“Achilles Wheel never was a Grateful Dead cover band,” says guitarist Paul Kamm. “Today we cover The Dead one or two times a show. Sometimes we don’t cover them at all. The confusion is that some of the band members came from our days in cover bands.”
June 16 | 4 p.m.
Commons Beach | Tahoe City
After moving to Nevada City in 1980, Kamm traveled the country as a troubadour in a modern folk duo with his wife, Eleanore McDonald. It was around 1993 when he started jamming with local cover band The Deadbeats.
“When we first started, we all loved that music and we love it still,” says Kamm. “You can do one song all night long when you’re in a Grateful Dead cover band. We do have that background, but we’ve worked tirelessly to create our own material.”
On their latest record, “Sanctuary,” Achilles Wheel presents a vibey exploration of jam music riding Kamm’s evocative vocals, Jonny “Mojo” Flores’ fiery guitar and the fantastically multilayered drumming of Mark McCartney. Ben Jacobs on keyboard and accordion and Shelby Snow on bass round out the group. It’s one part String Cheese Incident, one part Railroad Earth and classic American roots, country and blues — the first record the band has done in a professional studio.
“That was an advantage,” says Kamm. “Instead of sitting in our home studio saying, ‘How does that sound, boys?’ we had guys who totally knew how to make it sound good.”
Although Kamm’s voice recalls the expressive freedom of James Taylor or Mark Knopfler more so than the soulful countertenor of Jerry Garcia, the rich lyrical content of his songs evokes the thoughtful and balanced compositions of the Grateful Dead catalog. Tunes such as “Drink the Water,” “Babylon by Morning” and “Turn the Worm” are deep, full voyages into live dance-beat magic with evocative imagery, unexpected melodic turns and fertile narratives woven into the multidimensional music.
“As a songwriter myself, [Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter was just the shit for me,” he admits. “I’m not turning my back on any of this stuff. When jams band started to get popular, the music sometimes seemed to take second place to the lyrics. Right from the beginning, The Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead were more about the songs.”
Lead guitarist Johnny “Mojo” Flores hosts Grateful Mondays jam sessions at Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads club in San Rafael and his occasional use of an envelope filter on his guitar does recall Garcia circa 1977. However, his style is not at all limited to perfectly intoned mixolydian runs and ancient banjo riffs. He can channel the pure, soulful blues of Duane Allman, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry with the best of them.
When Kamm and Flores first got together to jam in what became Achilles Wheel, they started out covering the staples: Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, The Band. The audience response was positive, but they noticed something happened when they slipped one of their original compositions: people didn’t leave the dance floor.
“So, we slowly worked more and more material into our catalog,” says Kamm. “As soon as we started playing together, we realized we’d be more than a bar band playing cover songs.”
Achilles Wheel recently received a Sammie award from Sacramento News & Review in the category of World Music. It’s a genre that began to take commercial shape around the time of Paul Simon’s groundbreaking 1986 LP “Graceland” by incorporating rhythms of indigenous tribes into contemporary music. Winning in this category style made sense to Kamm who had a world beat band called Matinee Forever with McDonald in the early 1980s.
“Even if we hadn’t been fans of Grateful Dead, we’re still going to be enjoying that sort of exploration,” he says. “We want to have a good party, but also have some social consciousness while were doing that.”
In spite of it all, Kamm won’t pass up a chance to jam with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir when Achilles Wheel shares the lineup with him and Wolf Bros at Santa Cruz Mountains Sol Festival in Felton in September.
“It’s been near misses forever,” he says “I would personally be stoked if Bob ever played with us, even a couple songs. That would get definitely get us going.”
Achilles Wheel kicks off the free summer concert series Concerts on Commons (sponsored by Tahoe Weekly) every Sunday in Tahoe City through Sept. 1. Check out the summer concert lineup at TheTahoeWeekly.com; click on Music Scene. | concertsatcommonsbeach.com