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Shakedown Street's long strange trip

Doing a story on Shakedown Street can be a very frustrating affair. All their best stories are unprintable and the rest get lost somewhere between the music and shots of Jameson whiskey.

"The best stories are too good to tell," said bass player Rick Starkey, who co-founded Shakedown Street with Ted Galloway in 1987. "The good ones are off the record."

But there are plenty of other stories, all of them funny and from the heart for this Grateful Dead tribute band that's grown into a Colorado institution. After all, Shakedown Street has been doing its thing for 15 years.

Interviewing the boys usually includes drinking like a fish and a having raucous, Colorado-style good time. It's a mellow groove -- no bar fights or anything too destructive, unless you're talking about your liver.

The band is touring in February throughout Colorado to celebrate 15 years in the business. As both Galloway and Starkey will tell you, what a long strange trip it's been.


Finding the groove

Shakedown Street started accidentally. Starkey, 49, was playing open-mike nights at the Ancient Mariner in Manitou Springs back in the mid-'80s when someone told him about a friend who played "just like Jerry."

The Jerry Garcia sound-alike (and look-alike, too) was Galloway, also 49, a native Manitoid recently back in town. Starkey and Galloway hooked up to jam and immediately felt a connection.

"Ted saw my apartment full of Dead posters and I was like, 'So you like the Dead, huh? How many shows you been to?'" Starkey remembers. "At that point, I'd been to about 15 shows. He told me, 'Three hundred or so.' I was like, whoa! That's when I knew Ted was special."

Starkey and Galloway decided to start a band. Not just any band, but a Grateful Dead tribute band.

Their first show was Feb. 13, 1987 at the Ancient Mariner and the locals turned out in force. A surfboard still hangs from the roof that reads, "Home of Shakedown Street."

"It was a Friday night, the 13th, on a full moon," Galloway said. "It was an auspicious start."


All about the music

Some musical snobs stick their noses up at Dead tribute bands, but just like anything to do with the Grateful Dead, you either get it or you don't.

"Grateful Dead music is timeless. It's as good now as it was then. It never gets old," said Galloway. "The music is emotional. It touches your soul and makes your body feel so dynamic. It's incredible."

Shakedown Street certainly doesn't have the market cornered. The Web page rukind.com lists 184 Grateful Dead clone bands throughout the country. With such names as the Trip Factory, the Village Idiots, the Lobster Crew and Headbones, there are Dead tribute bands in just about every state.

The buzz around Shakedown didn't take long to escalate to a fevered pitch.

"Within a year we were on the road touring every town in Colorado," Starkey said. "It got nuts fast. It just mushroomed."

Shakedown Street has been playing together so long the band members no longer practice. Their repertoire includes more than 400 songs by the Dead and other bands, but they don't play with a song list and never play the same songs on continuous nights.

"I usually know what Ted wants to play after a lick or two," says Starkey. "We're like a baseball team. We play 200 nights a year. We don't need to practice. We're performing."

David Gans, host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Grateful Dead Hour," called Shakedown Street one of the most authentic tribute bands in the country because they follow the Grateful Dead's freeform tradition.

"I really appreciate bands that play without a set list. If you already know what song you're going to play, you miss half the adventure," said Gans. "That's the admirable trait about Shakedown Street. It's wonderful that Shakedown is keeping that tradition alive."


A family affair

Galloway and Starkey have seen plenty of band members come and go, but Starkey calls the current lineup "our best ever." Rounding out the band are Jake Wolf on drums and David Recker on guitar and vocals, both from Leadville, and Bryant Jones on keyboards, also from Manitou Springs.

Shakedown Street has a loyal fan base throughout Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region. Their fans -- called "Shakeheads" -- will follow the band as they tour for several nights in a row. Some of their shows have become legendary, especially their summer gigs in such remote locales as Guffey, State Bridge and Mishawaka.

"It's great. We'll be playing Mishawaka for two or three days and we hear all kinds of stories of people driving by and seeing 500 Volkswagen camper vans and ask, 'What the hell is going on here?'" Galloway said.

By any measure, these guys have been around a long time. The band boasts that 37 couples have met at Shakedown shows and married, and none have suffered a divorce. The band's current drummer was 11 when the group started.

They've opened up for several top acts, including Los Lobos, Merle Saunders, the Jerry Garcia Band, Hot Tuna, Jerry Jeff Walker, The Beat Farmers, Arlo Guthrie, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and -- don't ask -- A Flock of Seagulls. Several members of the Dead have sat in on gigs.

"If someone told me I would be making a living doing this 15 years, I'd say no way," said Galloway. "The reason we've been doing this so long is that our fans won't let us quit. We genuinely love them. They're like family to us."

The fun continues to roll on. The 15th anniversary tour will feature two members of the Grateful Dead -- Vince Welnick and Bob Bralove. Jerry would be proud.

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