Slice of Life

The guy that started this Grateful Dead cover band has seen them more than 200 times

Pearly Baker’s Best has become a staple of Monday nights at Funk ‘n Waffles’ downtown location. The Grateful Dead tribute band plays there just about every week. The Daily Orange hopped on the phone with the group’s lead man and rhythm guitarist Charley Orlando to talk about his love for the Grateful Dead and how it led him to create his own tribute band.


The Daily Orange: Where did your Grateful Dead fandom stem from?

Charley Orlando: I think the first time I got turned onto the Grateful Dead was 1981. A friend of mine’s sister gave me a bootleg tape. It was Holleder Stadium 1979. But I listened to that tape over and over again and it just freaked me out, so I went on a mission to see the Grateful Dead as soon as I possibly could. I was only maybe 11 or 12 at the time, and I saw my first show in 1985, and probably between the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia I’ve probably seen him them about 200 times. I spent a large portion of my youth following them all over the country.


The D.O.: Tell me about that first experience. What got you hooked that you would want to go so many times in the future?

C.O.: It was kind of like stepping somewhere where you had previously felt like, “Where is my spot in this world?” and you found it. It wasn’t even just the music — it was the whole entire thing. They had this vibe about them, this mental air in their crowd and music. It was just totally addicting.


The D.O.: What is it about their shows that keeps you coming back?

C.O.: They’ve never ever done the same song the same way twice. Ever. By the time I was getting to see them they had a method to it. But even at that, they’d take 100 songs to tour that they would rotate — maybe even 150 — from a catalog of songs that they would know. And you would just never know if they would pull something that they had never done before. They could be in the middle of a jam and fall into something and just not leave it and actually try to play it even though they hadn’t played it in 10 years. You could tell by watching them that they didn’t even know where it was heading at times. It was really fun watching the music play the band sometimes. I’ve never seen a band like that. There is not a band like that.


The D.O.: So when did you decide, “Oh I want to start performing as a Grateful Dead cover band?”

C.O.: Well the first time I did it I was in high school. The first band I was ever in was a Grateful Dead cover band. And I played in that and for my whole entire high school career. But when I graduated and stuff I started doing my own music, which is what I did for the last 25 years. I didn’t start doing Grateful Dead again until I formed Pearly Baker’s Best with a bunch of people two years ago.


The D.O.: And how did you meet these guys?

C.O.: I’m also the talent buyer for Funk ’n Waffles and so the general manager and bar manager Sam Levey and I were talking and he wanted to bring back the Monday night Dead nights. I don’t know if you know this but where Sutter’s Mill used to be up on the hill — it’s closed now, there’s nothing there — but every Monday night was Dead Night when I went to college up in Oswego. That’s kind of what I grew up on, so I tried to bring that back. We tried a bunch of different things in the first six months or so, and a lot of it didn’t work that well and come to fruition. So I just started saying, “I’m going to play in the band, I’m going to find the right people.” The people that I sought out were the right people. The drummer is Tim Bergen who used to play all those Monday nights. Then I picked Brian Lauri to be the keyboard player because there is no person that knows the Grateful Dead better keyboard-wise that I know. Eric Brown to me is the only person in the area that can pull Jerry Garcia off without copying him and the bass player Eric Wise is a funny story. I had no idea he even lived in Syracuse. I knew him from back in college. Then another person who I ended up knowing from high school subbed for drummer tonight and we ended up just keeping both of them to have the full six-piece band with two drums, two guitars and bass and keyboard player.


The D.O.: Where does the name Pearly Baker’s Best come from?

C.O.: Pearly Baker’s Best is a line from the song “Wharf Rat,” and Pearly Baker is one of the characters in the song. He mentions that I love my Pearly Baker’s best more than I want. I always thought Pearly Baker’s Best was a great name for a band no matter what kind, and this just seemed like the prime opportunity. And it’s also one of those things who know the Grateful Dead somewhat, the people who love the Grateful Dead, know what it is.


The D.O.: What kind of people do you have coming out to these shows? Is it a lot of Grateful Dead diehards?

C.O.: It’s kind of interesting because we’ve turned Grateful Dead night into a music series. So, last week we had Marco Benevento with Pearly Baker. So we play every week as well, but we sometimes pull in bigger acts. It’s turned into this thing where it’s kind of a Grateful Dead community where we invite people in to play and put on bigger shows. We’ve actually started a Facebook page called Monday Night Faithful, and it’s just a group of people that come every Monday because we’ve built ourselves up to a point where we know 200 songs of either the Grateful Dead or original music and we circulate it so we don’t repeat a song for six or eight weeks. So people come because they don’t want to miss what could happen. They’re getting something new every time. Once we get into the improv parts of it, it really is anyone’s game.


The D.O.: What are your thoughts on John Mayer joining Dead and Company?

C.O.: Well, I’m not a big John Mayer fan. I think he’s a great guitar player. I also think he’s a great vocalist. I also think he’s a really great songwriter. But he’s never been someone who has turned my head in any way. I think his blues stuff with Steve Jordan was pretty excellent. As far as him playing Grateful Dead music, I don’t think either way about it. If that’s something he likes to do, and it’s something that the remaining band members think is the direction — I mean, it’s their music, you know? Then God bless them. They all seem to be having a blast. To be honest with you, I got really lucky. I got to see the Grateful Dead a lot with basically original members. For those people who hear that music and were turned on like I was and go to see it they don’t get to see the original thing but they do get to see something. And I think that’s super important.


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