Drummer Mark Levy reaches new heights with Circles Around The Sun

Tahoe Onstage

Mark Levy, far right, is with the recording team for the music played between sets during the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well Tour.
Photo provided to Tahoe Onstage courtesy of Neal Casal

Mark Levy said he was not a lifelong Deadhead, but he sure is one now.

The drummer played on the music that was heard between sets of the Grateful Dead’s five Fare Thee Well shows and during the webcasts of those events.

“I’ve been working hard and trying to stay focused my entire adult life,” said Levy, 29, who played in the Denver-base rock band Congress. “As an artist you hope for great opportunities to arise, and this was that.”

The Fare Thee Well Tour ended on the 20th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s last show with Jerry Garcia at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Original members Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart returned to the stadium for the historic final jam on July 5, 2015. They were joined by “ringers” Trey Anastasio of Phish, who played Jerry’s part on guitar, RatDog’s Jeff Chimenti and keyboardist Bruce Hornsby.

Filmmaker/producer Justin Kruetzmann, Bill’s son, was commissioned to create new music to play in between sets. Rather than Dead cover songs, Kruetzmann wanted songs that captured the essence of the band. He hired Neal Casal to assemble the players.

Casal plays with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, which released albums in 2013 and 2015 under the direction of Betty “Boards” Canter Jackson, the Dead’s renowned live music and recording engineer from 1971-1980. Casal gathered fellow band member Adam MacDougall along with Dan Horne and Levy, who called himself the “young blood” of the team.

As Levy began to play music a teenager in Denver, he had a close friend whose father was a Deadhead.

“The first summer I had a car, I got ‘American Beauty,’ and I listened to it every day. It was my anthem. That was the beginning. That’s kind of crazy because that was after Jerry was gone.”

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Mark Levy backstage at the 2016 High Sierra Music Festival.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Chance of a lifetime

In late April, Levy joined Casal’s crew in a small studio in Ventura, Calif., for two 12-hour recording sessions that he said were 100 percent improvised.

“It was very organic,” Levy said. “We were all in the same room hanging out listening to records and tracks for reference. Neal was communicating with the rest of us about loose construction and vision that was coming from (producer) Justin.

“Casal would say, ‘Justin said he wants some kind of trippy far out thing that’s in the style of “Dark Star,” so let’s listen to “Dark Star” for a minute.’ We would come up with a different set of chord changes so it wasn’t as if we were trying to cover the song. We were trying to capture the vibe and let Adam and Neal take a few solos and just let it go where ever. Don’t try to force any movement or energy.

“It was very cool musically where the whole thing was coming from because we weren’t necessarily supposed to be the focal point. We were joking that we were the Grateful Dead’s elevator music. We’re going to be the Muzak in the stadium.”

The first two Fare Thee Well shows were June 27-28 at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium and were followed by July 3-5 performances in Chicago. Both stadiums hold about 70,000 concertgoers.

Lake Tahoe resident Jon Wehan was among the millions more who watched live webcasts of the shows.

“I noticed the music and I thought, ‘This isn’t the Dead but it sure sounds like the Dead,” Wehan said. “Everybody I have spoken with, and I’ve spoken with a lot of people, have mentioned it. You feel the connection to the music without it actually being the Dead. I’ve seen Neal so many times at Terrapin Crossroads, that makes so much sense.”

Operated by Lesh, Terrapin Crossroads is a music venue in San Rafael frequented by the Dead’s extended family and friends.

South Lake Tahoe resident Megan Nickels, who attended both Santa Clara shows, said the music Levy helped make “sounds like a never-ending sunset with many layers of beauty that encompass the air we breathe.”

Levy remains euphoric about the experience.

“I am just grateful to be part of this musically because I respect Adam and Neal and Dan on such a high level,” he said. “To be able to communicate and create with them is such a great honor to have my drumming contribute to the vibe of something that is coming from something that is such a positive place, and by that I mean the Grateful Dead’s culture. Basically, that all the people who are hearing this are of such a mind-set. They are in tuned to be open to this sort of music. This kind of trancey, jammy, psychedelic rock.

“I am extremely honored and very grateful, and I like to use the word grateful, especially in this context. There is no other word that I can come up with that would so accurately describe it.”

Levy’s band Congress covers at least one Dead song at each performance. He said singer and bassist Jonathan Meadows is the Deadhead of the band: “He knows all the deep tracks.

Meadows had a music scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University, but he left after two years. “I found out about the Grateful Dead and LSD and that was the end of it,” he told Tahoe Onstage in a 2014 interview.

Levy credits the web for his involvement. Not the World Wide Web of the Internet, but the web of touring artists and their bands who are comrades in the mission to enrich their lives and their fans’ lives with music.

