Phil Bianchi, who died on July 14 at the age of 51, helped make Sancho’s Broken Arrow, the bar he opened with his two brothers in 2000, a Cheers for Deadheads. He would give customers nicknames and make sure they knew they were welcome there.
“He was the educator of the Dead and the questioner of the Dead,” his brother Jay says. “Someone would come in and he would interview them as customers, like start talking to them and get to know what they were about and what songs they liked and all that stuff.
“He would test people, make sure they’re not faking it. They’re not telling us that they saw 'St. Stephen' in 1990 when the last one was ’83. It was the no-bullshitters club. Like, ‘Okay, tell me your story.’ And he’d get to know people and know their stories. Basically, Sancho’s is a place where a lot of the black sheep of society congregate. He made those black sheep feel welcome and embraced and feel the love of the Dead.”
For the brothers, that love of the Dead dated back to 1985, when Phil and Jay saw the band at Red Rocks for the first time and heard the Dead cover Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy." The brothers also went to see the outfit at Red Rocks two years later when Bob Weir sang "Row Jimmy" and was making a rowing motion with his hands.
"It was like he was steering the whole thing," Jay says. "We just looked at each other, and we were laughing, and we knew that was awesome, and we knew we were in concert together – our minds were in concert."
Phil and Jay also attended a Dead show at Stanford University's Frost Amphitheater in 1989, where Jay says the group played one of its longest shows of that year; Jay says that’s when their brotherhood solidified.
Phil, who was two years older than Jay, encouraged his younger brother to go to college on the East Coast because “the Dead play more shows out there.” Phil continued to go to Dead shows in the West while Jay saw shows on the East Coast, and they’d trade stories.
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“I think we were almost like collectively trying to see as many shows as possible but at different places so we could almost compare notes,” Jay says. “And I feel like we covered a little more ground. We kind of worked in tandem.
“He always told me, ‘You gotta go see more shows. You never know how long Jerry will be alive.’ It was like he was pushing me to go see more shows, big brother. If he couldn’t go, he wanted to know he had a reporter out there — an envoy out there — like knowing what’s going on.”
After the Dead’s frontman Jerry Garcia died in August 1995, Jay decided he wanted to open a bar that would celebrate the music of the Dead. He called up his brothers Phil and Aric, saying, “Hey, I’m thinking of opening a bar — a Grateful Dead bar. And I got some posters. And we’ll get some tapes. We need a bartender. It’s got a kitchen. I said, ‘Hey, let’s do this,' and they jumped on it right away.”
In late 1996, they opened what would be the first incarnation of Quixote’s True Blue, honoring their father, who died in 1994, with a nod to his favorite literary figure. Quixote's was on the Denver-Aurora border on East Colfax Avenue, and Phil was the bar’s cheerleader extraordinaire — much like he would be when the brothers opened Sancho’s Broken Arrow on February 17, 2000, in the former Gold Nugget Country Disco space.
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While Jay says that he and Phil ran Sancho’s, Phil would show up as much as he wanted to and make sure the jukebox full of recordings of live Dead shows was rotated.
“Everything got done that was supposed to get done, but it wasn’t always him getting it done,” Jay says. “He was Tom Sawyer, kind of…. He would get other people to help him clean the bar with him, but those experiences of cleaning the bar with him were like memories forever for some people.”
There was a memorial for Phil last month at Be on Key Psychedelic Ripple, the venue Jay opened last year after closing Quixote's, and Jay estimates 600 to 700 people showed up and marched from Be on Key to Sancho's.
"It was pretty awesome," Jay says. "It was a great show of community and what we’ve done in the last 21 years."