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The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

The Student Voice of UNC Asheville

The Blue Banner

A further dive into Asheville’s Grateful Dead scene

A can of food, located directly next to attendees of an Asheville Billy Strings show, Feb. 16, 2023.
A can of food, located directly next to attendees of an Asheville Billy Strings show, Feb. 16, 2023.

Before he runs to the stage, he shares Friday night’s plan, involving the consumption of mushrooms and Cosmic Charlie’s music. 

“Best song ever written? Stairway to Heaven. Two, Freebird. Then, Sugaree,” James Madden, 59, said, as Jerry’s Dead played at the French Broad River Brewery, where they play every Thursday, on Feb. 29. 

Both Cosmic Charlie and Jerry’s Dead are Grateful Dead cover bands in Asheville. There are six in total. Two nights prior, the Grateful Family Band played at One World Brewing, where they play every Tuesday, in West Asheville. The next night, Madden celebrated his 59th birthday with a Red Lobster dinner, as is tradition for Madden’s birthdays. Madden, nicknamed “J.J,” goes to two or three Grateful Dead cover band shows a week. He has seen the actual Grateful Dead 633 times, he says. According to Madden, by complete happenstance, he has seen comedian George Carlin four times, each time on his birthday.

“At the end of May, we’re going to the Dark Star Jubilee in Ohio,” Madden said. 

At the Grateful Family Band show, on Feb. 27, still 58, Madden sports socks and sandals accompanied by brown corduroys. His dog, Daisy, adopted from a shelter nearly seven years ago, wears a Grateful Dead-themed collar. Madden’s wife, Amy, sits on the deck outback, playing Pokémon Go, a game they both play. They met at an Orange Peel show in 2007, she says. Amongst them, is Tony, a friend of Madden’s whom he met on the road sometime between 1981 and ‘83, following the Grateful Dead. Now, Tony lives in Cape Cod. He hasn’t seen Madden in over a decade. He wears New Balance sneakers, jeans and a Patagonia jacket. He shares a deep appreciation for crochet while smoking a joint. It’s not as good as the stuff he grows at home, he says. Madden, in between playing alongside the band with his Guitar Hero guitar, shares details about his extensive action figure collection, featuring every single muppet character. After being asked who his favorite muppet is, he answers by pulling his pants down to reveal underwear with the face of Animal, the drummer of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, with distinct red fur. 

“We did about 20 Dead & Company shows. I’ve seen Bob Weir hundreds of times. Phil Lesh and Friends and Dark Star Orchestra. I come here and see these guys. On Thursday we go and see Jerry’s Dead,” Madden said.

On Thursday, upon hearing the tune of “Sugaree,” played by Jerry’s Dead, Madden places down his water cup and runs over to the stage to play his Guitar Hero. Blue Billy, a My Pet Monster doll purchased from Spencer’s in Hampton, Virginia accompanies Madden, slumping over a bar table, three empty beer glasses to his left. Blue Billy watches the attendees’ feet through blue pupils and yellow sclera, attentive to the few who chose not to wear shoes. Across the room, is the bar, where three TVs hover above the patrons heads. The farthest left TV plays the cooking channel, the middle ESPN and the furthest right TV plays golf, Sepp Straka on the green. Near Blue Billy, a man named Daniel Wilkes, 44, wears a ponytail, green T-shirt and hoodie. Originally from Alabama, he went to high school in Charlotte and attended Appalachian State University. He leans in and asks: “Do you like the herb?” His earliest Grateful Dead memory was watching the Touch Of Gray music video on MTV, around the age of 8-years-old, he says. 

“They were great musicians and pioneers in their field for sure,” Wilkes said. 

Five tapestries line the walls directly above the stage. The first is of a psychedelic spiral, a mandala tapestry, a symbol of the universe in Buddhism and Hinduism, created to organize structures of life. According to an article by Meditation Magazine, mandalas, or circles in Sanskrit, represent fullness, wholeness and infinity. They reflect a spiritual journey, beginning from a mandala’s outer layers into its inner layers, reflected in the circular, winding pattern. On the stage inside, following the show, as they began to pack up their equipment, are Jerry’s Dead members Tim Marsh, guitarist, and Gus Vigo, keyboardist. They are founding members. 

“Since the beginning,” Vigo said. “I’ve got a Phish project I do. Big Grateful Dead fan, big Phish fan, big Bruce Hornsby fan. He’s a big influence on the stuff I do.” 

Marsh, standing on the other side of the keyboard, gave their perspective, in addition to their influences, on the Grateful Dead, which began when he was a teenager, he says.

“Many many years. They blended all of the styles they were into,” Marsh said. “I like a lot of acoustic music and jazz. I try to listen to all the things the Grateful Dead listened to. Have a good time. Enjoy yourself.” 

