Centre College’s Larry Bitensky resurrects the Grateful Dead

Posted by Centre News in Music, News, Performing Arts 30 Mar 2017

Larry BitenskyThere aren’t many classes modeled after a specific rock band, but in the opinion of Larry Bitensky and the students in MUS 217, the phenomena known as the Grateful Dead makes an ideal subject for studying not only a variety of music styles but also the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“The Grateful Dead were a musical and cultural institution unlike any seen in American history,” says Bitensky, W. George Matton Professor of Music.

Sam Long, a junior from Cincinnati, says he’s learned much about music from the class.

DeMontre Lewis, left, and Sam Long jam with Dino English, drummer with the Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star, in Grant Hall during a recent class.

“The Grateful Dead’s music famously has influences from all genres of music like jazz, the blues, folk, and even classical. They weave all these genres together to create their own unique sound. All genres are evident in their music and play an integral role, making them an extremely relevant band to study in regards to music.”

As a history major, Long also sees the class as a valuable way to learn about two turbulent decades of the 20th century.

“It’s a music class, yet it could also double as a history class as it teaches how the Dead influenced and was inspired by the counterculture movement throughout the 60’s and 70’s.”

David Boyd, a senior from Atlanta, says the Grateful Dead class transcends the biography and discography of the group.

“Like the Dead, the class is about more than just music; while a lot of our class time is dedicated to understanding the theory behind the jams, we’re really trying to get at what it means to be on this long, strange trip together,” he says, borrowing a phrase from the Dead song, “Truckin’.”

Boyd says the class is helpful to him for many reasons.

“This class is unique from other classes in that much of the learning is experiential. For instance, we’ve all formed bands and we’re performing Dead jams for a major project. It’s also been interesting to study something so contemporary, as in many ways we’re studying a living history.”

Bitensky has brought a drummer from Dark Star, a well-known tribute band, to the class to jam with the students and has also arranged for Born Cross Eyed, a tribute band from Lexington, to play at Brothers’ BBQ and Brewing Co., a local eatery, on April 7. That show is open to the public.

Naturally, Bitensky is enjoying teaching a class about his favorite band.

“For 30 years they ignored virtually all the conventions of popular music success — they rarely had any radio hits, they let people illegally tape their concerts, they were devoted to life on the road and live shows, and their live performances were completely lacking in spectacle. Yet, their dedication to incredible and sophisticated songwriting, unparalleled heights of rock improvisation, and an alternative lifestyle inspired countless people to join their traveling circus and become ‘deadheads’.”

He admits the label applies to him since in his younger days he followed the band, quite literally, attending more than 100 concerts along the East Coast and beyond.

Though the Grateful Dead broke up 22 years ago after Jerry Garcia’s death, for Bitensky and his students, the “long, strange trip” continues.

by Sallie Bright
March 30, 2017