DeadEye Dawn in a Dark December
Not even the sage Robert Hunter, with a case of red wine and a sheet of Owsley’s finest magic carpet, could have foretold the events of this 2020 shit show. Long and strange don’t even begin to describe this trip.
And yet just when it looked like we were doomed, a little light punctuated the November darkness. I remember the night well.
Scrolling through Facebook, story after story about COVID, police brutality and a nation divided left me numb, eyes glazed like a Seroquel casualty. Then, like a road flare illuminating the darkest corners of a nightmare, I saw it.
DeadEye. Two sets. Empire Control Room and Garage. Austin, TX. December 11, 2020.
Like big sky, cold beer or crawfish, I’m always up for some Grateful goddamn Dead, and took advantage of a fortuitous offer to hear Austin’s finest tribute band take the hallowed songbook for a spin.
I showed up about an hour early to find a lone vendor hawking “Good Ol’ Grateful Dead” t-shirts on the sidewalk outside the venue. Although lacking the medicine chest of felonious uppers, downers and all arounders that can characterize the parking lot scene at a Grateful Dead show, this one man Shakedown Street testified to the far reach of the subculture and its accoutrements.
The band hit the stage just after 9:00 pm, opening with “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, a born to be remorselessly bad tale of loaded dice, card cheats, crooked cues and blown out traveling boots. That kind of lifestyle doesn’t leave a guy long in the tooth.
“On the day that I was born Daddy sat down and cried
I had the mark just as plain as day, I could not be denied
They say that Cain caught Abel rolling loaded dice
Ace of spades behind his ear and him not thinking twice”
A sunshine orange blotter stagelight backlit guitarist Keith Sennikoff’s opening chord progression, and although lyrically star-crossed at the outset, DeadEye transcended that premise with the major key refrain following the final chorus. It’s a visceral crescendo with a cathartic peak, and the band herded us across the lazy Rio Grand-eo River with exuberance. Whether in myth or in song, there always seems to be liberation on the far shore, and this was no exception.
“Half step, Mississippi uptown toodleloo
Hello baby I’m gone goodbye
Half a cup of rock and rye
Farewell to you old southern skies
I’m on my way, on my way
Across the Rio Grand-eo
Across the lazy river”
Covers were always welcome in Grateful Dead sets, and following the opener, the fellas dove head first into the meta with their rendition of “Me and My Uncle”. Originally written by John Phillips but often confused as a Grateful Dead original, it tells a story of whiskey, gambling and gold fever gone awry in the old West. Add those to the list of lifestyle choices that tend to cut one’s time short.
It didn’t take too long to appreciate not only DeadEye’s collective musicianship but also their vocal chops. Drummer Shadd Scott, lead guitarist Joe Faulhaber and keyboardist Trevor Nealon have an uncanny ability to mimic Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia. Scott handled the Bobby numbers, while Faulhaber sang Jerry’s material. Nealon snuck in there with some nice harmonies and the lead on “Cassidy”.
“Mexicali Blues” followed, and in case you’re not familiar with it, the song speaks of hard drinking and a romance between the narrator and a fourteen year old girl. It ends with murder and the kind of exodus that only the likes of OJ Simpson can truly appreciate. Go ahead and file that one in the optics that didn’t age well folder. It’s a helluva rowdy outlaw number though.
Well lathered, the band charged into the aforementioned “Cassidy”, a Weir tribute piece to Neal Cassady, the supercharged octopus of Beat Generation consciousness. Legend has it that he could drive a bus packed with hippie freaks through rush hour traffic with one hand on the wheel, roll a joint with the other and carry on a half dozen conversations without dropping the proverbial ball.
The song ain’t too shabby either, and DeadEye treated the crowd to an energetic jam before snapping back to the composed ending and striking the first lick of “Tennessee Jed”. Originally written by Robert Hunter while rat-arsed on red wine in Barcelona, Spain, the song borrows its title from a 1940’s radio program. It’s steeped in Americana and features a down on his luck narrator shackled to a ball and chain and longing for home. We’ve all been there, right?
Marty Robbins’ “El Paso”, another ode to hard living and lust leading to death in the desert, followed.
“Loose Lucy”, “Lazy Lightning >Supplication” and “Deal”, another raucous ditty about easy money, closed the set. Scott shuffled it in with a groovy, danceable beat, and, before we knew it, the whole damn song structure had been set ablaze by an incendiary Faulhaber guitar solo, which damn near did burn off all our little ears.
Downing a much needed cold Lone Star during the break that followed I reviewed my setlist notes and was reminded that, for a bunch of ostensibly peace loving hippies, the Grateful Dead sure as hell didn’t shy away from the dark underbelly of a morally questionable narrative.
DeadEye abandoned the rounders and rogues that populated the first set and started the second half of the festivities with “Uncle John’s Band”. A lovely folk song at its core, the electric incarnation always has oomph, but they didn’t take it to the outer limits of space and time. The jam was concise and fed nicely into “Greatest Story Ever Told”.
Replete with biblical imagery, it’s a high octane banger that featured Scott on lead vocals and drums, which seemed like an impossible task. He crushed it, and the groove tested everyone’s commitment to socially distanced table seating. I mean for fuck sake, as long as conspiracy theories are running rampant, why not posit that the pandemic is nothing more than a theocratic plot to ban dancing? Footloose, anybody? Eye roll. Of course not. But maybe. In any case, 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered as the year of the left-handed monkey wrench.
For what it’s worth, a lumberjack of a bouncer had words with one rambunctious matchstick, but the socially distanced crowd behaved itself for the most part as far as I could tell.
“Reuben and Cherise” turned some heads with its heartbreaking narrative of lovers plagued by doubt and the temptations of a sultry siren named Ruby. It’s generally associated with Jerry Garcia Band shows and featured some great wah pedal work glazed with tasty synth licks.
Plot spoiler: Cherise dies at the end of the song, and it was just about then that DeadEye set the gear shift to the high gear of their collective musical soul.
“Dancin’ In The Streets” wove some funky disco threads into the sonic tapestry, and spilled its banks into the extended highlight of the evening. Beginning with the bluesy psychedelia of “Cryptical Envelopment”, Scott moved into “The Other One” with some aggressive kit work, and bassist Lee Braverman didn’t waste any time dropping dirty thunder from his red, hollow body axe.
Good ol’ fashioned electric chaos fueled it from the start, and after spiraling upwards on the rails of a psychedelic double helix, the jam dissolved into the delicate melody of “Stella Blue”. Musically wistful and dripping with warmth, Faulhaber delivered the woebegone lyrics with aplomb.
Having eviscerated both the bridge and the solo, the band moved back into “The Other One” and “Cryptical Envelopment” to bookend a monster sequence. “One More Saturday Night” closed the set and “U.S. Blues” made an appearance for the encore.
Stepping into the shoes of artistic giants requires a metric fuck ton of moxie, and tribute bands are a dicey endeavor with a beggar’s eyelash thin margin of error. It’s largely nostalgia and can be excruciatingly saccharine, but when it’s done well, and DeadEye does it exceptionally well, it propels us forward. It not only reminds us of where we’ve been, it inspires us to keep going. And that, my friends, is exactly what we need these days.
Get your ass to a show; it’s fucking church, yo.
I. Half Step
Me & My Uncle >
So Many Roads
Lazy Lightning >
II. Uncle John’s Band >
Greatest Story Ever Told
Reuben and Cherise >
Dancin’ In the Streets
Cryptical Envelopment >
The Other One >
Stella Blue >
The Other One >
Cryptical Envelopment >
One More Saturday Night
E: U. S. Blues