Second to the mandala is a tapestry featuring an intricate line and swirl pattern. From behind the tapestry shines an LED Steal Your Face skull, visible through the fabric, made up of a blue lightning bolt, white skull and a surrounding red circle. The third tapestry, from left to right, features another mandala. Wilkes sits on a picnic table outside, on the brewery’s porch. 

“I’m a fan, but not an expert,” Wilkes said. “I hope for them to be remembered and listened to.”

The fourth tapestry is of an image featured on a Grateful Dead poster for shows at Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, the home of the Grateful Dead, from Sept. 16 and 17, 1966. At the Heritage Music Memorabilia Signature Auction in April of 2020, an original print of the poster sold for $137,500, setting a record. According to Rolling Stone, the art is titled “A Skeleton Amid Roses,” and was taken from a collection of 11th century poems, titled The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a Persian writer. The particular edition, from 1913, included illustrations from British artist Edmund Joseph. The original drawing displays a skeleton in a field of roses, with a crown atop its head. In 1966, two San Francisco-based artists, Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley found the collection whilst searching for creative inspiration in the San Francisco Public Library. Due to the collection’s expensive value, making it unavailable for checkout, the duo stole the image, cutting it out with a knife. The image was later copied and colored, creating the poster. The fifth and last tapestry features a Steal Your Face skull floating above a landscape featuring a vibrant river, surrounded by green treetops. Reflected in the water are the bright pinks, reds, oranges and blues of the sky, mountains and the floating skull. Madden jokes to Amy, referencing the tapestry.

 “Can I have that in my room?” Madden asked.

To the stage’s left is a table, draped with a black tablecloth. On the table are 24 pieces of glass, intended to be smoked out of. To the table’s left is another, selling jewelry. At the brewery’s merch stand, a beanie costs $25. Above the glass pipe table is an art piece portraying a glow in the dark turtle playing a banjo. In the upper right hand corner of the piece, another turtle plays a tambourine. In the upper left hand corner is, once again, a Steal Your Face skull, functioning as a moon. On the other side of the room, on a wall are four wrestler-style belts. One of them is located directly above a plaque, an award gifted by the Asheville Media Group, reading: “Best of Asheville 2021, voted best Trivia Night.” On the belt located directly above the award, are several attached items. A Bart Simpson action figure, a Durex condom, a sticker displaying President Joe Biden eating an ice cream cone, four polaroid pictures, two UNO cards placed next to one another, the first being a six and the second being a nine and a Progress Pride flag sticker, with an automatic weapon above it, with text reading: “Defend Equality.” 

“Look past what you might think of them, because of your first, initial experiences with them,” Wilkes said. “Don’t look at the bad things, look at what they did and what they were really doing.” 

A couple of weeks before both cover band shows, Billy Strings, a bluegrass musician, played in Asheville on Feb. 16, 17 and 18, every night of the weekend. Outside of Harrah’s Cherokee Center, along the sidewalk, the event’s attendees lined up, anticipating the show, creating a collage of bright tie dye. As both the line and volume grew, a man sleeping on the sidewalk moved, due to the increasing presence and noise. Grabbing all of his belongings, he left behind a half-empty can of food. Some sort of soup or chili. Some of the line’s members brought lawn chairs, blankets and the less prepared sat on the concrete. While many wore Billy Strings apparel, dozens wore Grateful Dead-themed clothing, featuring turtles, bears and skulls. Billy Strings himself used to cover Grateful Dead songs at shows, but in an Instagram comment on a post pertaining to one of his concerts, he responded to a fan asking why he stopped playing Grateful Dead songs at shows. Strings commented: “Too many pigs on the teet. There are so many bands trying to suckle off the Dead. I’ll leave that to them.”

The pungent smell of marijuana radiated through the air. One man used an online payment service to purchase mushrooms, which he placed in his jacket pocket for later use. Another man, Jason, from McCall, Idaho, sat on a blanket, passing around a device used to inhale nitrous oxide, or “gas.” According to Jason, he has seen Billy Strings just under 50 times. In regards to the gas, he says he would rather not provide a comment. 

“You should just come and check it out. Great people, great scene. Be on the wind,” Jason said. “Tie dye is just part of the scene. It’s just part of the hippie scene. It’s creative, right? It brings good energy.”

Several members of the line wear painted clothespins, corresponding to the number of shows they’ve attended, most listing the date of the attended show. From up the road, walks XavierTheArtist, 22, a musician, originally from Charlotte and an Asheville resident of three months. Xavier wears purple and red Jordan 4 Retro Raptors, a red, silky undershirt, tie, scarf and an acoustic guitar across his torso, chords filling the open air. What brought them out to the Billy Strings show? Coincidence, Xavier says. 

