Tribute bands are commonplace, but the Englishtown Project might just be one of a kind: a group that pays tribute to one particular concert. The group, formed by guitarist and singer Michael Falzarano (New Riders of the Purple Sage, former Hot Tuna), recreates the legendary Sept. 3, 1977, show in Englishtown, New Jersey, which was headlined by the Grateful Dead and also featured the New Riders and the Marshall Tucker Band.
“To this day, it’s probably the biggest standalone Grateful Dead show, definitely the biggest in New Jersey,” says Falzarano of the concert that drew more than 100,000 fans to Raceway Park. “It was an all-day event and the bands played 70 different songs. It was a monumental moment: The Dead hadn’t played for a while after [drummer Mickey Hart] had broken his arm. It was a big comeback show.”
The Englishtown Project started from much humbler beginnings — a show at Garcia’s in Port Chester, New York, that drew 180 people. But for a first gig, that was a good turnout. The Project was then booked into the larger Brooklyn Bowl, like Garcia’s, also owned by jam band tycoon Peter Shapiro.
“Four-hundred people showed up and we had a great time playing the show,” says Falzarano. “I called up my agent, and said, ‘I’m doing this now.’ Now we’re booked out to New Year’s Eve of 2019.”
The Project will perform on Saturday (4/20, by the way) at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Wilkes-Barre. Cabinet’s Pappy Biondo and Dylan Skursky with Al Smith will open the show.
The band features some well-known musicians from the extended Dead scene, including Zen Tricksters members Tom Circosta (guitar, vocals), Klyph Black (bass, vocals) and Dave Diamond (drums, vocals). Keyboards are handled by Mookie Siegel, who’s played with the Dead’s Bob Weir in Ratdog, Phil Lesh collaborator Scott Guberman or Mark Mercier of Max Creek, depending on who’s available. Rob Wolfson (guitar/vocals) has played in Dead Sage, Joe Gallant’s Illuminati Orchestra and DeadCenter All Stars, classically trained singer Clare Maloney has performed everywhere from Lincoln Center to Brooklyn Bowl, and second drummer Jeff Chirco has played with Dead singer Donna Jean Godchaux and John Kadlecik (Furthur, formerly with Dark Star Orchestra).
The Dead were the major draw to the original Englishtown show, as they are to the Englishtown Project. And the New Riders were familiar to Deadheads, as the initial lineup featured Jerry Garcia and other Dead members. So where does that leave the Marshall Tucker Band (who, coincidentally, will play at Wilkes-Barre’s FM Kirby Center on Nov. 8)?
“Going into this, I of course knew who the Marshall Tucker Band were and we had played multiple shows with them over the years,” says Falzarano. “But I wasn’t that familiar with their material. They have a lot of really great songs and great hits that I had forgotten about, to be honest with you. When we do the Englishtown show, on any given night the songs that get the most excitement and the most applause are those songs, and I think it’s because there aren’t that many people out there that play them.”
In addition to the classic rock radio staple “Can’t You See,” those songs include “Fire on the Mountain” — meaning the Project can play the Dead’s and Marshall Tucker’s songs of the same name in one night.
The Project doesn’t play the original show note for note and changes its setlist a bit from show to show.
Asked where he was on Sept. 3, 1977, the night of the fateful event, Falzarano laughs.
“I absolutely don’t know,” he says. “That was the year I moved to San Francisco, so by September I had already met Jorma and Jack (Kaukonen and Casady of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna) and that old gang of people and some of the members of the Grateful Dead. I know I wasn’t at the actual even in New Jersey, but I was probably getting my feet wet i nthe San Francisco scene.”