Lockn’ Down The Dead’s Legacy: Inside Peter Shapiro’s Appalachian Jam

Jay Blakesberg
– Lockn
Peter Shapiro (center) flanked by the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh (left) and Bob Weir (right) at Lockn’ 2017 in Arrington, Va. Both Lesh and Weir played several sets over multiple days at the festival that year.

Once Bob Weir arrives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains for Lockn’, the jam-heavy festival held in Arrington, Va., he sticks around.

“He doesn’t even travel to a hotel,” says Matt Busch, Weir’s co-manager. “He just camps on a bus backstage, and he’s there.”

Few musicians embody Lockn’, now in its seventh year, better than Weir. Furthur, his band with fellow Grateful Dead founder Phil Lesh, headlined the festival’s 2013 debut three times over, and whenever Weir plays Lockn’ – which he has, under various guises, every year besides 2016 – he’s omnipresent, popping up at multiple sets, announced and not.

This year, Bob Weir and Wolf Bros, his new group with Don Was and Jay Lane, will make its Lockn’ debut, closing the festival’s final night with guest appearances from Susan Tedeschi and Mikaela Davis. Weir will also sit in for Oteil & Friends, spearheaded by his Dead & Company compatriot Oteil Burbridge, and, in an oddball pairing, he’ll play with fiery reggae band Steel Pulse. Plus, Busch teases, Weir will make at least two other unannounced appearances, if not more.

Weir Here
Jay Blakesberg
– Weir Here
Lockn’ regular and Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir performs during the second of Dead & Company’s two headlining shows at the festival on Aug. 26, 2018.

“He’s probably going to see someone backstage and go, ‘I want in,’ or someone will see him and go, ‘Hey, would you join us?’” Busch explains. “We make that joke every year: You book him for three, you get four; you book him for four, you get six. That’s just how Bob is.” 

At every turn, Weir’s creative impulses – and those of eclectic artists spanning blues-based psychedelia, prog-oriented jam rock, roots music and more – have flourished at Arrington’s Infinity Downs Farm under the watch of Peter Shapiro, the 46-year-old impresario who founded Lockn’ with fellow jam world luminary Dave Frey in 2013.

“It’s taking some of the best of what was done in festivals and just taking that spirit and trying to layer our own version on top, now in this beautiful area, the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Shapiro says. “I’m a fan. A lot of the time, I’m like, ‘What do I want to see? What do I want to do?’ And then I try to execute that.”

Shapiro’s intuitive approach to live music – to emphasize what he loves as a fan, and then infuse it with even more of what he loves – has defined his career, which extends far beyond Lockn’. A shrewd businessman, Shapiro, who has operated his holdings through Dayglo Ventures since 2012, has racked up a dizzying resume over the last decade, from launching Brooklyn Bowl in 2009 to reviving the pre-war Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., in 2012. (For more, read a Q&A with Shapiro about his venues.)

In perhaps the greatest feat of a promoter this side of Bill Graham, Shapiro reunited the Grateful Dead’s “Core Four” of Lesh, Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart – and recruited Phish’s Trey Anastasio, for good measure – for five 2015 “Fare Thee Well” shows in Santa Clara, Calif., and Chicago, that grossed an astronomical $52.2 million.

“We know he gets it,” Busch says. “We see his enthusiasm for the music, for protecting the legacy, for the greater good. … Everybody puts a lot of trust in him, because they know he’s there for the long run.” 

“Fare Thee Well” put a tidy, tie-dyed bow on the seminal band’s half-century career, while exposing an entirely new generation to the Dead and the broader jam world.

“‘Fare Thee Well’ was supposed to be the end, but it ended up being a beginning,” Shapiro says. “That’s one of the best parts of having done ‘Fare Thee Well’: We got to turn it back on again, and kids then want to go to other shows for Lockn’ kinds of bands.”

Dead & Company, the touring juggernaut comprised of Weir, Hart, Kreutzmann, Burbridge, John Mayer and Jeff Chimenti that has grossed $148.1 million since forming in late 2015, might not exist, at least on its current scale, without “Fare Thee Well.” And Shapiro says hearing from Deadheads who have caught summer Dead & Company shows has been among the most rewarding lingering aspects of “Fare Thee Well.”

