Vineyard band Grateful Dread is built to last

From left: Mike Benjamin, Jon Zeeman singing, and Tom Major in the back. Missing from the current band are Wes Nagy and m'Talewa.
Photo courtesy of Tom Major

From left: Mike Benjamin, Jon Zeeman singing, and Tom Major in the back. Missing from the current band are Wes Nagy and m'Talewa.

Tom Major doesn’t need to feign modesty about his current band.

“Coming up with the Grateful Dread was one of my best ideas,” he says, laughing.

The Grateful Dread’s following speaks for itself, which has peaked with 400 attendees to its weekly show. The band’s music, billed as “Dead tunes with a reggae groove,” could be heard every Tuesday since July 13 at Nectar’s in Edgartown.

“I’m hoping this year we can keep it going through September,” Mr. Major, the Grateful Dread founder and drummer, says. “If people keep coming, we’ll keep playing.”

“We’re just gonna ride the wave,” Aaron Busick, general manager at Nectar’s, says.

Founded in 1988, The Dread also consists of vocalist/guitarist Mike Benjamin, guitarist Jon Zeeman, keyboardist Wes Nagy, and bass player m’Talewa. Band members boast impressive performance resumes, having played with the Allman Brothers Band, Carly Simon, Chuck Berry, and James Taylor.

“They’re all top-notch musicians, top-notch guys,” Mr. Busick says of the Dread.

The band started playing almost 20 years ago at the Atlantic Connection in Oak Bluffs. They discovered quickly that the Grateful Dead was a natural fit with the reggae genre.

“We found that the audiences just loved it,” Mr. Major, also the founder of the Boston Music Award-winning band Entrain, says. “It’s like a breath of fresh air, a little different twist on it…A lot of Dead-heads also have a love for reggae — it kind of crosses over.”

The Dead-reggae blend, Mr. Major says, also translates well to the Island.

“Reggae has always been huge on the Vineyard,” he says. “You’ll notice that Island music has a real flow to it. I think it has to do with the ocean.”

“The Island loves reggae, and who doesn’t love [Grateful Dead guitarist] Jerry [Garcia]?” Mr. Busick adds.

The Dread played the Atlantic Connection for two years before moving to New York. The band went on hiatus in 1992 and did not reunite until 2005, when they played a couple years at the Offshore Ale Co. in Oak Bluffs. Following a brief stint at Mediterranean, the Dread found a home at Nectar’s.

“Their following was real strong at the Mediterranean — they were pulling in 200 to 400 a night,” Mr. Busick says. “Moving out to the airport location [at Nectar's]was a big change for them…They needed a place to play, and we obviously have the sweetest venue in the world.”

“It’s one of the best venues in the northeast,” Mr. Major agrees. “We’ve got to keep that one going.”

As Nectar’s only all-ages show, the Grateful Dread draws fans from two or three generations. Mr. Major estimates that half of the band’s weekly audience is under 21. That doesn’t stop the older half from getting a little nostalgic.

“The old Dead-heads love to come out in their tie-dyes,” Mr. Major says, noting with humor that, as summer visitors and full-time residents of Martha’s Vineyard, the crowd is probably made up of some hedge-fund managers and high-powered lawyers.

The band has made a conscious effort to embody the spirit of the Dead’s music. The Dread often tries variations on its songs which, remember, started as variations of original Dead songs. From week to week, audiences might notice different versions of the same tune featuring tweaks on tempo and style — an old tendency of the Grateful Dead’s live act.

“We don’t want this thing to be so formulaic that it’s predictable,” Mr. Major explains.

After the Vineyard slows down at the end of the season, the band plans to continue playing shows on the mainland through winter. The Dread will return as Nectar’s resident band next summer.

The Grateful Dread plays Nectar’s every Tuesday from 9:30 pm to 12:30 am. Tickets are $10 at the door. For more information, visit thegratefuldread.com or nectarsmv.com.

Max Orenstein is a recent graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia, Penn., currently living in Edgartown.