The Boulder Draft House, fresh off its one-year anniversary, is hosting a dynamic and unique event combining musical improvisation, poetry, long-term friendships and reminiscences of traveling with the Grateful Dead.
Todd Weiner, drummer for the starring quintet, 18 Switchbacks, explains that this performance will present a different look than what fans would expect from the band’s usual gigs.
“[We’re] bringing in [author] Peter Conners, who is a long-time collaborator, with me and other members of the band, in songwriting and [other things], and what we’re going to do is take Peter’s literary sense of things and throw it into the mix with the band,” Weiner says.
Conners, a poet, novelist and editor who occasionally has lived in Boulder, recently wrote a non-fiction account of life on the road following the Grateful Dead in his latest book, Growing Up Dead: the Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. But Conners will be doing more than just a book signing.
“I’m going to keep it loose, start off slow, do a couple of [musical] things with just Todd, then slowly build and bring the rest of the band in,” Conners says. “I’m really excited to work with these guys because I think they have an open and adventurous spirit, and we all just want to create something interesting. We want to create a one-of-a-kind event, bringing together a bunch of creative people, who are proficient at what they do, you know, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Weiner and Conners met back east in the late ’80s. As the author describes it, “We met on the first day of college. I was walking through the quad, not knowing anyone there, and we both just randomly stopped and started talking to each other. It was one of those classic things. There was no particular reason for it. … He might have been wearing a tie-dye … and we have been friends ever since. I had always wanted to play guitar, and literally that first day, we went over to Todd’s room and he showed me a couple of chords, and he just gave me a guitar to take back to my room and practice with. So that’s when I got into playing some, and writing songs with him, and our friendship and collaboration has been going on ever since.”
Weiner, former owner of a café in Nederland and current manager of Robb’s Music in Boulder, has been playing music for some time with another member of Robb’s crew, Seth Goodman. About two years ago, the pair joined up with the remnants of a local musical group to create 18 Switchbacks.
“We started out as a bluegrass unit, with Matt Wallwork, who headed up Gold Hill, which was a full electric band. After they stopped, they all splintered off, and Matt started 18 Switchbacks, with his long time friend Tim Johnston. And they brought in Seth Goodman, who has been my good friend here at Robb’s Music, and runs the store with me, and they decided they needed more of a rhythm section, and I had been playing for a long time with Seth, so we kind of combined it all together in this band,” Weiner says.
With Weiner on drums, Goodman on mandolin, Wallwork and Johnston on guitars, the fifth member of 18 Switchbacks is bassist Francisco Marquez.
“We’ve gotten a lot of influence from the jam scene, and we have a lot of respect for all the bands who have been pegged into that category,” Weiner says. He notes that they are great fans of Phish, Widespread Panic and the Grateful Dead, of course. He adds, “I’m a big Frank Zappa fan, Dave Grisman, and Chris Dealy as well.
“A lot of people often think that for a jam band the songwriting is secondary and the jamming comes first.” Weiner explains, “We certainly aren’t that. We’re a band that has some really nice songs, that sound like us, music that we’re uniquely doing, and at the same time, we’re not performing those songs in the same exact way every night. We’re open to exploring them, and doing different things with them at different times.”
The band is currently working on a CD, expected this coming summer. Meanwhile, they offer free live demo tracks on their website 18switchbacks.com.
Like Conners, Weiner did the Dead thing for a while. He says, “My first show was in 1987. I loved the band right off the bat and had a pretty visceral experience, being an upstate, suburban New Yorker and having this kind of music come into my consciousness during a time of Madonna and Michael Jackson and Top 10 radio. I had been a big fan of, like, Genesis and Asia, and Journey was big influence for me. And all of sudden I saw that while I liked that music, there wasn’t the substance, and then somehow, we managed to find, within that very plastic environment, music with a whole lot of substance. The Dead was one of those bands that was able to reach us at that age when we were receptive to it.”
Conners, who says he followed the band in a beat-up van from 1987 to 1995, says it’s important to remember the Dead.
“I felt like I sort of know what it was all about. I thought I was in a good place to capture that and put it down on paper in a way I hadn’t seen anybody do before. I felt like somebody had to do it.
“And I wanted to pass that along, also because I think there are ways that people handled themselves within that community in ways that are worth preserving, whether it be the barter system, or supporting the environment within that scene, like buying things from other people on tour to support them, creating your own products, whether it be a shirt or a necklace, all these different things,” Conners says. “You know, with the current economic meltdown, a lot of people are saying, ‘Hey, maybe we should support the people around us,’ and these are values that Dead-heads had for years, that really kept the community together. So I think those are the best things to pass down to kids, and I hope they will be able to pick up on some of that. It’s that spirit, that idea of community. Today, when you say ‘community’ to a kid, they automatically think of the online world now. So the idea of being in a community, meaning human beings standing next to each other, dancing, helping each out and all that stuff, that’s not a virtual thing, that’s a very real, very tangible thing.”
Conners, who has published books of poetry and fiction, is currently working with a film producer on a screen treatment of his Deadhead book.
“We’re looking to start shooting even as soon as this summer. Yeah, it’s pretty far along. I’m optimistic about it, I think it’s got a lot of potential.”
Conners will be signing copies of his book and reading excerpts at the Draft House show. And Weiner notes that 18 Switchbacks, who performs about 90 percent original music, will be doing some Dead covers at the event with their own unique take on those familiar songs.
“It should be a fun interesting time, off the beaten path with a literary form meeting an electric rock band,” Weiner says. “It’s sure to be a really creative event.”