Deadheads unite - in the desert

The ninth annual Grateful Dead Gathering will take place this weekend under the stars.

The Grateful Dead (1970). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Grateful Dead (1970).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An alien spaceship landing this weekend near Ein Yahav in the Arava desert might have its occupants scratching their cranial pods and wondering if their time machine was off kilter by a few decades.
There may not be the mud baths and bad doses of LSD prevalent at 1960s hippie gatherings, but expect an abundance of tie dye, free-form dancing and an endless supply of good vibes when a few hundred hearty adventurists gather for the 9th Grateful Dead Gathering.
Taking place at a desert oasis expanse called the Khan Gamalia (Camel Bar), the 24-hour-event beginning Friday afternoon brings together “Deadheads,” the staunch loyalists of the California band that defied conventions for 30 years (1965-1995) on their way to becoming a musical institution.
Led by iconic guitarist, the late Jerry Garcia, the Dead became the symbol of anti-showbiz liberty – moshing styles, eschewing set lists, and taking fans on excursions that could reach stunning heights or descend to tedious depths.
Thanks to dozens of well-crafted songs that have endured, philosophical lyrics that can be interpreted as a way to live one’s life, a never-ending touring schedule that resulted in thousands of unique live recordings and a constantly evolving attempt to create something new, the band developed a community that has long outlasted them.
With those live bootlegs being readily available for streaming, the Dead have never been more popular with a new generation. Former members – joined by latter-day guitar whiz John Mayer – sell out stadiums, Dead tribute bands sell out halls and Grateful Dead music has gained a mainstream level of respect it never had during the band’s lifetime.
In Israel, there are probably more Deadheads now than 40 years ago, according to Khen Rotem (aka Sagol 59), the local musician who together with Ami Yares in 2015, recorded The Promised Land, a well-received Hebrew album of the Dead’s music.
“They are more popular now in Israel than when they were active,” said Rotem, who will be performing at the beginning of the Dead Gathering on Friday evening. “The Dead, along with other big American bands like the Allman Brothers and Little Feat, were never played on the radio here or had their albums distributed in stores.
They were just never talked about and were virtually unknown in the 70s and 80s. Israelis tended to always like the British bands more, like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
“But thanks to social media, all the live shows available, some people have discovered them. When we do one of our shows, people come out of curiosity and have never heard the Dead before. Then they say, ‘Wow, I have to check out the originals of these songs.’” Ironically, most of the attendees at the Dead Gathering are likely to be native Israelis who were either too young to have seen the band, or were simply unaware of them during their heyday.
“Many of the people who come now are children of Deadheads, or people who just discovered them on their own on the Internet,” said Eran Remler, a 41-year-old film teacher in Eilat, who has been the catalyist for the Dead Gatherings over the last decade.
“There’s also a good number who have discovered them by coming to the gatherings. They heard the atmosphere was nice, with good music and camping out, and they got hooked.”
Remler organized the first event nine years ago and attracted about 160 attendees. Since then, it’s grown steadily to approximately the 500 expected this weekend “Their music brings so much happiness that I’m happy to help spread the word. I think in Israel, there’s less a cult-like quality to it, it’s more the music and less the stuff that comes with it. But then you start to dig, learn the lyrics and you find that there’s something deeper there,” he said.
For some fans, the Dead’s music and surrounding hoopla seem somewhat impenetrable and it takes a while for the penny to drop.
“I knew about the Dead from the time I was young. My father had some of their albums that he got from relative in the US,” said Gil Matus, a popular DJ on Kan 88 who is one of the music curators of the weekend.
“I couldn’t really relate to them at the beginning as a kid. But years later, from all different directions, from people I met, from reading about them, from hearing them, I rediscovered them.”
“I think part of the attraction is being part of a community. First of all it’s the music – that goes without saying. But people come year after year and you meet new and old friends and something connects. You feel like you’re part of something bigger than you,” said Matus, who added that he met his girlfriend at a previous Dead gathering.
“If I see someone in a car with a Grateful Dead sticker on it, I want to stop them and talk to them and get to know them. You know you have something important in common.”
One person who is attending the Dead Gathering for both musical and social reasons is Sara Halevi Kalech, a Jerusalem mother of four.
“In my 20s, the Grateful Dead and all that came with it was the backdrop of my most formative experiences,” explained Halevi Kalech, who saw the Dead “give or take 100 times” before making aliya from Massachusetts in 1999.
“Today, here in Israel, this gathering pulls me to a tribe-within-the-tribe experience that is more than just nostalgia, it allows me to be immersed for a day in the joy and connectedness that opened my heart so profoundly all those years ago.”
Besides the Promised Land Hebrew Project set, the Dead Gathering will feature Matus and other DJs offering their favorite live tracks from the Dead’s prodigious output. For those still able to boogie, Saturday will feature what Matus calls the “Dead DNA” with a live set by psychedelic Israeli jam band Botimzog and sets of American music featuring The Band, Dr.
John, JJ Cale and other 60s and 70s staples.
“It’s great to perform for and be with people who actually know and love the material,” said Rotem, adding that he hasn’t missed a gathering in five years.
“There’s a few groups of people – 100 to 200 hardcore Deadheads who know all the words and shows. Then there are their families and friends, and then there are those who come just out of curiosity and wanting to hang out.
It’s not a hippie atmosphere, it’s more wholesome and there are lots of children around,” he said.
“With the music and nonstop dancing, it’s a real celebration,” added Remler.
Even the aliens will be shaking their bones.
Tickets to the Dead Gathering are NIS 200 and include free camping. Beds are available at an extra cost. More information available via the Dead Gathering Facebook page.