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Deadheads find their muse in Ratdog

The band's performance brings to town the infamous hordes, who roved from concert to concert behind the Grateful Dead.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Newlyweds Jason Gow and Jessica Coomer-Gow kiss outside the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center as Gow sings and plays on a 12-string guitar that's missing seven strings. The two were in town for the Ratdog concert.

By ANGELA MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


TAMPA -- A funky aroma wafted through the air of downtown at rush hour Tuesday afternoon, a strange mixture of incense, sweat, grilled cheese and marijuana.

Years ago, that smell meant only one thing: Deadheads. Almost six years after Jerry Garcia's death, it still does.

There is no Grateful Dead anymore.

The band died with Jerry in the summer of 1995. But the Dead's improvisational, jam-band tradition lives on in bands like Widespread Panic, now-defunct Phish and smaller, regional bands with loyal followings.

But none of those bands is more equipped to carry out the band's legacy than Ratdog, fronted by Bob Weir, former guitarist and founding member of the Grateful Dead.

The band played the Performing Arts Center in Tampa Tuesday, bringing with it a rambling collection of Deadheads, old and young. The Volkswagen vans and weathered cars from places like Wisconsin, Colorado, New Jersey and Missouri invaded downtown's parking lots, replacing the sport utility vehicles and Volvos of working professionals.

The Deadheads -- they still call themselves that -- took over. And if you've seen one Deadhead, you haven't seen them all.

Sure, there were guys like Randy Chase, 38, who walked around in his tie-dyed shirt with a bongo drum tied to his back. He said that Deadheads will exist as long as "people crave freedom."

"I believe Jerry would be the first one to say that one guitar player was not the whole show," Chase said. "The show is love and music and spirit, and that's still here."

Then there was 18-year-old Tim Benson of Port St. Lucie, who drove to Tampa as soon as Centennial High School let out. He was 12 when Jerry Garcia died.

"I had heard them (the Dead) but I wasn't into them until high school," Benson said. "There's nothing like it."

Then there were shadier characters, people who would give you only first names or invented names. For legal reasons, they said.

Nile, 22, said he was originally from Oregon but now is a drifter. He hopped on the Ratdog tour in Atlanta because "I never saw Jerry and just the chance to see Bobby is awesome."

Be-bop, an earth mother-type with blue hair, and a guy called Justin Time travel with an older, experienced Deadhead known as Creature. They sell quesadillas and beer out of the back of a white Ford van that Creature paints over every so often so people can write messages on the back.

Jessica Coomer-Gow, 22, recently married Jason Gow, 30, in a "hippie ceremony" at Half Moon Lake in Ocala. They had known each other a little over a week, but Jason said it was what God wanted.

Jason, with a head full of dreadlocks and full beard, has been touring with the Dead and its successors since 1993. He jumped around and played his own songs on a guitar while Jessica sang. He wore a spot of gold glitter on his nose and crooked sunglasses with purple lenses.

A couple of hours before the show, they didn't have tickets yet, but like most Deadheads, they would figure that part out later. Heck, they didn't even know where they were going to be living next week.

"We cross bridges when we come to them," Jessica said. "It's a great way to live."

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