“It’s all very cosmic how all of this stuff happened to me,” Levy said, before describing his long, strange trip to the studio in Ventura. “I couldn’t have made it happen if I wanted to. It just sort of happened because it was supposed to.”

Clare Foster / Tahoe Onstage

Adam MacDougall and Neal Casal in Tahoe onstage with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood on Feb. 19, 2017.

Making the connection

Adam MacDougall was intrigued by the Congress and especially its drummer when he saw a late-night show at the Targhee Music Fest in Colorado. MacDougall was at the festival with Casal and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

Casal also is a member of the Hard Working Americans, a supergroup with “Songman” Todd Snider and David Schools of Widespread Panic. Because of the friendship that began at Targhee, the Congress was invited to join the Hard Working Americans for a West Coast tour.

“That’s when (Casal) became familiar with me musically,” Levy said.

MacDougall became even more familiar with Levy’s musicianship when he was in Colorado on another occasion as a member of the Black Crowes, which included the Robinson brothers, Chris and Rich.

“Adam asked if wanted to go in recording studio and just improvise freely all day, a day off in Denver for the Black Crowes,” Levy said. “He just wanted to stretch out and get out of the box. That was the catalyst.”

So MacDougall was the lynchpin to Levy’s involvement in the “Dead’s elevator music” project.

This story, of course, ends in Chicago with the Grateful Dead’s last show.

Because of his involvement, Levy was given a “last minute” opportunity to fly from the Rocky Mountains to Chicago to see the final two shows. An entire mountain range West, in the Sierra Nevada, another last-minute decision was made.

Like so many others, South Lake Tahoe couple Ricky Newberry and Maggie Fowle have felt sorrow of Jerry Garcia’s death for 20 years, but their experience is especially poignant. They were following the Dead on what was to be the last tour with Garcia.

“We were supposed to be there,” Newberry lamented. “We were in Deer Creek (Indiana) when things got weird. The crowd in the parking lot crashed the gates and the second show was canceled. Instead of traveling to St. Louis and then Chicago for the last shows, we drove home.”

Frustration continued a quarter-century later when Ricky and Maggie were unable to mail order tickets for any of the Chicago Fare Thee Well shows. While watching the Friday, July 3 webcast  with friend Mindi Befu.

Maggie said, “Why aren’t we there right now?”

“That was it,” she said. “We booked airline tickets; Mindi and I for the next day and Ricky Sunday. We had no lodging or show tickets and just left. By the end of our layover in Denver on Saturday morning, Mindi had tickets and hotel arranged through friends. That’s when it all started to fall together. It just flowed. … We had never been shut out of a show before and that held true for our last”

“We made some magic,” Ricky said. “We knew it would all work out. We just had a good feeling about it and thankfully it did.”

Fast break from Bill Walton

It took an assist from the best passing big man in the history of basketball to get Ricky’s ticket.

Newberry and Bill Walton have a commonality in athletics and altruism. They became friends at cycling events for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Walton attended 859 Grateful Dead shows, according to the New York Daily News, which is 391 more than the amount of NBA games he played.

“He has a great appreciation of life and is a kind person,” Ricky Newberry said. “As serendipity would have it, Bill Walton was able to get me into the pit. I was front and center, brother!”

Watching the show in the Internet back in Lake Tahoe, Jon Wehan said he saw his friend directly in front of the stage.

“He texted me, ‘love you man,’ ” Wehan said. “He was on quite a high.”

So the veteran Deadheads from Tahoe and the newcomer Levy were in the pit to see the last show. Each pointed to the Dead’s final song before its final encore, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”

“Everyone was clapping along and then the band stopped.” Levy said, “and for another 10 minutes the audience kept that going. It’s hard for 70,000 people to clap together at all. Even like 3,000 people. And we had 70,000 people clapping for that long in unison, shaking and clapping. It was just a testament that, ‘No, our love will not fade away.’ ”

“I was pushing for it ‘Not Fade Away’ real hard during the Sunday night at Santa Clara,” Newberry said. “When they played it in Chicago, I was clapping and singing at top of my lungs.”

Newberry said he could not estimate how long the clapping lasted. “It was the perfect amount of time. At that time, the time-space continuum is ineffable. There are no words to describe it.”

Levy, too, was overwhelmed.

“Finally now I fully understand what it is to be a Deadhead,” he said. “I understand what it is to feel that vibe and be overwhelmed by that wave. It’s a euphoric sort of, I don’t know, it’s incredible. All of those emotions and observations and feelings about it just amplify by being part of a project that comes from something that’s even connected to all of that, even in the most remote way. It’s pretty mind boggling.”

— Tim Parsons

Related story: Neal Casal talks about making of the music that was played during the intermissions of Grateful Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” performances.

One comment

  1. Mark, I am impressed but not surprised. That night in Tupelo, Comodoor made a comment about your work saying, you had a very high ceiling.

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