BEVERLY – Perhaps because of their name, the Grateful Dead have long been a misunderstood band. But the group, which remained together for 30 years before lead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, became one of America’s most successful acts because of its diverse blend of bluegrass, country, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
Gary Barth first heard the Dead in the 1980s when he was a student at Fitchburg State. A talented guitarist, he had honed his skills as a teen while growing up in Beverly – playing everything from the Beatles to Van Halen. But the Dead sounded nothing like the Beatles, and in July of 1989 he decided it was time to experience the Dead live. So he drove down to Foxborough to attend his first show.
“There is so much about the Dead’s music that I find compelling, especially the different musical influences that they all brought to the table and how that ultimately led to such a broad and diverse catalog of music,” said Barth, who had his bar mitzvah at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly and graduated from Beverly High School.
Fast forward to 2003. Barth was at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, where he still works as operations manager. Another guitarist, Brian Stormwind, who grew up in a Jewish household in Far Rockaway, N.Y., invited him to sit in with his Grateful Dead tribute band. In 2005, they formed DeadBeat, which also includes keyboard player and Beverly native Jason Cohen. On March 8, the Dead tribute band will return to downtown Beverly and perform at 9 Wallis.
Barth, who plays rhythm guitar and sings harmonies, is part of a coterie of American musicians who have dedicated their professional music careers to keeping the Dead’s vast roster of songs alive. Some, like the Dark Star Orchestra, have developed a loyal following across the country with co-founder John Kadlecik moving on to play with former Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Others, like Barth’s band DeadBeat, play about 20 gigs a year – mostly in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and have a list of about 100 Dead tunes they perform.
“I think the thing that has always fascinated me most when going to Dead shows was wondering what’s lurking around the next corner,” said Barth, who is 49 and married with two grown daughters. “This could be within a song itself – the feel of the jam that particular night – or what song was going to follow it.”
DeadBeat’s typical show is around three hours, with the group weaving through 20 to 25 songs. When the band plays two consecutive shows they draw up a new setlist and are careful not to include songs from the night before. Barth’s favorite Dead songs to play seem to be a microcosm of the band’s expansive collection – merging bluegrass, country, jazz and rock. “It is so hard to pinpoint favorite songs to play,” he said, “sometimes that can be based on what is feeling really good on a given night. But on the whole, ‘China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider,’ ‘Eyes of the World,’ ‘Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,’ ‘The Music Never Stopped,’ and ‘Terrapin Station’ are a handful that come to mind.”
Barth, whose parents Richard and Sheila still reside in Beverly, believes that a sense of community has drawn many Jews to connect to the Dead. “It is interesting how many Jewish Deadheads there are,” he said. “I’ve never really stopped to think about why that may be, but I’d venture to say it exists on a communal/tribal level … that feeling of being part of a community that is defined not by geography but by a shared belief and love in something that is somewhat beyond description.”