Like a lot of people on this planet, Steve Dawson has a complicated relationship with the Grateful Dead.
“They’re very polarizing in my own head,” says the musician and producer, speaking from his home in Nashville. “It’s like I have this thing where sometimes I just can’t even turn it on because it drives me crazy. But then other times, I love it. I don’t know why.”
It’s maybe a complicated relationship for a guy who’s spearheading the American Beauties project, covering songs from the Dead’s classic 1970 album American Beauty—along with a handful of others from the band’s songbook—and headlining this year’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival.
Then again, the Dead is a complicated band. This is a group of scruffy hippies that unwittingly reached their commercial peak in the ’90s, long after they’d hit their creative zenith in the ’70s. The group sold out football stadiums during that time, playing renditions of songs that could stretch well past the 15-minute mark. The Dead was both wholly unmarketable and wildly popular—until Jerry Garcia died in 1995 and the band’s music, and its legion of devoted Deadheads, went underground.
And yet, the band’s music is currently experiencing a sustained cultural renaissance. Dead & Company, which features John Mayer alongside original members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, is currently on its final tour after seven successful years reviving the live Dead experience for old heads, and turning on a whole generation of new ones. Meanwhile, streaming has made the group’s vast archive more accessible than ever, as basketball players, pop stars, and major retailers tout fashionable Dead merch.
But Dawson says none of this factored into his decision to tackle American Beauty. Each year, he assembles a house band of Vancouver musicians and brings in guest artists for a one-night performance at the Kay Meek Arts Centre in West Vancouver, covering a classic album or a collection of songs from a renowned artist: David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits.
“I pick these albums every year based on what I think would be an interesting project rather than how much I love that particular album,” Dawson says.
The Dead is renowned (and derided) for lengthy jams, but at the centre of all of that are tightly crafted songs—thoughtful, lyrical, and often achingly beautiful. American Beauty stands as the band’s most celebrated collection of recorded songs, featuring some of the Dead’s best-known material, including “Truckin’ ”, “Friend of the Devil”, and “Ripple”. Dawson says these aren’t all the Dead’s best songs, but the list stands as the band’s best collection from front to back.
“They’re weird songs, they’re unusually composed. The harmonies are interesting, the chord structures are interesting,” Dawson says. “In this case, I saw that collection of songs as being a really good collection of songs to interpret. And I sort of handpick people that I thought could relate to the material, but also do it in their own way.”
The band this year includes Dawson alongside Jim Byrnes, Rich Hope, Maya de Vitry, and Ruth Moody, among others—all of whom will be performing their own sets at this year’s Folk Festival—as well as a backing band of Vancouver musicians. The performance will explore and build on the various styles and influences that the Dead encompassed: folk, funk, bluegrass, and, of course, some weird jammy moments.
“I think we kind of manage to harness the spirit of the band. But I’m very careful with the wording of what we’re doing there because I understand that, on the surface, somebody’s going to look at that and say, ‘Oh, it’s a Grateful Dead tribute band.’ We’re not trying to do that,” Dawson says.
“I’m not saying we’re doing it any better or worse. I’m just saying it’s a different experience from seeing the Dead or Dead & Co. or whatever, where we’re not really trying to do the same thing. So all we’re bringing along is the songs themselves, and they’re so good that I just think it’s a really interesting show.”