Published on February 28th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Rusty Cole and the Reckoning Sink Their Chops into the Dead
Charleston songwriter/musician Rusty Cole never intended to become a bandleader of a Grateful Dead tribute band. After he and some friends performed one casual porch jam session after another at the Pour House, however, a Dead-centric combo gradually took shape under the name the Reckoning. It was a low-pressure, fun-filled, natural development that eventually blossomed into one of the most popular recurring shows at the Pour House.
“It all started on accident,” says Cole. “I used to be into the Dead when I first started paying music early in high school, but I kind of got burned out on it. I listened to a lot of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead and all that stuff. Then, when I went to college [at Northern Kentucky University] in the early ’90s, a lot of my friends were super into the Dead and all the deep cuts. I kind of got pushed into the deeper side of it at that point.”
As a college kid, Cole began playing guitar with various jam-rock bands (“lots of Dead and Phish,” he says) through his school years, but when he moved to Charleston in 2003, he stepped away from the jammy/hippie side of rock.
“Charleston was not a place with an overtly hippie/Grateful Dead scene back then,” Cole says. “I didn’t even know there were all these Heads that were into it until I started doing this thing. The Dead was huge in Kentucky, near Cincinnati and all around that part of the Midwest. When I got to Charleston, it was kind of anti-Dead in a way, with a lot of indie rock, Americana, and different pop and rock. I kind of fell into that, and I ended up getting out of the Dead for a bit.”
It wasn’t until Cole joined Sol Driven Train as the band’s electric bassist in 2005 when he started getting back into a Dead trip. The band regularly tour out West, stopping in Colorado for gigs.
“The Dead was so huge in Boulder and Denver,” Cole says. “That’s when it started sinking back into my blood. Denver’s the freakin’ Mecca — even more so than San Francisco. We played the Grateful Dead bars out there, places with tons of memorabilia.”
After one lengthy Sol Driven Train road trip in early 2010, Cole got a call from Pour House owner Alex Harris inviting him to cover for last-minute cancellation one Sunday afternoon. Cole accepted the offer, but he didn’t necessarily mean for it to spark a local Dead revival.
“Alex initially asked me to consider doing a solo show, but I don’t really do solo shows, so he agreed to have me invite whomever I wanted to join in,” Cole says. “I didn’t want to do my original stuff because I do it all the time with Sol Driven Train. I didn’t want to cover tunes just to make people happy. So I decided to rekindle my true love for the Dead, and I invited a few friends to come by.”
Cole invited his friend Stratton Lawrence (at that time of Po’ Ridge) to play bass and Wallace Mullinax (at that time of the Freeloaders) to play lead guitar and sing.
“We just said, ‘Fuck it,’ and we played and had a great time,” Cole says. “We had a blast, and the response was amazing. People said to us, ‘This is so cool because nobody really plays Dead tunes in town.”
Harris invited Cole and his mates back for additional shows on the deck stage. They eventually started filling in for local band Dangermuffin’s regular Wednesday evening shows. By the end of 2010, keyboardist Ross Bogan (a Sol Driven Train side man) began sitting in. Other local musical guests showed up, too, including bassist/guitarist Bobby Hogg (Po’ Ridge) and drummer Jack Friel (of Gaslight Street, Hungry Monks).
“Jack was already a huge Deadhead,” Cole remembers. “When he came out to sit in for the first time, we played a full show with no rehearsal or anything. It went great. It was around that time that the full-band version of the Reckoning really started drawing big crowds to the Pour House deck.”
When Bogan relocated to New York for an internship, local keyboardist Chris Duvall came aboard armed with intimate knowledge of much of Reckoning’s working repertoire.
“Ross never really bothered to learn the songs because he could play so easily over the top of them,” Cole says. “But Chris nailed everything right away. He already new the entire set so well. We started playing mid-’70s material and playing it really well.”
The Reckoning pushed ahead as a quintet with Mullinax, Duvall, Hogg on guitars and Friel and Cole’s Sol Driven Train bandmate Wes Powers tag-teaming on drums.
“When Wes moved to Charleston to play with Sol Driven Train full-time, he wasn’t really into the Dead at all,” Cole says. “Then he started listening intensely to all sorts of Dead. Now, he knows a lot of the set by heart.”
Over the last two years, Reckoning welcomed a rotation of special guests to the deck and main stages at the Pour House — such musicians as Alan Brisendine, Mark Davis, Mike Quinn, Whitt Algar, Mattie Thompson, and Steven Sandifer among others. The core band occasionally experimented with doing an authentic two-drummer set-up, and they still invite guest musicians and singers to join them at shows, but their core five members are responsible for learning and performing the material.
“There’s a beauty of the Dead in where you can play 1-4-5 blues 1-4-5 bluegrass, or these unbelievably complicated jazz things they’d get into,” Cole ays. “They’d play six-minute movements at the end of pieces with breakdowns and minor-key changes. As a blues player, it’s fun to play it. Plus, the characters in the lyrics of the songs are terrific, and the storytelling is terrific.”
“We don’t really rehearse, so we learn to play things on stage,” Cole adds. “If I ask my bandmates to learn three new songs, they show up at the next show knowing those songs. It’s pretty amazing. You know how hard it is to find responsible musicians.”
With nearly 100 songs in their ever-expanding repertoire, Cole and his bandmates simply show up, set up, and dive into their shows with no set lists and no idea what’ll happen. It’s a positive and amusingly loose situation on stage that fits the social gathering vibe at the venue.
The band switches things up at every show. They might bring out an early Dead cut like “Brown Eyed Woman” or “Ramble on Rose,” or some mid-’70s material like “St. Stephen” or “Stella Blue,” or a folksy cut from the Old and In The Way album (by Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass mid-’70s side project of the same name).
“We can dive into the deep-cuts stuff or the longer orchestrated, complex pieces and be challenged,” he adds. “It never gets boring for us. The harder the song is, the better sometimes. We have phenomenal musicians on hand; it satisfies us on the dork side of things to be pushed musically. On the fun side of things, you can get into those really good grooves and make people dance. The deep Heads love it, and the regular people who show up like it, too.”
“Every show is going to be a party,” Cole adds. “We’re going to get up there and get down. But the coolest thing about the band these days is the number of songs we can choose from. We never run out. And we’ve gotten into the Jerry Garcia Band and other projects connected to the Dead as well, so things have expanded into new reggae, bluegrass, and rock territory. The show changes all the time, and it’s cool to have such a deep library to pull from.”
The Reckoning perform the Pour House on Sat. March 2 at 9 p.m. Tickets are available for $8 (advance) and $10 at the door (attendees can get a $2 discount with a ticket stub from the Shovels & Rope concert). Hit or Miss (comprised of Cole’s SDT bandmates Joel Timmons and Ward Buckheister) perform early in the evening on the deck stage.
Top photo by Ballard Lesemann. Video clip below shot by David Keller.
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