Paul Liberatore’s Lib at Large: Jerry Garcia tribute band makes Marin debut after two years on the road

On their first visit to the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, Mik Bondy and Kat Walkerson, mainstays of the East Coast tribute band the Garcia Project, had what Deadheads might call a quasi-religious experience.

They had eaten lunch on the Sweetwater cafe’s patio and were strumming a guitar and hanging out with rock photographer Jay Blakesberg when Bob Weir, one of the Grateful Dead’s famed “core four,” pulled up in his Tesla, stepped out of the car and headed inside the club for a photo shoot.

Startled by the sudden appearance of one of their musical heroes, they managed to eke out a quick hello and a thank you before having to pinch themselves, making sure they hadn’t died and gone to Deadhead heaven.

“There’s a magical feel here,” Walkerson, the band’s female singer, said on a return visit to Sweetwater a couple of days later. “Maybe it’s just the excitement of knowing that this is where the music came from.”

She, Bondy and the other members of the Garcia Project, a cover band that specializes in re-creating Jerry Garcia Band shows from the 1970s to the 1990s, will make their Sweetwater debut Feb. 27.

“There are a few Garcia tribute bands, but I think we were one of the first,” Bondy, the Garcia Project’s lead guitarist and singer, said in the early afternoon quiet of the empty music hall. “Jerry liked the Motown stuff that I love, like ‘Second that Emotion.’ He’d play a few gospel songs — ‘Ride Mighty High,’ I’ll be With Thee’ — and tunes like ‘Moonlight Mile’ and ‘I Want to Tell You.’ They were mostly cover songs that Jerry did his thing with. So some people have joked, ‘Oh, you guys are a cover band of a cover band.’ But it’s beautiful that everybody can share these songs. It’s our folk music.”

Between Grateful Dead tours, Garcia, the Dead’s charismatic lead guitarist and de facto paterfamilias, found an outlet for his varied musical tastes and interests in the Jerry Garcia band, forming it in 1975 with bassist John Kahn. It became the most prominent of all his various side projects.

Asked to describe the difference between Garcia’s two bands, Walkerson said, “The Grateful Dead were like Saturday night and the Garcia Band was like Sunday morning.”

On the East Coast, Bondy and Walkerson have performed occasionally with JGB, the renamed Garcia Band that keyboardist Melvin Seals kept alive after Garcia’s death in 1995. But the upcoming Sweetwater show is their true dream gig, the culmination of a long and winding musical pilgrimage. Two years ago, they left their upstate New York home and began rolling across America in a well-appointed RV, visiting other Grateful Dead tribute bands in other parts of the country. Since there are more than 300 of them in the U.S., according to gratefuldeadtributebands.com, they were never short of places to stop along the way.

“We kind of knew some of the bands through social media, but it’s a whole other experience to go into different towns and hear Grateful Dead music played in different dialects and interpretations,” Bondy says. “We went to Virginia to visit the Kind, for example, a band that’s been playing Grateful Dead songs for 25 years. We went to Florida and played with Crazy Fingers and Uncle John’s Band. We just floated in and out of each scene.”

Two years is a long time to be on the road, so it’s only fitting that the Garcia Project’s signature song is “Lonesome and a Long Way from Home.” But the best cure for homesickness for this couple has been seeking out and finding like-minded souls in the Grateful Dead’s remarkably enduring subculture.

“Wherever we go we can look up Grateful Dead tribute bands and find our community,” Walkerson said. “Wherever we go we can find our tribe.”

Like most card-carrying Deadheads, Bondy and Walkerson, both in their 40s, remember their first Grateful Dead show.

“Mine was Foxborough (Massachusetts), 1989,” she said.

His was in 1987 at Silver Stadium in Rochester, New York.

“The band was just part of the attraction. It was the people, too,” he recalled. “For me, life was always better in the Grateful Dead scene than it was outside of it. As a kid, I thought, ‘This is not like it is in regular life. People are being nice to each other. They’re smiling.’ The whole thing sucked me in and never let go.”

Eventually, though, he found a new musical obsession.

“I jokingly said to one of my friends, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to go to a Grateful Dead concert and hear only Jerry Garcia songs?’ he said. “My friend said, ‘So why don’t you go see the Jerry Garcia Band?’ I said, ‘There’s a Jerry Garcia Band?’ I spent most of my time after that going to Garcia Band shows.”

Five years ago, he formed the Garcia Project.

“I had this idea that I wanted to play the Garcia Band’s music because I didn’t think anyone was doing it,” he said. “It was so special to me I wanted to do it justice. Jerry’s guitar tone hooked me into the music, and once I had a taste of it, I had to have as much as I could get.”

Bondy, a tall man with long, straight brown hair and beard, plays a replica of Garcia’s famous Tiger guitar, and uses electronics and amplifiers similar to the gear Garcia used. But he has never been a slave to his idol’s distinctive style. He’s looking to re-create something less tangible.

“I never wanted to learn passages exactly like the recordings,” he said. “I think we can grab the essence of a show without trying to duplicate it. It’s the feeling you got at a Jerry Band show. That’s what we’re trying to bring back.”

Apparently, they’ve been pretty good at that. Jim Gilbert of UpstateLive.com says, “In order for a tribute band to be successful, fans need to look at them as the authority on the artist they are emulating. The Garcia Project pulls it off effortlessly.”

When they aren’t performing with the Garcia Project, Bondy and Walkerson play acoustic shows as a duo, covering Garcia Band and Grateful Dead tunes.

“The music came from here and went all the way to the East Coast and affected us,” he said. “Now we’re coming to the West Coast with what we’ve done with the music. It’s like a wave.”

by Paul Liberatore