“I’m an artist from Charlotte, N.C. I make art in all types of ways. I paint and draw, but I make music too. I got 15 to 20 albums right now on all platforms. I didn’t know they were Billy Strings fans. This lady told me to come over here and play music, so I said OK. The lady right there in the colorful outfit,” Xavier said, as the lady walked past. 

Xavier asked for her name. The lady kindly responded. 

“Debra,” she said. “What did you play for us? Is everybody being nice to you? I’m going to call you ‘X.’ I call my friend Xavier that.”

Xavier thanked Debra for the nickname, as she made her way down the sidewalk. According to Xavier, they grew up listening to a wide variety of music, from oldies to DMX. No Grateful Dead was referenced. Some of the music was introduced by their family while other music they found themself. Asheville, in regards to music, has a lot to offer, Xavier says, in addition to Savannah, Georgia, where they attended college. As Xavier played away, they acknowledged several local artists, as well as some from their college town. Up the sidewalk, closer to the venue’s entrance, Jason passed the gas to a nearby attendee. 

“Travis. He’s a singer all over Asheville. Reggie, he’s a great singer. There’s hella great singers I’ve been meeting in Asheville. I went to college in Savannah. Soul Tribe, they’re fire. My brother Genesis, TopOppGen, he’s from here too,” Xavier said. 

According to Xavier, the dynamic between subculture or mainstream status of music scenes are necessary and must coexist with one another. Some music must be more popular than others, so the smaller acts can be appreciated, on a smaller scale. 

“Subculture and mass-culture are really the same thing,” Xavier said. “You need both to get to the other.” 

Fast forward to Madden, on Feb. 30, Friday. In a few hours, Cosmic Charlie plays at Salvage Station. Madden stands on the front porch of his home smoking a cigar. Later that evening, he plans to ingest the mushrooms. The entire porch and exterior of the house is painted a lavender-esque purple, a job done by Madden himself. On a couch sits another My Pet Monster doll, a red one, far less tattered than Blue Billy. Inside, in the living room are several portraits of Jerry Garcia and other musicians. A bong rests on the floor. Star Wars plays on the TV. The Guitar Hero lies upon one of two sofas, one predominantly used by Amy, the other by J.J. A Grateful Dead ashtray resides on the coffee table. In Madden’s bedroom is the action figure collection, filling the spaces of all four walls. After asking his Amazon Alexa device to play the song “Drivin’ Wheel,” by David Bromberg, one of the musicians near Garcia featured on the wall, Madden admits to not yet venturing into the music of Billy Strings. He intends to, he says.  

For his birthday, two days prior, he was gifted action figures of the Blues Brothers and Clark Griswold from Christmas Vacation, mid-plugging in his Christmas lights. The Blues Brothers found their home in the music section, alongside two Jimi Hendrixes and a Paul McCartney. Directly above Madden’s pillow is the muppet collection, containing multiples of Animal, Beaker, Kermit, Statler, Waldorf, Gonzo and others. A “Weird Al” Yankovic Chia Pet watches over the room, placed amongst the muppets. Once again, Madden pantsed himself to reveal the Animal underwear. He did laundry earlier, he says. This is one of many duties of a “house husband,” a title he fondly refers to himself by. On the other three walls are a seemingly infinite array of characters, some from “Army of Darkness,” “The Terminator,” “Halloween,” “Child’s Play,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Lord Of The Rings,” although there are many more. Next to a fish tank containing characters from Alien vs. Predator are Jay and Silent Bob, Jay to the left, Bob to the right. Directly outside his room, on the wall are two sets of Cheech and Chong, one above the other. On the porch, Madden puffs on the cigar’s plastic tip.  

“I had a friend of mine die in my arms of a heroin overdose. My best friend. The paramedics didn’t get there in time. That’s one thing. I’m a heroin addict, I’ve just never done it. It doesn’t make sense, does it? I’m an escape artist, be it music, movies, collecting things,” Madden said, at One World Brewing on Jan. 30.  “Heroin is the ultimate escape. If I do it, I won’t want to come back. I’ve lost a lot of friends because of it. I won’t do it. A lot of people have died because of drugs. There’s a bad stigma. Hopefully they legalize this stuff so there won’t be that. It would be safer.”

The following week, on March 5, Madden played alongside the Grateful Family Band, once again, Guitar Hero in his hands. Two nights prior, on Sunday, at The One Stop at Asheville Music Hall, the last Shakedown Sunday took place. According to a March 5 article by Andy Hall, a reporter with Mountain Xpress for nearly five years and the food, arts & culture writer at the weekly paper. Local musicians would come out and play Grateful Dead covers, making it a popular event amongst Asheville’s Deadheads, Hall wrote. As you walk in the front entrance, on last Shakedown Sunday night, a man wearing a Beach Boys shirt and hat reading: “Small Dick, Big Dreams,” asks for identification. Upon telling him you are underage, he draws two big “X’s” on each hand. He informs the bartender, who wears a beanie with small horns popping out the front, of your presence, suggesting no matter what, do not serve you alcohol. 