“To get to bring your kid to a summer amphitheater Dead show, there isn’t a comp to that in the live music business,” he says. 

Naturally, the band concluded its 2018 summer tour with two headlining spots at Lockn’.

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As with many aspects of Shapiro’s career, his relationship with Busch traces back to Wetlands Preserve, the ‘90s jam haven in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood that Shapiro, then a recent Northwestern grad passionate about artists of the Dead’s ilk, purchased in 1996 and operated through its 2001 closure.

Wetlands is something of a Rosetta Stone for Shapiro’s myriad accomplishments, including Lockn’. It was Wetlands where, in February 1999, Shapiro introduced Busch to Weir – and where, during that same stand of shows celebrating the club’s 10th anniversary, Shapiro brought in pop trio Hanson to perform several Dead staples with the musician.

Wetlands Revival
Erika Goldring / Getty Images
– Wetlands Revival
Derek Trucks (left) and Warren Haynes (right) during The Allman Brothers Band’s headlining Lockn’ set on Sept. 7, 2014. The guitar heroes frequented New York’s Wetlands Preserve in the ’90s.

At the notoriously no-frills Wetlands, Shapiro also honed his unparalleled talents for fan experience and booking creativity. “The fundamentals of the venue weren’t there,” he says. “We were challenged, so the details became more important.”

Though orders of magnitude bigger and far from New York’s dingy climes, Lockn’ radiates similar vibes.

Derek Trucks, who has played every Lockn’ except the 2017 edition and has known Shapiro since Wetlands, says the festival has always “felt like a family reunion with Pete and a lot of alumni from the Wetlands days.” This year, Trucks and Tedeschi, who together lead Tedeschi Trucks Band, will be unavoidable: In addition to Tedeschi’s appearance with Weir, TTB headlines Saturday and Trucks will sit in with Friday headliner Trey Anastasio Band.

For 40-year-old Trucks, Shapiro represents the next generation. Artists born long after the Summer of Love see Shapiro as one of their own, and he’s championed modern acts in what he defines broadly as “blues-infused improvisational jam rock.”

“He’s got the right vision for keeping the music going forward,” says guitarist Warren Haynes, who has played five Lockns and has a similarly extensive past with Shapiro. “He honors the history, but he also wants to see it go somewhere it’s never been before – and I think that’s great.”

With artists like these supporting it, the independent Lockn’ has differentiated itself from the corporate festival world – with the names removed, Shapiro muses, the lineups of many top-tier fests are indistinguishable  – by valuing community and camaraderie above all else.

“A lot of festivals, it’s like, there’s no common thread here,” Trucks says. “It’s just a fuckin’ money grab. This one, it really feels like it’s a labor of love.”

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Both Lockn’s spirit and its business foundation harken to Wetlands. The club opened in 1989, and Frey managed early regular Blues Traveler, which Shapiro calls “the band that made Wetlands.” From 1992 to 1998, Frey ran the Lollapalooza-like festival Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere (H.O.R.D.E., for short) with the band’s frontman John Popper, which featured groups such as Phish and Widespread Panic and helped proselytize the jam ethos.

Uniting Jam World Generations
Jay Blakesberg
– Uniting Jam World Generations
Dave Frey (left) and Peter Shapiro (right) photographed at Lockn’s home on Infinity Downs Farm.

About a decade ago, with the festival business booming, Shapiro and Frey reconnected. They determined a H.O.R.D.E revival didn’t make sense, Frey says, but thought, “We should do a festival that we would like to go to, that’s as music-centric as possible.” The duo envisioned a jam-oriented event where artists would play full sets, fans wouldn’t have to sprint from stage to stage and the music would never stop.

“We came together, two different generations of jam world, a little bit, and created Lockn’,” Shapiro says. 

Frey, who recently had relocated to Charlottesville, Va., began to hunt for a site, and regional promoter Michael Allenby suggested Arrington’s Oak Ridge Farm. Frey was impressed, and, after road-tripping from New York, so was Shapiro. 

