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Cosmic Charlie Celebrates Two Decades Of Paying Tribute To The Dead

(Flagpole Magazine, Jessie Goodson 8/21/19)

In the summer of 1999, five local musicians banded together under the name One More Saturday Night to play the music of the Grateful Dead. Now, 20 years later, the tribute band has played roughly 800 shows as Cosmic Charlie.

Growing up, many of Cosmic Charlie’s members were committed Deadheads who traveled around to see their favorite band. Yet, like most listeners, their tastes shifted over the years. Frontman Michael Wegner’s musical path was long and winding. After falling in love with the Dead in high school in the early 1980s, he became disillusioned with the group’s newfound massive popularity.

“Their audiences had doubled or tripled in size, and many of the newbies were there just because it was cool to be a Deadhead,” Wegner says. “They seemed more interested in tie-dyes and hacky-sacks than actually paying attention to the music.”

Wegner began to explore punk and power pop, joining a punk band called Coat of Arms that played with many noteworthy acts of the time, including the Pixies. But the Dead’s music kept calling.

“I came to terms with the fact that I loved the Grateful Dead and their musical philosophy, and realized that I could go on appreciating them without worrying about the ‘scene,’” says Wegner. “And I also stopped worrying about whether my punk [and] indie friends thought I was lame for liking the Dead.”

Wegner’s journey is mirrored by a recent increase in cachet for the iconic rock group, evidenced by a spike in younger, hipper bands who cite the Dead as a primary influence. Wegner says it can be compared to how fashion choices and styles popular in the ’80s and ’90s are coming back into vogue. But it’s also purely about the work, he says—the Grateful Dead’s music and performances are unlike any other. “It’s kind of a musical experience that you can’t get elsewhere,” he says.

Over the years, Cosmic Charlie has been joined by many guest musicians on stage—even members of the Grateful Dead, including keyboardists Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten. The list also includes members of RatDog—Dead guitarist Bob Weir’s band—as well as Disco Biscuits, Dark Star Orchestra, Deerhunter, Harvey Milk, Dubconscious, Perpetual Groove and others. 

“Across the board, I’d say the people we played with that had direct connections to the Grateful Dead were also amazing musicians, and you can feel that when you’re playing with them,” Wegner says. 

Cosmic Charlie recently returned from a 10-day tour of the East Coast, playing in clubs and venues for new and old fans alike. Reflecting on touring over the years, Wegner shares stories of wild experiences, including a venue catching fire while they were performing, a tree falling on their van, attempted robberies in parking lots and police accidentally showing up to their hotel room in the middle of the night. 

The band has experienced a lot over the past 20 years, and its members are excited to celebrate it this weekend at the Georgia Theatre, where it all began. Saturday’s anniversary show will feature original and current Cosmic Charlie members, as well as an earlier acoustic set on the rooftop. 

Wegner says he and the rest of the band are excited to continue sharing the music of the Grateful Dead with the town they love the most. “We appreciate Athens,” Wegner says. “Part of the reason this band is having its 20th anniversary is because Athens is such a great town.”

Charlie’s Picks

Dave Domizi (bass, vocals): I always enjoy playing the live standard double-shot of “Scarlet Begonias”/“Fire on the Mountain,” which offers a bright and exciting energy, allows the band to really stretch out on an improvisational level and always seems to connect with and bring joy to the crowd.

Nate Hale (drums): “The Other One” is my favorite Grateful Dead song to play live, because it has so much potential to go places that are unexpected. It has an up tempo, a great, swinging 6/8 time signature and a creepy minor menacing feel that I like. 

John Miley (guitar, vocals): “Dark Star”—a song that delivers much in relation to what one contributes. This piece provides a wide harmonic field where improvised phrases often become instantly familiar. The song seems to contain its own compositional software. 

Kane Stanley (drums): “Playing in the Band” has always been a favorite of mine to play live. With its 10/4 time signature courtesy of Mickey Hart, the music weaves between rock and jazz, and the middle jam section allows the band to explore new improvisational territory.

Michael Wegner (guitar, vocals): “Brokedown Palace.” Beautiful harmonies, compelling chord changes, themes of love, death, loneliness, nature… This song would put me in tears every time Jerry sang it. If we can convey even a fraction of that emotional content to our audience, I feel successful as a musician.

Walt Austin (keyboards, vocals): I’m drawn to the slower tunes, but “Bird Song” in particular has a certain hope and awe to it. The song is tailored to have space between the notes. There is even an amazing pause at the end of each chorus, before the verse comes in, where the music just hangs in the air.