“Oooh, child! Hm. OK, so, I grew up with bluegrass. I love it. Many of my best friends and family are bluegrass pickers, including one who used to be in Strings’ band. In fact, most of my friends played with him before he hit the big time. Some still do, my roommate, Lyndsay Pruett, played with him on Sunday at Asheville Music Hall when he was here,” Hall said. “She plays with Jon Stickley Trio.” 

Hall, over email, shared their knowledge, perspectives and insight of the Grateful Dead and its presence in the Asheville area, a topic they have reported on throughout their journalistic career, beginning at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. There, they graduated from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

“Boone used to be the hippie hotspot. Slowly but surely over the years, the hippies started migrating to Asheville. When Jerry died, they needed a place to go. Asheville has always been a music town, and has the nature of the surrounding mountains so hippies started moving here in droves,” Hall said. “Now the music scene has exploded and word has gotten out. I have never seen a larger Dead community on the East Coast. And it seems like a new Dead cover band pops up or comes through every week.”

Following graduation, Hall worked in planning special events in The U.S. National Archives, The Kennedy Center and the U.S. Capitol. After 15 years, however, they were tired, they wrote. Hall moved to Asheville due to its mountains, cities, and friends and family who have lived there. During the pandemic, they became a writer for the Mountain Xpress. Their dreams had come true.

“I was born in Bangkok Thailand — my father was serving in the U.S. Army and was stationed there during the Vietnam War. He met my mother, a billboard model, and was married overseas, to the chagrin of my Southern, white, Baptist grandmother,” Hall said. “We moved to North Carolina when I was a year old. I grew up back and forth between a military upbringing in Fort Bragg and what some might think was a Mayberry upbringing in Mount Airy.”

At the last Shakedown Sunday show, one attendee wore a leather vest with a large Steal Your Face skull on the back. Below, stitched to the vest, is a patch of the  State of North Carolina. The western region is red, the east blue and in the middle, near The Triangle area, is a white lightning bolt. On the stage, amongst the players, are three animal toys, stuffed animals. They are a duck, a panda, and a Grateful Dead bear.

“My little sister actually liked them before I did! It was the 1980s, and MTV was playing their video for ‘Touch of Grey.’ I didn’t get ‘it’ until I went to college at Carolina. The Grateful Dead descended upon Chapel Hill in 1993, and it was all she wrote. I feel privileged to have seen Jerry Garcia with The Grateful Dead around a dozen times,” Hall said. “I got pit and backstage access to Phil and Friends and Allman Brothers shows in both Philly and NC for my project. It was incredible, and I thought I was the star of Almost Famous. This was when Warren Haynes was in Phil and Friends and the Allmans.”

The night began and the first song played was “Dead Flowers,” by the Rolling Stones. Hugs occurred. A man named Scott celebrated his birthday. The hips of a man with a white ponytail moved from left to right. A considerable amount of denim is worn on the legs of the Shakedown’s attendees. As 8:56 turned to 8:57 p.m, the four members of the band each took tequila shots. 

“So J.C. Juanis, the P.R. manager for Phil and Friends helped me out, and has inspired me to help others professionally as well. I am forever grateful, I have some signed photos of Phil and Warren, photos I took,” Hall said. 

Amongst dozens of stickers, a couple Steal Your Face skulls can be seen stuck on one of the building’s structural beams alongside a sticker for One World Brewing, where on Tuesday night, Madden spoke about Cosmic Charlie and his Sunday night, spent at another show, separate from Shakedown Sunday. While never attending a show, Hall says, they do enjoy Billy Strings’ music. 

“I caught the Dead toward the end. They have definitely evolved over time, from being Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions in 1965 to what some people still refer to as the Dead today – Dead and Co. I am not in that camp where I refuse to go to a Dead and Co. show but of course, it’s a little different than when Jerry was alive, but the spirit is there, and the music, and that’s the core,” Hall said. “I have never been to a Billy Strings show. I think he is talented. I like his music, but my goal is to understand the phenomenon of the Billy Goat.”

According to Hall, the Grateful Dead scene is ultimately about sharing songs with the kindest people in the world, dancing unabandoned. 

“The band changed members several times over the years and so their sound has evolved. I enjoyed seeing Dead and Co. and even started to like John Mayer with them. I may not listen to Dead and Co. when I am in a Grateful Dead mood at home or in my car, but I appreciate that the music and the vibe have been picked up by new generations. That’s pretty awesome. What other band can you name that’s done that?”

Inside, another birthday was celebrated, on Tuesday, March 5, where Madden shared details of his Sunday evening. 

“We didn’t go,” Madden said, referring to Cosmic Charlie. “I did end up shrooming on Sunday though.” 

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