First, the name.
Deadgrass is one of those names that you either get right away — and then probably you love it — or you just don’t get it at all until it is painstakingly explained to you. Then it’s clear, and you feel deeply foolish.
Full disclosure: I am in the second group.
So — the name.
Deadgrass is the name that group’s two founders, C Lanzbom (Mr. Lanzbom choses not to end his initial with a period) and Matt Turk, chose to reflect their love of the Grateful Dead in general and its leader, Jerry Garcia, in particular; grass is the bluegrass that echoes and wails through much of their work here.
On October 24, Deadgrass will open for musician James Maddock at Mexicali Live in Teaneck.
So what’s Jewish about Deadgrass? Are there any Jewish influences?
“This is Shimon, C’s alter ego,” Mr. Lanzbom said. “Have a little more cholent!” Then he grew a bit more serious. “Both Matt and I have roots in Jewish music,” he said.
“I always loved Jewish music,” Mr. Turk said. “When I was in my early 20s I met Pete Seeger, and we were involved in a project together. He suggested that I look at my own heritage.”
He did; now Mr. Turk, who is involved in a large number of projects and recently released a new album, is the musical director at Tamid, the Downtown Synagogue, in Tribeca in southern Manhattan, works at other synagogues, and is artist-in-residence at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “My whole thing is community and using music to bring community together,” Mr. Turk said. “It’s about singing together, quieting the mind, and opening the heart.
“Jerry’s music was all about opening the heart, having fun, and being in community.”
That line about looking at your own heritage? “In an article that I read, I saw that Jerry’s grandmother told him the same thing, to look at his heritage. He resisted it — but he did it.” (Although Mr. Garcia was not Jewish, part of his spiritual heritage was — his first name, Jerome, was in homage to the great Jewish American songwriter Jerome Kern.)
Mr. Lanzbom, who will not disclose his age, said that his parents, who died young, were Holocaust survivors; his family’s graphic stories of horror and escape “were normal for me,” he said. “I didn’t know anything different.” He grew up around the New Jersey egg farms that turned out to be a failed experiment in country living for Jewish postwar immigrants. “It was a whole crew of people who came over from Europe,” he said. “They played cards every Friday night. I grew up around Lakewood — that was in the 1970s, before Lakewood was Lakewood — and going to the beach in Point Pleasant.”
Mr. Lanzbom became interested in music — his idols were John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana — and through them in Indian spirituality. (To repeat, it was the 1970s.) “I met someone who said that I needed a Jewish guru, and that person took me to meet Shlomo Carlebach,” he said. “I took to him immediately — not his music but his teaching, his interpretation of Torah. It really set me on fire. He bought me a ticket to Israel.
“I had been playing guitar since I was 7. This happened when I was 19. I asked him if I could bring my guitar to Israel. He said, ‘How could you not?’
“That’s what brought me to Jewish music. And I took on observance of Judaism.”
Soon, Mr. Lanzbom and his friend Noah Solomon began the band they called Soulfarm. Originally Soulfarm was aimed at the general rather than the Jewish market, but it was Jews who loved the music most. The band took off in the Jewish world, where it is well-known and well-loved.
“That wasn’t the intent,” Mr. Lanzbom said, almost ruefully. “I have always been a rocker.” But still, he added, “This interpreting the music of Jerry Garcia started with interpreting the music of Shlomo Carlebach.”
“It’s kind of like we’re being led,” Mr. Turk said. “It’s like we don’t think through things. We do things, from a quiet place, and the universe kind of guides us, and people give us cues, or clues, and we take them.
“Shlomo and Jerry were similar sorts of musicians, and sources of inspiration,” he added.
“Yes,” Mr. Lanzbom said. “Shlomo was an amazing human being. I was fortunate to be close to him. When I first was on stage playing with Shlomo, my whole ambition was to be like Jerry Garcia, and to play with a band like the Dead.
“When I was with Shlomo, I said that this was like playing with the Dead. I mean, I knew it was different, but I still remember saying to myself that it was a little bit the same. It had a deep meaning and a deep impact on me.”
So, exactly what is Deadgrass?
“It’s acoustic Jerry Garcia music and stuff Jerry did with the Dead, and with his solo projects, and with David Grisman,” Mr. Turk said. “It’s bluegrass, it’s old music. We formed this project to interpret Jerry’s music.”
Mr. Turk and Mr. Lanzbom have known each other for years, and they both knew that they shared an interest in the music, so it seemed natural for them to come together in this part-time project. “We are five pieces,” played by five musicians, Mr. Turk said. “Fiddle, guitar, five-string banjo, upright bass, mandolin. We do three-part harmonies.” It’s modeled after another old Garcia project, the band called Old and In The Way.
“It’s a vast repertoire, because Jerry was such a prolific and significant artist, and he was having such a blast.”