By Philip Wayne
In ancient Tibet, the medicine that healed the sickness of existence was called Amrita, “the strongest poison and medicine of all.”
A river of Amrita flows endlessly through the songbook that is the Grateful Dead.
Let’s face it, the Grateful Dead songbook is no easy task. You are taken on a journey, and when the chords said look within, we trusted Jerry Garcia to ride shotgun on point for us, to be the headlight on the northbound train, behind which we were grateful to follow. Each of his discoveries was greeted with recognition. He’d taken us someplace new again, but a place we felt we were fated to go, because Jack Kerouac’s words in “On the Road” – about burning “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” – had spoken directly to us, the lucky ones; the ones who found a talisman and marker. Perhaps the old stone is in the American wilderness that marks the way, and when we arrived in that place we were born to seek, all our brothers and sisters were there.
If Deadheads were a tribe that sought collective experience, we were also an aggregation of free spirited loners who had learned how not to bruise each other’s solitude: that place where our souls, and the music, communed.
Enter Deadheads who happened upon each other through the magic thread that is our beloved songbook merging in the context of this special mystical place we call, the Coachella Valley. The Ghost Notes were born into existence through the goodness of four down to earth, selfless, humble gentlemen who care more about the music and understand its weight in magic. Four men who were from distinctively, but beautifully eclectic backgrounds, who came together to honor the 50th birthday of one of the valley’s most beloved spirit sisters: America Lugo, die hard dead head and as true to the spirit of this valley as anyone can get.
Setting the bar is Mike Hammons, a highly accomplished multi- instrumentalist whose contribution as bassist and lead vocals to the Ghost Notes. Hammons has been studying the craft of the Grateful Dead since his youth of 1986 and was the founder and godfather of the Valleys first and only jam band, Green Eggs and Hammons, which he
patiently waited for the right musicians to cultivate his love for Grateful Dead music. It is there he partnered with long time Deadhead, multi-versed musician, Damian Lautiero, on lead guitar and vocals. Lautiero’s study as both a Deadhead and accomplished musician, sets the bar even higher.
Rob Peterson, master percussionist and virtuoso of arrangements, his experience in bringing to life the rhythm devil experience is paramount.
The ever present Bobby Furgo, magician of both the keys and violin on stage, has played with the cream of the crop, his experience making him a magician both on the fiddle and the ivories.
“We have a strong Dead following out here. People were waiting to see my next move and we were in the studio brewing this up, America Lugo happened to call and asked if I knew of a band, and one that can play some Dead tunes…and the trifecta commenced from there,” says Hammons.
The response was of such epic proportions, Lautiero and Hammons, felt the calling and need to continue. What once was a birthday concert for a friend, became an open happenstance, mystical doorway for the Ghost Notes, to perform a handful of shows in the valley. From a triple digit turnout and riveting performance, that literally lifted the Spotlight 29 Showroom, to multiple majestic evenings at the Big Rock Pub in Indio, every show punctuated more and more by the presence of locals and even those who came far and wide to feel the magic.
“There’s something about their passion that draws me in, man,” said Bill, the twinkly eyed dead head, who traversed from an hour or so away, to hear some ‘good ol’ Grateful Dead’.
“I drove here from Yucaipa just to see these guys, they get it. Most cover bands don’t have that passion. These guys are stripped down, tight and on point and bring that magic.” said C.J.
“I came in from Orange County. These guys have such a great sound. We were dancing all night!” shared Allison from Irvine.
When it comes to the Grateful Dead catalogue, Damian and Mike swiftly understand the emotional weight of each song. From “Shakedown Street,” that pulses you through the cosmic not so earthly boogie of delights, to the sheer magnanimous floating of the “Other One,” they are not interpreting the songs to be “rock stars,” they are willfully sharing a part of a band that truly is imbedded in their spirit, and like myself, doing our damnedest to incorporate it into our art.
On a tune that is one of my personal and heartfelt favorites, Sugaree,” the Ghost Notes catapult it to lofty heights that are unexpected. A song that harks a bitter-sweet tinged tale of two beautifully damaged, lost kindred souls who meet on life’s journey, who connect with one another on fleeing their past mistakes, longing only to meet up, one day, at the Jubilee, where they can, once again, be free. The lyrics so sweetly sung, by Mr. Lautiero, hits the ears like a lullaby from another dimension, the effortless thundering of electrical guitar that carries and wraps you in a solo that brings a person to his feet to dance in the stars, to the story, as he tells it.
Mr. Hammons dropping the steady anvil of bass, beautifully harmonizing the tale, enraptured in energy never ceasing. Mr. Furgo tapping and swirling the ivories as if beckoning you into that cosmic western lounge. Mr. Peterson on the skins, rolling and tapping and climbing a majestic mountain, like a drum circle calling you to a rhythmic place of celebration.
The strength in the chords that progress any song of the Grateful Dead is no easy task, the road where improvisation and instrumentation meet is tough and takes careful ears and artistry, and the gentlemen of the Ghost Notes allow it to flow flawlessly, not only in this song, but in all.
“It’s one of my favorite tunes,” Lautiero says. “I love it so much I want to pay tribute and do it justice.”
A tale woven and shared harks nostalgia; a true to form example of the selfless nature in the philosophy of The Grateful Dead. Upon sharing that music, it’s as if for that moment in time and space fractals, they are playing it for you, and if you look closely and listen, and allow the music to take you there, they are.
The Ghost Notes will perform on Saturday, 10/26 at the Halloween Haunt at the Big Rock Pub in Indio.