Grateful Dead tribute band, Crazy Fingers playing at the Funky Biscuit and Fish Depot throughout May.
Photo by Crazy Fingers.
Many bands — those tangled webs of talents, personalities and egos — last mere months, but South Florida band Crazy Fingers (crazyfingers.net) have been paying tribute to the Grateful Dead since the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
Crazy Fingers played their first show at a Halloween party in Delray Beach in 1990 and have garnered a loyal legion of fans while performing the entire Dead catalog and beyond, including two albums of original material (“It’s a Strange Life” and “C’Mon and Dance”). The band still features two original members in bassist Bubba Newton and drummer/vocalist Pete Lavezzoli.
Oakland Park-based Lavezzoli has become a known commodity within the national Grateful Dead community, especially after that San Francisco jam band fell apart after guru guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia died in 1995. Lavezzoli has performed with Dead alumni in guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh, recorded with vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, and was a member of former Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist/vocalist Melvin Seals’ group from 2009 to 2020.
Enter Michael Gaiman, who has managed Jazz Is Dead, a group of jazz/fusion musicians playing instrumental Grateful Dead covers, since its 1998 debut CD, “Blue Light Rain.” When reuniting Jazz Is Dead for a 2023 tour celebrating that debut’s 25th anniversary, Gaiman knew the right drummer to team with original bassist Alphonso Johnson, guitarist Steve Kimock and guitarist/banjo player Bobby Lee Rodgers.
“Michael and I had worked together in other settings,” Lavezzoli says. “He approached me about doing a new project, and Bobby Lee’s name came up since I’d played jazz with him for over a decade. We talked to Alphonso, and he was on board. Then we approached Steve, who was very excited about it.”
The iconic Johnson’s touring and recording credits range from Weather Report and Chuck Mangione to Santana and Phil Collins, and he and Kimock worked together in The Other Ones, the 1998-2002 post-Dead alumni group with Weir and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart.
In Jazz Is Dead, Johnson alternates between electric and acoustic upright basses, plus the 10-stringed Chapman stick.
Rodgers, best known for The Codetalkers from 1999 to 2009, has since played demanding jazz tribute shows with Lavezzoli that salute Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.
All of which adds up to the jazzier, less fusion-centric and volume-intensive current performances by Jazz Is Dead. This kinder, gentler lineup’s tour started in January and includes a homecoming for Lavezzoli when the instrumental quartet plays at Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale on May 19.
“Our opening shows in California were a revelation,” the drummer says. “People were singing the lyrics, sometimes as loud or louder than us musically. In the jazz world, there’s a great deal of freedom for interpretation. And we feel the same way about the Grateful Dead, a band we see as part of the modern Great American Songbook.”
The Grateful Dead’s contribution continues to be championed throughout South Florida by Crazy Fingers, featuring Lavezzoli, Newton, singing guitarists Rich Friedman (with the band since 1993) and Johnny Nichols (2015), and singing keyboardist Josh Foster (1998).
Newton, Friedman and Foster have all left at various points. And the band lost Corey Dwyer, its longtime singing multi-instrumentalist, from a brain injury at age 45 in 2014 after initially being reported missing because of a spelling error at a Miami hospital after he was involved in a high-speed collision on I-95.
What a long, strange trip it’s been indeed.
See Crazy Fingers at 7:30 p.m. every Thursday at Fish Depot, 511 N.E. 4th St., Boynton Beach and 7:00 p.m. on Tuesdays May 16, 23 and 30 at the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd, Boca Raton.