly series in Bushwick, Brooklyn, if you’re wondering where that name came from, with an ever changing schedule of bands to keep it interesting.

“We have a lot of friends in the jam band scene and we wanted something consistent,” Mackin explains. “And we wanted it to be fun and different.”

Their band “Moonfisher” has morphed into a variety of concepts that all revolve around the idea of bringing improvisation to the repertoire of classic bands that are not necessarily known for straying too far from the song.

There’s “Walrus,” a project that expands the Beatles songs in ways that the fab four never did and a few with self-explanatory (and quite clever) names such as Steely Jams, Talking Deads, Grateful Floyd and Untame Impala. 

The Grateful Dead hit a musical high point (go ahead, insert your own joke here) in 1977, the same year that that disco reigned supreme with “Saturday Night Fever.” If you’re assuming that the Deadheads and the glammed up club goers didn’t do much cross-pollinating back then, you’d be right.

But these days, Santiago contends, “the jam bands now are more funky, and a lot of them are into disco.” His personal favorite is the Bee-Gees, while Mackin is very much into Earth, Wind and Fire.

Josh Santiago and Chris Mackin from the Disco Dead ( and Moonflower, Walrus, Steely Jams…….) at the Brooklyn Bowl . Relix magazine sponsors the ‘Bushwick’s Dead ‘ series
Ben Pinnola was responsible for keys, sax and vocals in The Many Sides of Bob Dylan
Ben Uniacke , Guitar, The Many Sides of Bob Dylan
Jane Choi and Phil Radiotes of The Many Sides of Bob Dylan
Ben Pinnola (sax) having a blast with James Denatale in The Many Sides of Bob Dylan

So the scene was set for Sunday night’s show by the “Disco Dead,” the band that answers the musical question, “What if the Dead were actually funky?” Made up of members of Moonfisher, their set hit the ground running with “Feel Like a Stranger,” a Dead tune that melded with K.C and the the Sunshine Band’s “That’s The Way I Like It” and a medley that jammed “Stayin’ Alive” in between “Help on The Way” and “Slipknot” before concluding with the Kool & The Gang classic “Hollywood Swinging.” 

They got the feeling right without resorting to slavish imitation and they got people dancing, too. Strictly speaking they sounded more like the Dead with an infusion of funk rather than disco, but either way you hear it the set was a creative treat for Deadheads with eclectic tastes. In the opening slot was “The Many Sides of Bob Dylan,” a group that has otherwise performed as the “Near Dead Experience” (we love that name too!).

They had a great time rearranging and stretching the bard’s classic tunes such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Maggie’s Farm,” “Memphis Blues Again” and “Tangled up in Blue.”  

Although the Disco Dead have gotten multiple hate messages — “Jerry would be rolling in his grave !” is a popular one — we think that the guy who embraced all sorts of music, from jazz to blues to bluegrass to the avant-garde would be happy to see his music expanding and making people dance all these years later.  

Follow @bushwicksdead for upcoming gig listings.