Deadheads Break Bread at Gateway

Aug 10, 2016
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Jerry Garcia was one of those artists, like George Clinton or Levon Helm, who created not just a band, but a structure, a musical family system that outlived the patriarch. More than 20 years after Garcia’s death, there are still Deadheads, still jam bands, still colorful vinyl bears dancing across the rear windshields of sedans all across the United States. These cultural icons, unlike the man who created them, are immortal.The legacy of Jerry Garcia and of The Grateful Dead was alive and well last Friday night when Alligator played at The Gateway Restaurant and Lounge in Ship Bottom.

But the people on stage Friday at The Gateway were not, strictly speaking, part of an established band called “Alligator.” That was simply their moniker that night. In truth, Alligator is just one incarnation of The Penque-Diomede Band, the incarnation that plays songs that Jerry Garcia performed during his career. So on Friday night, performing as Alligator, the band played mostly Grateful Dead covers but also such so’ngs as “Second that Emotion” and “Tangled Up in Blue” that Garcia recorded during his 30-plus-year musical career.

Mark Diomede, known for his work in The Juggling Suns Project, played guitar and sang vocals. Ron Penque, the longtime bassist for Garcia’s one-time band New Riders of the Purple Sage, played bass and sang vocals. Kevin Johnson played drums, Andrew Kvortek played the keyboard, and Tim Morris played guitar and sang vocals. All of these musicians are veterans of the jam band scene, and all have played together many times. Now, the preparation for gigs like the one at the Gateway comes down to an hour before the show when they decide what they do or do not feel like playing, said Morris.

Though the songs were recognizable covers, the long periods of improvisation built into them (usually between the hook and the bridge) made the whole experience unique. Johnson, a soft-spoken drummer who wore wire-rimmed glasses and a pointy beard, pointed out that these improvisational breaks come from the jazz tradition in the United States.

“We’re like a jazz ensemble,” agreed Morris. “You’re constantly interacting with people. Constantly listening, constantly doing all these things that open up your spirit.”

Exploring the connection between jazz and “jam” music, Penque said, “With Grateful Dead music and ‘jam band’ music, there’s usually a structure of the song, a basic structure and how it’s supposed to go. Of course, we follow, that but then there’s the improv. That’s within these structured borders, and sometimes those borders get blown up and thrown away.”

“Or we forget them,” added Diomede.

Randy Jackson, a fan in attendance who saw The Grateful Dead 88 times and now goes to just about every show Diomede and Penque play, said that improvisation on stage is what draws people to jam bands, and what drew them to The Grateful Dead. “In one year they’d play 120 different songs. I saw the Dead 10 nights in a row, and every night was a completely different show.”

Not that it’s a competition, but Jackson’s 88 shows did not make him the deadest head in the room. Nick Van Zile of Manahawkin toured with the Dead for 10 years starting when he was 16 years old. During that time he made tie-dyes for the band, sold posters at their concerts and saw them perform over 700 times.

Van Zile said of Alligator that “Ronnie is a real deadhead,” and that when he was young, “Mark looked exactly like Jerry.” He said he watches the two of them play whenever he can because “it’s not just a regular bar band. As far as talent is concerned, if it were any better, you’d have to pay a whole lot for it.”

Penque is glad to be working with Diomede, saying, “We feel like brothers. I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. And I’ve always wanted to play with him, and now we’re doing it. It’s like getting hit in the head with a good brick – a brick whose name is Mark.” Penque described The Penque-Diomede Band as “a new thing we’re trying where we’re playing some of Mark’s originals, and mixing them up with my originals. It’s blowing up on the festival scene.”

Penque and Diomede did not come together out of nowhere. Far from it. After 40 years as professional musicians playing on parallel paths on the jam band circuit, Diomede said of his relationship with Penque, “One of the things that pulled us together is that we both have the history of the Grateful Dead in our music, but we also write our own music as well. So we’re trying to squeak it in so we can turn it into an original scene.”

Penque said the Penque-Diomede Band is “what we’re really putting our heart and energy in.” As full-time professional musicians, “we get hired to do the Grateful Dead covers, and we gotta pay the bills.” He added, “When we do Alligator, it’s like we’re putting on our cover band face. But really we pride ourselves on our original music.” Still, “we love the Grateful Dead, and we can do it as good or better than anybody out there. That’s really our story in a nutshell.”

But the truest deadhead in the room had to be keyboardist Kvortek, who slammed his head into the PA system on his way onto the stage. By intermission, Kvortek was bleeding freely from a gash on his skull that was shaped like the lightening bolt on the cover of the Dead’s 1976 live double album Steal your Face. But Kvortek was all smiles, and the wound did not hurt his performance at all. In fact, one of the highlights of the show was when Kvortek took the lead on a three-minute solo, his hands rolling over the keys like a wave, everyone in the band looking to him, the keyboardist, for leadership and direction.

Jerry would’ve been proud.

Alligator will return to The Gateway to carry on Jerry’s legacy on Friday, Sept. 2.

— Tim Hone

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