“The beauty comes from not being right next to something, a downtown,” says Shapiro, contrasting Lockn’ with urban festivals. “It takes energy and effort to go.” 

Despite their combined industry sway, it was challenging to sell major jam world names on a new festival in a remote corner of Virginia; even Tennessee’s Bonnaroo which, in its infancy, booked similar acts, is only an hour drive from Nashville. Frey says Lockn’ remains “indebted” to Paradigm agent Jonathan Levine, who negotiated Furthur’s 2013 Lockn’ appearance, bolstering the fest’s credibility.

“Remember at Tiananmen Square, that one guy standing in front of the tank? That was J.L., for us,” Frey says.

“They basically had me at ‘Hello,’” says Levine, an influential figure on jam’s agency side. “Their vision for what Lockn’ could be in that jam band space was crystal clear.”

Longtime Phish manager Coran Capshaw, whose Red Light Management has an office in Charlottesville, less than an hour from Arrington, was also an early Lockn’ supporter, with his Starr Hill Presents serving as a partner since the festival’s inception.

The festival never looked back. In 2014, Lockn’ purchased Infinity Downs Farm, adjacent to Oak Ridge, and hosted The Allman Brothers Band, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Furthur, Willie Nelson, Wilco and more. That year, Lockn’ grossed $7,696,776, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports.

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Shapiro has delighted in presenting unexpected collaborations since Wetlands and the Jammys, the jam-centric awards show he organized from 2000 to 2008 with Jambands.com founder Dean Budnick, now editor-in-chief of the Shapiro-published Relix.

All In The Family
Jay Blakesberg
– All In The Family
Grateful Dead co-founder and frequent Shapiro associate Phil Lesh performs with The Terrapin Family Band at Lockn’ on Aug. 25, 2017.

“Pete’s an instigator and a catalyst,” says keyboardist Joel Cummins, whose band, the Wetlands stalwart Umphrey’s McGee, teamed with Huey Lewis, Mavis Staples and Sinead O’Connor at the 2005 Jammys. “That’s something that I never imagined in my wildest dreams would happen, and what a cool thing that it did.” 

The billings, Shapiro’s signature at the Bowl and the Cap, are mutually beneficial, with Shapiro facilitating bucket-list-caliber shows for artists and fans alike as he reaps box office rewards. At Lockn’, those unions have thrived.

“He has an amazing talent at not just imagining magical musical moments, but bringing them to reality,” says Chris Moody, vice president of business and finance at Dayglo. “That dovetails into Lockn’. What’s a better stage to do that than a festival?”

That’s one reason why, in a touring world where artists might play two or even three festivals in a weekend, Lockn’ encourages performers to stay a while.

“There are only a handful of events like that that you would want to hang around and soak up the vibe and be a multi-day part of it,” says Haynes, who played in three different groups over three nights in 2015. “It needs to be the right vibe, and Lockn’ is definitely that way.”

Lockn’ “really pushes artists to get a little out of their comfort zone or to go a little harder at it,” says Trucks, adding that given the performers on offer at Lockn’ – and its willingness to bring in more talent when artists have promising ideas – “the sky’s the limit as far as who you want to play with.” 

The approach yields plenty of low-stakes partnerships, but it also produces high-concept artistic summits, like 2015’s all-star tribute to Joe Cocker’s landmark 1970 live album Mad Dogs & Englishmen

“Joe Cocker was ready to confirm, and he was going to do Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” says Frey, “and he was OK for the first time in 45 years with playing with Leon Russell, who he hadn’t talked to in 45 years.” 

Many promoters would’ve nixed the project after Cocker’s December 2014 death. But Lockn’ soldiered on, hosting many of the album’s original players, including Russell and Rita Coolidge. Trucks served as musical director, Tedeschi Trucks was the house band and artists including Haynes, Traffic’s Dave Mason and The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson also joined in.

Jay Blakesberg
– UmLockn’
Umphrey’s McGee performs at Lockn’, in Arrington, Va., on Aug. 23, 2018. The jam band’s relationship with festival co-founder Peter Shapiro dates back two decades to gigs at his Manhattan club Wetlands Preserve.

