Reckoning's Fresh Spin on Dead Grass
● By Melissa Mendonca
On the Road AgainSeptember 2015
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Michelle Hickok
"When a band hits a groove and the audience is in the groove at the same time, there’s a universal vibe that fills the place and it’s very special,” says Mark Wilpolt, mandolin player for Chico’s Reckoning band. “And it’s what we’re all seeking.”
About five years ago, Wilpolt and friends set about seeking that universal vibe by combining the lyrics of revered groove bands the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band with the musical stylings of bluegrass. The fusion is what they refer to as Dead Grass, and it’s attracting Dead Heads and traditional bluegrass fans alike.
“It’s fun to do because we’re trying to do what we believe are fresh interpretations of the songs. We’re trying to grass it up,” says Wilpolt.
“It started out just as a lark,” he adds. “I had an opportunity to play at a crafts fair and I said we were just going to play acoustic. And not only that, we were just going to play songs from the ‘Reckoning’ album.”
“Reckoning” is the double live album released in 1981 by the Grateful Dead that includes acoustic versions of some original fan favorites as well as standards from the traditional American songbook, such as El Paso and Tom Dooley. “They’re all songs we have played around the campfire,” says guitarist Campbell Church.
Church and Wilpolt were once neighbors and note that other band members – bass player Paul Friedlander and banjo/guitar player Lloyd Foote – are all connected through teaching careers. Friedlander just retired from Chico State University, where Wilpolt still teaches math. Foote, who played in the 8th Avenue String Band, is a retired English teacher from Paradise. Church is active in his daughters’ education at Wildflower Open Classroom, noting, “I have three daughters and have been charged with driving them around and keeping them fed.
“We’ve all been kicking it around Chico enough to have seen each others’ bands,” sums up Wilpolt. “The 8th Avenue String Band was one of my favorite bands back in the day so it’s an honor and a privilege to be playing with Lloyd.”
The concept of the dead grass sound goes back to the 1975 release of “Old and In the Way,” a bluegrass debut album by a group of the same name, which included Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. “‘Old and In the Way’ introduced bluegrass to a whole generation of hippies,one of which was me,” says Wilpolt.
Today, the band marvels at the diversity of people attending their shows. “There are many people that don’t even know we’re a Grateful Dead cover band and they’ll come up to us and tell us, ‘Those are really great songs,’ and they don’t even know the Grateful Dead songs,” he adds.
While he’ll freely refer to himself as a hippie, he’s quick to note, “This stuff is not old hippie music. We find that people find that these are great songs that stand on their own and deserve to be heard. And it’s great music to move your feet to. This is good old American music in every possible way.”
With the mellow confidence of a long-time fan, Church adds, “Grateful Dead music never goes away. You can kind of get tired of it for awhile, but no one ever says that they don’t really like it anymore.”
After a successful series of summer 2013 shows in the North State on the True North Tour, more and more people are enjoying this fused sound. “Those were amongst our most memorable shows, playing in those small towns,” says Wilpolt. Organized by the arts councils of each community, the band played Chico, Red Bluff, Weaverville and Redding.
Now, the band is on to venues such as the Ashkenaz in Berkeley and the city’s Shakedown Street Festival. As for the future, Church is keen to play “more of those memorable shows.” He sees the band learning more songs and reveling in “the feeling you get when those songs come together, when you get those songs right.” He recalls the wonder of that feeling when, at the Chico World Music Festival, “We were joined in the middle of a song by Joe Craven, who came on stage playing his fiddle. I heard him before I saw him.”
Lately, the band has been sharing gigs with Wake of the Dead, a Chico-based Grateful Dead cover band. “ I see music as a community-oriented thing,” says Wilpolt, “My ambition is to provide fun for people and to hopefully provide an opportunity to shake their booty a little bit.”
Reckoning concert at the State Theatre with
Wake of the Dead
October 10 • 7:30 PM