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Dead Ahead

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bob Dylan, with 41 albums to his credit, should have no shortage of material tonight when he opens for former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

Dylan has plenty of history with the Dead. From the beginning, the Dead incorporated numerous Dylan songs in their set list, including “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” “Maggie’s Farm” and “All Along the Watchtower.” And Dylan reciprocated by covering Dead songs such as “Alabama Getaway” and “West L.A. Fadeaway.”

The first time Dylan and the Dead were on the same bill was at Golden Gate Park in 1975, but they have shared the stage sporadically ever since. In 1986, for example, Dylan did five shows with the Dead, with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers as his serious backup band. A Dylan & the Dead album came out in 1989.

The relationship has continued, even after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. Dylan and Lesh did a 17-city tour last year.

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“Last year, we played colleges--small places--and both Bob and I dug it,” Lesh said. “We got up and played songs with each other. It was great.”

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Despite wielding one of the mightiest pens in rock, on stage Dylan remains a man of few words, sometimes even less than that. At a show at the Santa Barbara Bowl a decade or so ago, Dylan concluded his encore with his only line of the night: “Thank you.”

Last month, Dylan received one of the world’s most prestigious music awards, the Polar Music Prize, bestowed by the Swedish Academy of Music. Dylan reportedly accepted his award and said nothing. Then again, no one is paying 37 bucks to hear him talk.

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And why is Dylan--a bigger name than Lesh--opening the show? It’s just fair, said Lesh publicist J.C. Juanis. Lesh opened for Dylan last year, so Dylan’s returning the favor.

This show should provide an answer to that pressing question: Where have all those Deadheads gone?

Did they all get haircuts, buy shoes, drop in and get real jobs? Who knows? One thing is clear: The longhairs show up wherever the descendants of the Dead are playing. Expect a tie-dyed contingent of swirling dancers to cover the high-banked oval that is the Ventura Raceway. The parking lot will undoubtedly contain many specimens of the world’s slowest land vehicle, the Volkswagen van, incomplete without a Grateful Dead sticker on the back window. What a long strange trip it remains.

Up in San Francisco in 1964, Garcia and Bob Weir were in a band called the Warlocks, which turned into the Grateful Dead, a 30-year pop phenomenon with a self-perpetuating fan base of Deadheads inspired by the band’s nonstop touring. The band’s success was based primarily on its live shows, with negligible help from radio, MTV or industry hype.

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“Originally, I started playing the violin, and later I was a trumpet player,” said Lesh, who joined the band in 1965. “One day, I was just hanging out, watching the Warlocks playing. Jerry knew I was a musician, so he asked me to join the band.”

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The Dead made its Ventura debut in 1982, attracting about 13,000 Deadheads and three cops to the county fairgrounds. Six years and a few local shows later, it was 13,000 cops and three Deadheads. Somehow, the Ventura City Council and the Ventura County Fair Board decided that these hippies were not the type of tourists desired by the Poinsettia City. The cops made the concert-goers at the final local Deadhead show feel like lepers, passing out numerous jaywalking tickets to the inappropriately dressed tourists.

Since Garcia died in 1995, the Deadheads have hooked up with other bands they could follow around, such as Phish, Widespread Panic and the Dave Matthews Band. These bands have the groove thing going, but Lesh has the genealogy. While not really a Grateful Dead show, Lesh will do several Dead songs to please Jerry’s kids, plus some new ones he has written.

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“I like a lot of Grateful Dead songs for a lot of different reasons,” Lesh said. “I’m working on three new songs, including a song I did a few times with the Dead, called ‘Childhood’s End.’ ”

Lesh has the band to pull off whatever appears on the set list. Robben Ford is an Ojai-based guitar god who has a resume longer than an entire section of this newspaper. Keyboard player Bill Payne and guitar player Paul Barrere are both members of Little Feat. Drummer John Molo is a founding member of Bruce Hornsby & the Range and has a long history of playing with Lesh.

“Paul and Billy played a few shows last year, then had to leave to go play with Little Feat, but they both promised to do it again,” Lesh said. “And what can you say about Robben Ford? These were musicians who were not immersed in the Grateful Dead context, and it took a little time to learn all the songs and get the spirit. You haven’t seen nothin’ yet.”

DETAILS

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Bob Dylan and Phil Lesh & Friends at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, 10 W. Harbor Blvd., 7 p.m. today; $37; 648-3376.

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The low-budget blues and country trio Spyder Blue will make a rare local appearance in the basement of the Hungry Hunter in Thousand Oaks on Saturday night. The band, based in the Valley and together for nearly a decade, includes Bruce Gains on guitar and vocals, David Fortin on stand-up bass and vocals, and, for the last two years, Steve Brooks on drums.

The trio has just released a new album, “Hard Drive” which will be on sale at the show. Says Fortin: “We play rhythm and blues with a country slant--edgy country. We don’t know quite how to market ourselves, but we play like crazy.”

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DETAILS

Spyder Blue at the Hungry Hunter, 487 N. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks, 9:30 p.m. Saturday; free; 497-3925.

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He may look like he fell out of a black-and-white ‘50s movie, but crooner Chris Isaak has the voice to go along with all that hair, creating an ingratiating presence that has made the Stockton singer a hit since his debut 15 years ago. One of the few singers who could actually do Roy Orbison stuff and better yet, pull it off, Isaak will headline a Sunday evening show at Santa Barbara County Bowl.

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This is the “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” tour as Isaak continues to work the song of the same name from the movie “Eyes Wide Shut.” Isaak’s seventh and latest effort is “Speak of the Devil.” His voice, one of the marvels of modern music, more than makes up for the same stale jokes he tells between tunes, and his suits are so colorful that patrons should wear protective eye wear.

Also on the bill is yet another of those rockin’ reverends, this one, the Reverend Horton Heat, purveyor of supercharged rockabilly music. Imagine country and punk cranked up to 10, enabling Heat to perhaps register on the Richter scale. Along those lines, but with less experience and an impeccable pedigree, comes Hank Williams III, a 20-something player with a punk rock background and a bunch of tattoos, but also known to croon some of his grandfather’s songs.

DETAILS

Chris Isaak, Rev. Horton Heat and Hank Williams III at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, 1122 Milpas St.; 6 p.m. Sunday; $41, $32 or $27; 962-7411.

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Bill Locey can be reached by e-mail at blocey@pacbell.net


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