Connect Savannah “Pick Of The Week”

(Connect Savannah, Jim Reed 8/8/07)

Initially formed in 1999 as a one-off project to laud fallen Grateful Dead guitarist and figurehead Jerry Garcia, this Athens-based tribute act has steadily risen among the ranks of many similarly-themed groups. Today, they are widely becoming known as one of the most faithful practitioners of this most sincere form of musical flattery. However, that doesn’t mean they sound just like the fabled Dead. In fact, one of the things that befuddles some in the crowds —but which has won them the acclaim and friendship of many actual associates of the GD— is their willingness to remain true to the restless spirit of that legendary improvisatory band of psychedelic warhorses.

Using The Dead’s back catalog and voluminous library of officially-sanctioned bootlegs as their guideposts, Cosmic Charlie pull standout tracks and basic arrangements, but pride themselves on applying the same unpredictable nature the original band was known for to their own live shows. And it’s working out very well.

While CC still play regularly at clubs and small venues across the USA, they are increasingly headlining shows in theatres and large, outdoor festivals (including festivals The Dead frequented in their heyday), and it is not uncommon for former GD members or associates to sit in with the group on stage — such as keyboardist Vince Welnick, Ratdog members Mark Karan and Robin Sylvester, and GD archivist and songwriter David Gans.

Says Gans of CC’s devotion to the music he’s devoted a large portion of his life to exploring, “They really are a great band – they do this music the way it should be done: by having the conversation in their own voices.”

This show marks the 12th anniversary of Garcia’s death and will be their only local appearance this summer. And, yes, unlike The Dead, they do take requests.

Cosmic Charlie – Live Review of Atlanta show

( 2005, Steve Abercrombie)

It’s really hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since the Grateful Dead closed out their final concert at Soldiers Field. I used to have a pretty good tape of that show and its sentimental value always weighed heavily upon me, especially the double encore of “Black Muddy River” and “Box of Rain.”

But, luckily for all of us the music he inspired didn’t stop with his passing. It only got louder and no one was able to clone what they did; the sound or significance. Sure, String Cheese carried part of the bluegrass/jazz torch, Panic had that greasy electric blues sound and Phish seemed to embody the more experimental aspects of the Dead, but nobody could do it in full. And it was too bad.

After all, the Grateful Dead left behind a huge song catalog that meant a great deal to many people. So it was not too surprising when bands did begin appearing in the late 90’s as Grateful Dead tributes. Groups like The Dark Star Orchestra recreated complete Dead shows and down in Athens, Georgia a band called Cosmic Charlie added their own twist on paying tribute to The Dead. They set themselves apart from other Dead cover bands by offering clarity and well thought out song selections. Even their website highlights that fact.

So with that in mind I set out towards Smith’s Olde Bar on Sunday, keeping in mind that it was Jerry’s birthday. I was expecting to hear some great Garcia tunes Charlie did not disappoint.

The 1st set was acoustic with lots of favorites like “Friend of the Devil” and “Beat it on Down the Line” though the highlight for me was “Here Comes Sunshine.” This wasn’t something that the Grateful Dead performed in an acoustic setting too much, if ever, but it really did lend itself to the unplugged setting. This song also gave way to some of the evenings first exploratory playing and the jam after the 1st verse built up steam before breaking down into what I thought would be the next verse, while actually creating a launch pad for a second improvisational buildup. The set ended with a gentle take on “Ripple” and was a great tribute to Garcia, who always shone brightly in the acoustic setting. Before leaving the stage Cosmic Charlie announced that because it was a Sunday they would have to have an earlier night than usual, but on the upside that shortened the set break to just a few minutes.

Set two was quite different from the chilled vibe of the previous set. Things started with a very strong “Help>Slip>Franklin’s Tower” and immediately all of the folks who had been taking it easy sitting at tables and alongside the bar got up for an extended dance during this popular combo. “When I Paint my Masterpiece” came next with vocals by the bass player and a great piano break.

Then, you know, it just wouldn’t be Sunday without a little sermon from “Samson and Delilah.” This song featured some red hot guitar work and broke down into a great “Drums.” Cosmic Charlie’s version of the Rhythm Devils allowed them to set up the next song and walk into the familiar Bo Diddly-style beat of “Not Fade Away.” I thought this was a nice sentiment directed towards the late great Garcia, which they added to by breaking in down into a slow and heartfelt version of “Wharf Rat,” delivered with emotion and clarity. The churchlike organs during the “I’ll get back on my feet someday” lyric sent chills down my spine and the final guitar solo built back up into a reprise of “Not Fade Away.” After a brief break, Charlie returned for yet another reprise of “Not Fade Away,” driving home the point that even though he’s gone we will never forget Jerry Garcia.

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