"I'm actually not really a Grateful Dead fan," confesses Polytoxic frontman Tori Pater. "I don't tell many people this."
Understandably. Even I am stunned by Pater's admission -- and I have about as much use for Jerry Garcia and company as I do for a hairstylist. To hear such a declaration coming from a fixture of our city's burgeoning jam scene -- well, some hippies might call it heresy. You know, take away a dude's patchouli oil and whatnot.
"I'm definitely a fan," Pater clarifies with a laugh. "It's just that I'm very naive. I'm a redneck. I'm from Widespread Panic and Allman Brothers land. I don't know the names of all their songs. In the scene that I'm in, it's funny. People will say things like, 'Why don't we play this song?' I'll look at them blankly, and they'll be like, 'That's a Grateful Dead song.' There are definitely some people who look at me cross-eyed because of that."
Sacrilege aside, Pater and his bandmates -- keyboardist/bassist CR Gruver and drummer Chad Johnson -- are virtuosos with deep roots in the jam community. In addition to playing in such celebrated local acts as Crispy Critters, Two Ton Moxie and lauded Panic-centric tribute band the Alan Parsons Project, Gruver's a member of Outformation, led by Panic guitar tech Sam Holt. And then there's Polytoxic. Formed just last November, the band's stock has risen surprisingly quickly: In June, the relatively unknown trio upset perennial fave String Cheese Incident to take home a Westword Music Showcase Award in the Jam/Bluegrass/Improv category. And this past weekend, the outfit debuted at the Fillmore Auditorium, where it warmed up for Umphrey's McGee, Phish's supposed heir apparent. Not bad for an act that rarely rehearses and has yet to record a proper studio album.
"We really do just make it up as we go along," Pater notes. "I don't even write any of this stuff down."
But Polytoxic isn't all about improv. For the past year, the act has focused on learning and performing nearly a dozen classic albums, one a month: Terrapin Station, by the Grateful Dead; Zenyatta Mondatta, by the Police; Fiyo on the Bayou, by the Neville Brothers; Joshua Tree, by U2; Hoist, by Phish; In the Jungle Groove, by James Brown; Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin; Exile on Main Street, by the Rolling Stones; Appetite for Destruction, by Guns N' Roses; and The Last Waltz, by The Band.
"Basically, we did it all as a publicity stunt," Pater explains. "We won't be doing these albums next year. We decided to do it for one year, to drum up business, to get people talking about us."
Worked like a charm. Ever since I heard about the Last Waltz gig this past spring, I've been dying to see it for myself. And this Wednesday, November 23, I'll get my chance, at Cervantes' Masterpiece Ballroom. For the uninitiated, the Band played its swan song on Thanksgiving night 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland; the legendary four-hour performance -- which featured a host of luminaries ranging from Bob Dylan and Van Morrison to Neil Young and Eric Clapton -- was captured by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz. In May, Polytoxic assembled more than two dozen guest musicians at Dulcinea's and replicated the performance in its entirety.
"It was pretty huge," Pater recalls. "It sold out pretty fast. We put a shit-ton of effort into it, and only some people got to see it. So that night, we were like, 'Well, let's do it again.' And since The Last Waltz was on Thanksgiving, we decided we'd do it again on the night before Thanksgiving. This time, we're doing it with more guests and more songs. Last time, we did the whole movie soundtrack, and we actually even added a few. This time, we're doing that, plus the songs that made it on the CD but didn't make it in the movie. I don't know what the final count is, but there's definitely over thirty songs.
"We spent a lot of time watching the movie," Pater continues, "and basically casting which musicians we knew would be good in which parts. And everybody killed it at the May show. It was comedy for us. We had three different Dylans. And the guy that does Neil Young is the funniest fucking thing I've ever seen in my life. He literally went out and bought a jacket that looked exactly like the one he was wearing. Everyone just really jumped into it. There was not one weak moment."
Although The Last Waltz is definitely the most epic Polytoxic production, each of the albums has been as entertaining as it's been challenging, Pater says. Last St. Patrick's Day, the group played two and a half hours' worth of U2 material, and a few weeks ago, it presented G N' R's magnum opus before a roomful of tree-huggers at Quixote's.
"We just did Appetite for Destruction, which was fucking hilarious," Pater says. "I'm not a real big Guns N' Roses fan -- frankly, I'm a hippie -- but to be able to play these songs at 120 decibels was just the funniest thing. I was buzzing for days after that, and it was packed and people went nuts. It's definitely a Grateful Dead bar. There's always acoustic Dead going on or this and that. So basically we set up a whole night of hair-metal bands on the iPod, all Def Leppard and that shit. So here's this hippie bar, with every single person in there just head-banging. They loved it. It would have been really easy for us to pick all hippie music, but everyone likes a bunch of different styles of music."
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Polytoxic has a similar cross-genre appeal. Says Pater, "We are the band -- at least I like to think so -- that if you're the kind of person who says, 'I listen to everything," then I think you would like us. We definitely have our hippie side, but we kind of do a little bit of everything."
After spending so much time emulating other musicians, though, Polytoxic is eager to find its own voice. And the band will spend the first part of 2006 doing just that.
"We're thinking that we might just go hole ourselves up, maybe in a house somewhere out of town, and hunker down," says Pater. "I have over 150 songs, and I've probably only brought about twenty to this band. And of those, I would say fifty of them are really strong and solid. Fifty of them are songs that are maybe a bit more indulgent, and then the other fifty are just crap, things I've written that either I don't like or that I've played and people never really dug."
That's pretty prolific: Maybe Pater is one of Jerry's kids after all.