Grateful Dead tribute band breathes new life into classic music
The Grateful Dead created more than music or a musical idiom.
They fashioned a unique “place” that for many, veteran Philadelphia area musician Bob Stirner among them, can check in or out of whenever they want.
“It’s a place that is warm, glowing, fierce, intense, inspirational and comforting,” says Stirner, lead guitarist in Box of Rain, the nationally touring Dead tribute band.
“The best way for me to describe their music and what it has meant to me is that every single time I listen to them, particularly the 1970-1974 period, I hear something different or hear it in another way,” he says. ”It’s kind of like looking at a Renoir or drinking an old scotch.”
The Dead was a band, he adds, that created their own musical language, improvisationally and musically.
He is eager to share this expression, what he refers to as a labor of love, with yet another audience as Box of Rain makes its debut at the Lamp Theatre, Irwin, Sept. 22.
“We are quite stoked about playing the Lamp and meeting Pittsburgh’s resident Deadhead community,” says Stirner, who also is a member of the acclaimed Americana/Jam band Boris Garcia.
Box of Rain is a classic six-piece group that honors the most prolific and what many consider finest period of the Grateful Dead, 1968-1974. The song “Box of Rain” comes from the Dead’s 1970 “American Beauty” album, composed by bassist Phil Lesh and lyricist Robert Hunter. It became a crowd favorite at concerts.
Stirner’s tribute band features a revolving lineup with former members of Dark Star Orchestra, Living Earth, Zen Tricksters and Dead On Live.
There is nothing he does not find satisfying about interpreting this period of music. “It’s the messaging, the melodic complexity and the all-important improvisational components,” he explains.
Stamp of distinction
What gives Box of Rain, the band, its distinction, he believes, is the focus on the specific time period, which he considers the Dead’s most prolific and, in terms of improvisation, their most important time.
“Throw in six musicians who really ‘know’ this music and are able to truly channel it,” he says. “Listen, I have no illusions about being Jerry Garcia. But on my best day I am able to tap into his spirit, which is as much as I can ask.”
Box of Rain is the only Dead tribute of which he is aware that focuses on the late Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, one of the Dead’s founders, and the visceral nature of his presence. McKernan, who died in 1973 at the age of 27, was with the band from 1965 to 1972.
Snowball keeps rolling
Box of Rain’s audience ranges from ages 21 to 85, he says. “The snowball continues to roll and the newer generations are embracing it the same way I was when I was a kid,” Stirner says.
He views the opportunity to present this music as a gift.
“It’s second nature to us. We’re all blessed that we’re able to do this at all,” he says. “To be able to do it in front of folks and be able to make them smile is the real icing.”
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.