Dan Berman is an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to music in general, but even more so with the music of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. He’s become known for playing with the Charlie Fog Band, an impassioned tribute to the legendary group. Now, he’s taking that a step further with Cats Under the Stars—a tribute to the Jerry Garcia Band.
Known for their reimagining of soul and R&B songs, as well as originals that were outside of the realm of the Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band was a passion project for the iconic guitarist and songwriter up until his passing.
Cats Under the Stars is set to stage a JGB tribute at the Tybee Post Theater on June 22, and we spoke to Berman ahead of the show.
I have to admit to not being very aware of the Jerry Garcia Band prior to this interview, so it’s been fun discovering this side of his musical interests. What was the impetus to launch a tribute to this band?
Berman: Well, I’m in Charlie Fog Band, which of course is the Grateful Dead tribute here in Savannah. The A.A. synagogue on Lee Boulevard, off Abercorn, that’s my synagogue—they approached me a year ago about an annual fundraising gala they have every year.
They have a band perform, and they wanted the Charlie Fog Band. Of course I wanted to help them out, but I didn’t necessarily think that was the right venue for a full-blown psychedelic Grateful Dead show.
I kind of came up with this idea because I wanted to do it for the fundraiser. The Jerry band thing came up because obviously I’m very familiar with it. I started thinking—Smokey Robinson, Peter Tosh, Bob Dylan, old ballads from Irving Berlin; the way he arranged their songs I thought would be perfect.
So I reached out to our drummer and bass player, we got a keyboard player, and Laiken Williams actually started out with us. She, of course, is just incredible.
We did the synagogue gig and it went over really well, and next thing you know we had a couple of opportunities. It kind of went on from there.
The interesting thing about this stuff is that there was one proper studio album under the Jerry Garcia Band name, and a few under a solo moniker.
Yeah, there were a few studio albums. He had Reflections, there was a self-titled studio album, and then Cats Under the Stars. And some of the musicians on those albums were probably some of the Dead guys. But he had this band for 22 years. When he wasn't doing Dead tours, he was playing with this band.
What's so fascinating is that he apparently regarded Cats Under the Stars as his favorite album and his proudest project. Which is incredible given the fact that even he'd admit to how under the radar it was!
I think that's his M.O., though! [laughs]
Why do you think something like this wouldn't have fared quite as well commercially?
I was very fortunate to not only see the Grateful Dead in concert a bunch, but I've been very fortunate to have seen Jerry Garcia Band as well. From my personal perspective, it seems to me that this band is basically Jerry's interpretation of how he thinks music works. The Grateful Dead thing was a phenomenon, but if you went to a Jerry Garcia Band concert—he'd be playing a song like "That Lucky Old Sun," which most people probably remember as a country kind of thing. And he turns it into this incredible gospel-tinged ballad.
I think it was about him saying, “These are songs that I love that are great songs.” When he played with the Dead, it was more of a collaboration. He was soloing off of what everyone else in the band was doing.
With this band, he could bring a song in and say, “This is what I want to do with the arrangement.” He was able to articulate his personal perspective on music through the Jerry Garcia band.
Why wasn’t it as commercially successful? Well, I saw him at The Spectrum—there’s 12,000 people there to see him at The Spectrum and he’s up there playing a Gershwin tune. Everybody in the building was there, as always, for the music.
And that’s what it all boiled down to. Commercial success, often times, is not always about the music.