On Sunday night, we found ourselves at Brooklyn Bowl for our first High Time concert. The Bowl is one of our favorite jam-band-loving venues in the city, and they cranked the experience up a notch for their resident Grateful Dead cover band.
We arrived a little bit ahead of time and were thrilled to see a miniature Shakedown Street set up in the venue. The vendors were selling High Time merch, 70’s and 80’s belt buckles with storied pasts, original artwork, and classic Grateful Dead t-shirts. Chatting with the folks at each table was a wonderful way to transition our minds from the hustle and bustle of New York City’s streets to the laid-back mindset suitable for a night of Jerry Garcia music.
The crowd quickly filled in as we perused the tables – a testament both to the dedication of the Grateful Dead fan base, and the appreciation they have for their local tribute band. High Time had clearly earned the love of the crowd during their fall residency at Brooklyn Bowl. As the lights dimmed, psychedelic graphics lit up the walls surrounding the crowd, and the band strolled onto the stage smiling and without fanfare.
The five-piece band, made up of Pete Tonti (lead guitar/vocals), Michael O’Neill (rhythm guitar/vocals), James Preston (bass/vocals), Kevin Uehlinger (keys/vocals), and Adam Kriney (drums/vocals), delivered classic song after classic song across two sets. The band focused on the first decade of the Grateful Dead’s music, and we were treated to tunes including “Jack Straw,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Playing in the Band,” “Truckin,” “The Other One,” and “Wharf Rat.” The veteran musicians deftly accomplished the somewhat elusive goal of a tribute band: providing a familiar touchstone for long-time fans while also bringing their personal sound to the stage.
The band’s sound had the opportunity to flourish during the extended jams, and it was a real joy to watch a group of talented musicians fully engrossed in extended improvisation. Individually, the talents of each musician shined as they explored their own ideas and reshaped classic tunes. Collectively, their rhythms and melodies danced, the band members clearly in the throws of a deep nonverbal conversation. The result was often a complex, yet exuberant, journey of a song that guided us through an evening of sonic exploration. The marriage of homage and innovation had the crowd moving in ways that only jam band crowds can inspire, and on many occasions singing along joyfully as we returned to familiar choruses.
the groovement had the pleasure of sitting down with band member, Michael O’Neill, before the show to talk about High Time and their music. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity (we talked for almost 60-minutes!). A full set list can be found after the interview.
Thanks for sitting down with us today, we’re pumped for the show. Why don’t we start off with the origin story – how did High Time start as a band?
Michael: Of course! It’s going to be a great show. High Time started in 2017, first by jamming, and then the first year of shows were in 2018. High Time really came out of another band called Dead Tape that Dan, Kevin, and I started. That’s where we first started experimenting with Dead music.
The jam band scene seems to be having a bit of a renaissance at the moment. Goose has clearly been gaining massive traction, but bands in indie/pop space, like Vampire Weekend, are also starting to experiment with jamming. Why do you think that is, and what led you to start experimenting with the Dead?
Michael: It’s really funny you say that. A bunch of us folks, and I don’t know how old the Vampire Weekend guys are, but a bunch of us 80’s kids grew up with Phish as this epic rock experience that everybody knew about. By the 2000’s, we all kind of turned away from the jam band scene, pivoted towards sounds that were newer and more our own. Now, a couple decades later, we’re all kinda “coming out” as Dead fans, looking around and saying “hey, yea, I like that band!” It’s really fun! Another example would be the National putting together that Dead compilation [in 2016].
That is pretty cool. We like that idea of there being this underground community of secret jam band fans who all hid their love of the genre for a decade or two. High Time focuses specifically on the first decade or so of Grateful Dead music. Why did you choose that specific era to pay tribute to?
Michael: This decade is what we like to call the “primal” Dead era. It started with the acid test shows, which were super explosive and psychedelic, and was all about taking the music to new territories. During this period, the band had no idea what their music would become, which we actually find gives more room for tribute bands like ourselves to put more of our own spin on it.
Makes sense. So what are the different sounds you each bring?
Michael: Well, each one of us kind of brings our own unique sound. Adam, the drummer, is a beast, absolutely relentless and energetic. Totally killer drummer. So he brings that psych rock, heavier influence, starting the energy off at like an 8 out of 10. I pull a lot from Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and indie rock of the 90s. Kevin studied with Anthony Braxton as a jazz pianist, and so he brings a bit more of an avant garde approach. And Pete is more reliably in the jam scene, so he grounds us in that Grateful Dead experience. Which is good, because he’s kind of our Jerry!
We love that, glad you guys have your own Jerry. So clearly there is something timeless about Grateful Dead music that makes bands like yourself want to put your own mark on it, and that makes fans come back to it time and time again. In your opinion, what makes this music so unique?
Michael: It’s interesting. The Dead were so experimental, it was incredible. I was talking to somebody just the other day about how a lot of their music is becoming like the new jazz standards. They were so experimental with their music that it allowed the form to exist outside of any specific recording. By opening it up in the way they did, they invite people in to connect to it in whichever way they find most genuine. The fact that the musicians are going on their own journey on stage gives each spectator the freedom to go on their own little journey. That’s what makes it so personal. And the fans are great, it never gets old!
That’s incredibly relatable, there have been so many shows where we’ve found ourselves going off on our own little journeys. That’s the charm of live music! Looking ahead, what are your plans for 2024?
Michael: This is still a bit open-ended, but we’ve got some exciting stuff in mind. We’ve loved our fall residency at Brooklyn Bowl and have also started playing a bit more regionally. We did shows in New Haven, Wellfleet (that one was awesome!), in Boston, and on the Jersey Shore. All of us have roots in the somewhat DIY, Williamsburg music scene, and we love the idea of capturing the spirit of the early Dead days, celebrating the music in a way that’s capturing a once in a lifetime moment. So folks will just have to stay tuned for what’s next! I’m pretty excited about it.
That’s wonderful. We’ll pose a hypothetical here – are there any jam bands you want to play with, or share the stage with if you could?
Michael: Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tango joined us in October, that was super fun. Do you know Garcia Peoples? They started around the same time as us, playing Union Pool those days while we were there a lot. They would be a ton of fun to do something with.
Sign us up for that show if you can make it happen. To wrap up, what feelings do you want people to leave your shows with?
Michael: We really want people to feel like they were at one of those early Dead shows. Those moments in history are long gone, and we can listen to the tapes of what they did back then, but more than that we all want to live that experience a bit. So we want to give people a place where they can feel like they were at a Dead concert in 1972, you know? Like a Veneta, Oregon, experience, where nobody in the band is burnt out yet, and everything’s super joyful. We’re happy if people leave the show feeling like they got the energy and spirit of what it was like to be there at the start.