Billy Strings Announces ‘The Déjà Vu Experiment’ Six-Night Capitol Theatre Livestream Run Honoring Grateful Dead
Emma Delevante – Billy Streams
Prodigiously talented guitarist Billy Strings will play six livestreamed shows from New York’s Capitol Theatre in February.
Traditional shows might currently be off-limits, but that’s not stopping Billy Strings and The Capitol Theatre from commemorating one of the Grateful Dead’s most storied runs – and pushing livestreaming to new levels of headiness.
Next month, the 28-year-old jamgrass wunderkind will take the stage at the Port Chester, N.Y., theater for “The Déjà Vu Experiment,” a six-show residency spread across seven nights to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dead’s six-night run there in February 1971.
Twitch’s new Relix Channel will host the first and last nights of the run for free; the middle four shows of the run will be available via fans.live at $19.99 apiece or as a $59.99 package. Unique posters will be available for each gig, and a portion of all proceeds will benefit The Rex Foundation and Backline. (Strings raised more than $100,000 for charities including the ACLU, NAACP, Musically Fed, Nashville Rescue Mission and Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee in 2020.)
Courtesy Billy Strings – Six-Stream Wonder
With “The Déjà Vu Experiment,” Billy Strings will honor a six-night February 1971 Grateful Dead run.
“We did not think in any way, shape or form that these would end up being virtual shows,” says Strings manager Bill Orner, who began discussing the concept of a Strings residency commemorating the February 1971 Dead concerts with Capitol Theatre owner Peter Shapiro last January.
After two packed nights at Brooklyn Bowl in November 2019, Strings had immediately leveled up to the Cap, selling out two January 2020 shows – 3,900 tickets moved and $114,126 grossed – and securing a third night at the theater for April.
Due to the pandemic, the April gig never came, but as Strings innovated with livestream and drive-in tours, Orner and Shapiro kept the idea of a February 2021 residency by the artist alive. While these shows won’t have physical audiences as originally conceptualized, their virtual format has allowed Strings’ team to pay homage to another aspect of the Dead’s 1971 run at the Cap.
In March 1970, parapsychologist Dr. Stanley Krippner had conducted dream telepathy experiments during a concert by The Holy Modal Rounders in Manhattan; for the Dead’s six-night run at the Cap nearly a year later, Krippner revived the ESP experiments, showing images to attendees and instructing them to “send” them to researchers in a Brooklyn “dream laboratory” about 50 miles away. Krippner subsequently published his findings as “A Pilot Study in Dream Telepathy with the Grateful Dead.”
“What we’re doing is a takeoff on that,” Orner says. “We thought maybe we could do something a little bit more interactive, a little bit more instant for the fan.”
As the second set of each show kicks off, fans will be presented with an image based on that night’s show poster and will be instructed to transmit it to a special guest – a different one every night – elsewhere in the country. After each gig, Strings will convene via video call with that night’s guest to see if the telepathy was successful.
“We’re curious to see if it works,” says Orner, emphasizing that “we’re not scientists.” But, he adds, “we think it’s pretty neat – like, holy shit, what if it does happen?”
Orner notes that though the ESP aspect “won’t affect the run of the show,” each given night’s imagery will be incorporated into the Cap’s visuals during the second set.
One of Shapiro’s calling cards has been updating production aspects of yesteryear’s concerts – like the liquid light shows of the ’60s – for the 21st century, and “The Déjà Vu Experiment” follows in that vein.
“We’re gonna replicate ESP stuff, but we’re going to use the streaming ability, hopefully, to be able to do it in a fun new way that’s connected to the way it was first done,” he says.
Ultimately, the ESP dimension is another out-of-the-box idea to increase the intimacy of a livestreamed show.
“It’s some way that the crowd can feel an inclusion of being there, that we’re all kind of in the same place,” Orner says.
The 1971 Capitol Theatre shows are the stuff of Deadhead lore, and not just because of the telepathic experiments. Seven of the band’s staples – “Bertha,” “Wharf Rat,” “Bird Song,” “Deal,” “Greatest Story Every Told,” “Loser” and “Playing In The Band” – received their live debuts during the run’s first two nights on Feb. 18 and Feb. 19, 1971.
“Can you imagine hearing those for the first time?” Orner says. “Those tunes are like fabric-of-our-life stuff.”
He teases that while “you never know, Billy may debut some songs in the same mindset.”
Deadheads hold the first-ever “Wharf Rat” – a tune Strings has covered multiple times, including at The Cap in January 2020 – in particularly high esteem. The version serves as the meat between the bread of a “Dark Star” sandwich on Feb. 18, 1971, and the improvisation as the band transitions back to “Dark Star” has been dubbed the “Beautiful Jam” and was released as such on the career-spanning 1999 compilation So Many Roads (1965-1995). Last year, the full show was released as part of the 50th anniversary reissue of the Dead’s 1970 album American Beauty.
The following night’s gig was released commercially as Three From the Vault in 2007, and another show from the night, Feb. 21, 1971, received the official treatment as part of the 2020 reissue of another 1970 Dead studio classic, Workingman’s Dead.
The year was one of great change for the Dead, and the Capitol shows Strings will honor were one inflection point: After the gig on Feb. 18, 1971, drummer Mickey Hart left the band until Oct. 20, 1974. Early 1971 Dead also captures the band before husband-wife duo Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux, keyboardist and vocalist, respectively, joined the band later that year. Moreover, 1971 was the Dead’s last full year with founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan as part of its touring unit.
Gary Lambert, who co-hosts “Tales From The Golden Road” on the SiriusXM Grateful Dead channel, will appear for a pre-show on the first nights of the Strings run offer background about the Dead’s famed 1971 Capitol Theatre run.
Strings’ shows next month come as he navigates an uncertain period himself. Poised for a breakout 2020 – as documented in Pollstar‘s Hotstar feature about him last February – Strings capably pivoted during the pandemic, playing paid livestream gigs from venues and drawing thousands at drive-in concerts. The musician’s most successful drive-in run was a three-night stand in the parking lot of Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he grossed $257,156.
“Every single thing was just about being able to keep the fans engaged with new content, and just something to take their minds off of the unknown,” Orner says. “All we wanted to do was just keep moving forward as if we were touring, with a self-created plan of just getting out there and grinding it out.”
Orner just wants to make it so that, once physical touring resumes, the Strings team “can come out on the other side, take a look around, dust ourselves off and make sure everybody is ready for the next chapter.”
If Strings’ success to date is any indication, plenty of chapters will follow.
“It’s a great feeling when we see someone get the momentum that Billy has,” Shapiro says. “Once you get going like he is, it usually keeps going, and it doesn’t fade. We’re gonna be doing shows with Billy forever.”