Dead Bank guitarist Jim Willis, left, and bassist Nash Aliaga at Jamian’s, where the band was conceived six years ago. A photo of the late Jerry Garcia has a place of honor on the stage. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
[UPDATE, July 7: Forecast of rain postpones tonight’s Dead Bank show at the Dublin House. The band’s 200th gig will instead be tomorrow night (Friday) at the Dub, weather permitting.]
By JOHN T. WARD
The band’s name, echoing a moniker for Red Bank at its economic low of the 1980s, doesn’t exactly thrill local chamber-of-commerce types, Dead Bank guitarist Jim Willis acknowledges.
“We’ve gotten a lot of crap from the town about it,” Willis said last week. “They’ll never let us play any of their festivals because of it. But I just wanted to see another connotation for ‘Dead Bank,’ a positive one.”
The Grateful Dead cover band is an inarguably local phenomenon, and this week, weather permitting, Dead Bank’s “perpetual tour of of Monmouth Street” brings it to the backyard of the Dublin House Pub for its 200th show.
Dead Bank’s lineup, from left: Jack Pyrah, Nash Aliaga, Jon Rotman, BJ Willis, Jim Willis and Barry Schneider. Below, the band’s logo, adapted from the Grateful Dead’s ‘Steal Your Face’ branding, replaces the original lightning bolt with an outline of the Navesink River. (Photo by Dennis Czund. Click to enlarge)
Don’t call it a “tribute band,” says bassist Nash Aliaga. That term is better applied to bands that strive for note-for-note replication of another band’s songs, he says. Dead Bank, by contrast, tries to honor the spirit of the Grateful Dead through improvisation.
“The Dead never played a song the same way twice, and we don’t either,” said Aliaga. “That’s what makes it fun.”
Dead Bank was conceived six and a half years ago at Jamian’s Food and Drink. Aliaga, who grew up in Lincroft and attended the Ranney School, had been “noodling around” without a band for several years when, on a friend’s suggestion, he went to a Sunday-night open mic session at the Monmouth Street watering hole. There, he met drummer Jason LaViola (whose brother, Jamian, owns the business). Jason, said Aliaga, suggested they put together a regular “Grateful Thursday” Dead gig of the kind seen elsewhere across the country.
“It didn’t take long for Jason to come up with the perfect Jerry Garcia,” Aliaga said. That was fellow Christian Brothers Academy alum Jim Willis, who’d recently returned to Red Bank after a several years in Providence, Rhode Island, where he’d been working in computer technology by day and playing in a bebop band at night.
For Willis, a longtime Deadhead who’d grown up swapping guitar leads with his brother, BJ, the offer provided a chance to do what the best musicians do, in his estimation: explore, in this case by using the Dead’s framework as a musical canon, much in the way top-shelf jazz players use a collection of several hundred popular songs assembled in a Real Book as their guide.
And 22 years after his death, Garcia remains the exemplar of the anti-flash, deep-dive guitarist, Willis said.
“I listen to a lot of people, but to me, there’s still no more engaging guitar player out there,” he said. “It’s like he’s surfing along. Sometimes he catches the wave, sometimes he wipes out and sometimes he just bails. But you’re along for the ride.”
Dead Bank played its first show on October 7, 2010 at Jamian’s, and kept the Thursday night gig going for 15 or 20 shows before branching out to other venues, including the Walt Street Pub and the Dub.
Willis — a former redbankgreen webmaster and PieHole sandwich maven — and Aliaga live a block apart, in Red Bank and Fair Haven, respectively. Also in Dead Bank are keyboardist Jack Pyrah, of Shrewsbury; BJ Willis, of Colts Neck, on guitar; Barry Schneider of Belmar on congas; and drummer Jon Rotman, of Red Bank, who replaced Jason LaViola in January.
When one or more members can’t make it, they’re sometimes replaced by members of Willis’ other band, Kül d’Sack, an acoustic quartet that puts a bluegrass spin on popular songs.
True to the Deadhead spirit, Aliaga keeps a database of every setlist, so he can tell you the number of times any one song has been performed, and how long the jam went for. Most played: ‘Franklin’s Tower,’ clocking in at 138 appearances.
“People love the danceability of that song,” said Aliaga, who also plays bass in the rock cover band White Van.
And the band feeds off its audience, said Willis.
“There’s no way we could sustain this for 200 shows without those crowds,” he said.
Thursday night’s show at the Dub’s outdoor Temple Bar is weather-dependent. As of Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service forecast put the chance of rain at 60 percent. In the event of a rainout, the band’s next scheduled show is at the EvenTide Grille in Sea Bright on Saturday, July 22.