As jam scene winds down, local radio play is strong

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WNRN’s Marc Smith takes listeners on a long, strange trip during the Saturday morning radio show Grateful Dead and Phriends. Photo credit: Emily Moroné WNRN’s Marc Smith takes listeners on a long, strange trip during the Saturday morning radio show Grateful Dead and Phriends. Photo credit: Emily Moroné

The idea of an entire radio station based on the music of a single band no longer seems so far out. But when satellite radio launched in the early 2000s, there was no Pandora, and the notion that people would want to listen 24 hours a day to the same band, with a few similar grooves mixed in, was indeed a strange trip.

In 2007, the conglomerate now known as SiriusXM Radio launched the Grateful Dead Channel. It made a lot of sense—the band has a dense catalog, its live tracks are as one-off as snowflakes, and its fans are as passionate as any.

“The Grateful Dead Channel…has become one of the most anticipated music channel launches in our history,” SiriusXM President Scott Greenstein said at the time. 

For another testament to the band’s legacy, look no further than local radio. Noncommercial station WTJU features two hours of Dead-based tunes under the name Sunshine Daydream on Saturdays from 6-8pm, firing up only six hours after WNRN’s Grateful Dead and Phriends ends at noon. No, it’s not Dead 24/7, but Charlottesville’s airwaves are devoted.

WNRN’s development director Ian Solla-Yates calls GD&P one of WNRN’s most important blocks, and host Marc Smith recently won honorable mention for best radio personality in C-VILLE Weekly’s annual Best Of competition.

“It is by far my favorite radio show in town any day of the week,” said David Ibbeken, guitarist and vocalist for local jam scene mainstay Indecision. “For people that used to go to the concerts, it takes you back a little bit.”

Certainly, that’s the idea for Smith. Originally brought into the booth by former longtime host Pat McClure to help flesh out the Phriends-devoted third hour, Smith prides himself on finding the deepest jams in the GD archives. For the first two hours of the show, he meanders through cuts from the band’s heyday, mostly eschewing portions of Garcia’s career when he was “having problems with heroin and his health.”

Smith has also successfully lobbied his producers over the years to allow him to play “big hunks of tunage”—the longest, least commercial radio-friendly GD jams.

“No other show, other than on XM, gets to play as long of songs as I do,” Smith said. “I’ve had some people tell me they started driving from Richmond and got all the way to Zion’s Crossroads by the time the song ended.”

In the final hour of Grateful Dead and Phriends, Smith spins jam standard-bearers like moe. and Widespread Panic, up-and-comers like Tea Leaf Green and Kung Fu, genre benders like My Morning Jacket and White Denim, and Smith’s own first love, Phish.

Smith sees some parallels between Phish and the Grateful Dead, and rightfully so. The bands have more similarities than differences, and Phishheads have taken their cues from Deadheads since the start.

“[Phish lead singer] Trey [Anastasio] had the same problem Jerry had. He was doing so many drugs, he made a comment at one point that he couldn’t imagine playing ‘You Enjoy Myself,’” Smith said. “But once he sobered up and realized what a great thing he had, he couldn’t visualize himself not playing it. Right now, they are on fire.”

Even with Phish at full force, it’s hard not to ask how much longer the journey can go on. With the hippies aging out and so few jam bands these days under the age of 35, can the bears keep marching along? Smith said he believes the scene is still relatively strong, but he notes that a lot of the Phish shows he attends these days aren’t selling out—the fans are probably at home with their families.

Ibbeken said he’s seeing a decline in the movement, but he’s optimistic that it could all be scarlet begonias someday in the future.

“Things go in cycles,” he said. “Maybe it has turned, but then you go to one of these festivals, and you see the energy in those places.”

Smith takes some solace in the fact that the influence of the Grateful Dead is greater than the sum of the band’s catalog.

“My musical taste is based on timeless music—music that can keep going through the years,” Smith said. “I’m lucky to be able to do this, to keep playing these songs. They are always going to be awesome.”

Battling for good

Comedian Demetri Martin says, “at the battle of the bands, the loser’s always the audience.” Hurtful words indeed for aspiring musicians.

Fortunately for those up-and-comers, the Building Goodness Foundation turns the joke on its head at a September 19 Jefferson Theater event. Whether Curtis Prince and the Creative Department, Rice and Beans, Will Overman Band, or Lord Nelson takes home the top prize, the winners will be the people in need of homes, classrooms, and medical centers that the foundation supports.

Ticket and “rockin’ auction” proceeds go toward projects like classrooms in Costa Rica, a Red Cross Clinic in El Salvador, and numerous construction efforts right here in Charlottesville.

“We got involved because we all have friends in construction who have gone on BGF trips to build hospitals or schools and returned raving about what a great experience it was,” said Charlie Pastorfield, who along with three other members of the Crutchfield creative department will play behind singer-songwriter Curtis Prince. “It’s nice to be able to contribute to a charity that produces such concrete, undeniable results both here in our community and overseas.”

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