Russell played the closing title track, traditionally a duet with Cocker, astride an empty microphone stand with a spotlight on it. Says Frey: “That was a once in a lifetime thing that happened at Lockn’ that’ll never happen again.”

Form meets function at Lockn’, too, which takes its moniker from its original name, “Interlocken,” a nod to the two interlocking main stages that alternated sets and provided crowds with uninterrupted music. In 2016, Lockn’ streamlined the concept, paring the two stages to one, which resembles other festivals’ from afar, but houses a built-in turntable platform that rotates as sets change. As one artist plays, another can prepare backstage.

When artists first encounter the turntable, Moody says, “They’ll jump on it like they’re surfing, like they’re kids again. It’s not a job; it’s ‘We’re out here and we’re having fun.’ That’s the magic of Lockn’, and it comes from Pete.”

The innovation presented new creative frontiers. Last year, Lettuce and Umphrey’s McGee closed out Lockn’s first day by alternating two sets each. For the final transition, from Lettuce to Umphrey’s, the bands halted the stage’s rotation halfway and performed a collaborative cover of Herbie Hancock’s 1975 fusion cut “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” 

“We had a huge, two-band jam,” Cummins says. “Pete really encouraged us to be creative with how we approach this stuff.”

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Looking ahead comes with the turf, especially when that turf has a name like Infinity Downs and is overseen by Peter Shapiro. He and Frey now own the 387 acres Lockn’ uses, and they’ve started to make infrastructure improvements to prime it for other events.

“Hopefully, in the future, we can create a setting that can be used by other bands, without the full overhead of having to go in and set up from zero,” Shapiro says. 

Alluding to the spate of festival cancellations this summer, Shapiro suggests that building out Infinity Downs could attract artists who want to stage unique events, but are wary of the associated risks. Amenities like permanent plumbing are no-brainers, but Shapiro also mentions features like on-site cabins to house fans uninterested in camping or RV life.

Rising Up To Paradise
Courtesy of Lockn’
– Rising Up To Paradise
Lockn’s home on Infinity Downs Farm (left, center, right) and Oak Ridge Farm (top) in Arrington, Va.

“Listen, this all takes time and long-term planning, thinking, strategery, money,” he says. “You have to keep pushing it forward and not be like, ‘Oh, we got to the place we wanted it to be.’ There are some ideas that we want to do that I don’t think really fully exist out there!”

Meanwhile, Shapiro’s other Dayglo projects continue apace. Brooklyn Bowl celebrated its storied first decade this year, and has spawned an award-winning satellite in Las Vegas, with chatter of others under development in Nashville and Philadelphia, potentially in partnership with Live Nation. The Cap reigns again as the essential theater in the tri-state area outside the confines of New York City, hosting both jam royalty like Lesh, whose nine shows there in the last calendar year have grossed $1.73 million, and premier mainstream talent like Kacey Musgraves. Shapiro is even plotting a return to the Windy City, via Garcia’s, an expansion of the similarly titled venue-within-a-venue at the Cap, where he’ll try his hand at a seated jazz club.

And though he prizes independence, Shapiro knows when to forge alliances. AEG co-produced the “Fare Thee Well” shows; on Sept. 20, Dayglo and Live Nation will stage a 50th anniversary screening of “Easy Rider” at Radio City Music Hall, with a live band under T-Bone Burnett’s direction.

“It’s like a playground, a little bit, and there’s some bigger kids on the playground,” says Shapiro, with a puckish laugh. “Sometimes you want to go down that slide alone. Sometimes you’re like, ‘I’ll go on the back of this big guy on the slide.’” 

But if Lockn’s any indication, Shapiro holds his own on the playground just fine. At Infinity Downs, his career’s defining themes – the relationships, the bookings, the production tech, even the political activism, which he now promotes as chair of HeadCount’s board of directors – have converged to create a singular festival.

“As Robert Plant said, ‘This is a magical place,’” Shapiro says, “but magical places aren’t easily accessible. It takes energy and motivation and coordination to go to Lockn’. But when you get there, it’s got some magic.”