On March 25, 1993, the Grateful Dead played in what is Mecca for most North Carolina sports fans, the Dean E. Smith Center. The venue was free to host the event as the Heels were on their way to a 1993 National Championship in New Orleans. Just over two years later, Jerry Garcia, the heralded front man for the Dead, would die of a heart attack, a result of a hard-fought battle with drugs and obesity. The death left a wake of “Dead Heads” wondering what would become of their band, their gatherings, and their community as a whole. Since then, the lyrics from one of the Dead’s more popularly-acclaimed tracks entitled “Truckin” is apt: “Oh what a long strange trip it’s been.”
On January 11, 2013, the Grateful Dead did not play the Dean E. Smith Center. However, the Dead Head community of Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and surrounding areas was out in full force at the Cat’s Cradle to attend Cosmic Charlie, a small cover band from Athens, Georgia. Cosmic Charlie provides the musical backdrop for what has become the smaller manifestations of the Grateful Dead community, and some of the youth who now populate said community. Thus, not only is the music being played on stage truly spectacular, but the family style celebratory attitude that embodies all in attendance is revelatory as well. There are very few bands or musical outfits that transcend generations the way that the Grateful Dead have done. Bands like Cosmic Charlie act as the vehicles for this transcendence.
Being an admitted Grateful Dead aficionado myself, I had seen Cosmic Charlie several times previous to this appearance at the Cradle. Unlike more well-known Dead cover masters Dark Star Orchestra, Cosmic Charlie does not play exact renditions of the songs, nor do they specifically stick to one Grateful Dead set list. They add in a little bit of their own flavor simply to display their own musical ideas, takes, and re-takes on the Grateful Dead’s.
This addition has always been one of the best features of their shows, and Friday’s show did not disappoint in that regard, as the band broke out the slide guitar early in the second set for “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” originally written by Bob Dylan. There has always been something strikingly homey about the slide guitar, and those chords twanged throughout the Dylan classic until its conclusion. The song is a somber number, and in traditional Dead fashion, Cosmic Charlie used it to bring the crowd low, only so they could pick them back up as the opening guitar licks of “Eyes of the World” began. Cosmic Charlie’s rendition of this tune was soothing to the soul, as each member of the group has great harmonious ability. Old Dead Heads in attendance closed their eyes perhaps to return them to yester-year, while the younger, more limber crowd danced and shook their bones. Having taken in a healthy helping of Pabst Blue Ribbon, I partook in the lively movements that from an outsider’s perspective could be reminiscent of some type of tribal ritual. In essence though, that is what a densely populated Cosmic Charlie show is.
For Dead Heads, any opportunity to see their favorite band’s music performed live is an event, whether it takes place on a relatively small scale like Friday at the Cat’s Cradle, or larger ones, as is the case when the aforementioned Dark Star Orchestra performs. These opportunities are very limited, since for the most part this music and those who follow it dwell in the belly of counter-culture throughout college towns like Chapel Hill. The music in its live performance has become a hard to locate commodity, since, after all, the original Grateful disbanded to some capacity following Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.
Therefore, when Cosmic Charlie rolls its high energy Dead show into town, the show becomes a reunion of sorts. Such a thing is beautiful to take in, as the elation of those in attendance is obvious simply in observation. The thirst for this music by its fans is unquenchable, and the performances are like an anticipatory page turning novel. Each note, as heavenly as it is delivered, can only ever dab the Dead Head’s appetite, never satisfy it completely. The conclusion of each song begs listeners only to wonder what is next. This is precisely where Cosmic Charlie excels — they provide enough of a degree of variance to really keep the attendee captivated.
The show specifically highlighted the band’s two complete drum sets, and in Grateful Dead style a lengthy drum solo broke out just after “Eyes of the World,” which saw each member of the band save for the drummers exit the stage. The dual drum solo placement (referred to as “Drums & Space” on set lists) ushered in a nice wind down to Cosmic Charlie’s first show of 2013.
As I gathered myself and exchanged salutations with fellow Dead family brethren, Cosmic Charlie captured the energy one last time as they appropriately broke out “The Music Never Stopped” before closing the show. The Cat’s Cradle has always done a wonderful job in booking and its scheduling, catering to the counter-culture populace that allows for the continuation of bands like Cosmic Charlie. Friday night was no different, as the venue played gracious host to the Chapel Hill/Carrboro chapter of Dead Heads. I left to watch the fans mysteriously disperse back into the night just as quickly as they had fused, leaving the naked eye of society largely blind to their existence. I returned home to soak in my latest dosage of live Grateful Dead spirit and music captured by Cosmic Charlie. The music will indeed truly never stop.
You can follow Charles on Twitter @This_Is_Bones