BRATTLEBORO — The Commons spoke by phone recently with Jack Betzen of the Wolfman Jack band, which will perform at the Stone Church on Saturday, Dec. 3 [story, this issue].
In our conversation, Betzen discussed the band's lead guitar player and dear friend Jason Ferguson, who died suddenly at age 56 at his home in Willow, New York on Nov. 14.
In addition to making music with Wolfman Jack, Ferguson played lead guitar, bass, and vocals with other bands, including Rainbow Full of Sound and Rainbow Spirals.
Other musician friends are also grieving.
“I had recently met Jason and had him do some work on my 1967 blackface twin and picked it up from him before my tour started,” says Mik Bondy, guitarist and vocalist with The Garcia Project, another tribute band. “Immediately we connected on many levels and shared stories of Grateful Dead experiences and music.”
“Something was still not quite right with my amp, and he drove hours to meet up with me to make it right,” he continues. “We got to hang out again for a bit, and he fixed everything in my amp perfectly.”
That was the last time Bondy saw Ferguson.
“I wish we had more time to get to know each other and play some music together,” he says. “He was a super kind and talented person that touched so many people's hearts in our scene.”
“Jason was a lovely man who really knew his way around guitars and electronics,” says Jeff Mattson, lead guitar for Dark Star Orchestra. “On top of that, he could really play guitar and bass, as if one talent wasn't enough!”
“You could really feel his passion for the music,” Mattson says. “I can't believe he's gone.”
I spent some time with Jason at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts when he played with Wolfman Jack in the fall of 2021. We hung out before the show and talked music and took a short walk outside during set break.
What struck me the most was how kind he was and how talented he was. He taught guitar lessons to teenagers near his home, and he was enjoying telling me all about it. During the second set, when the band played “I Second That Emotion,” it really captured Jason's vibe and incredible musical chops.
Here is an excerpt from our conversation with Betzen, in which he and I also discussed the set lists of Primal Dead music, the acoustics and appeal of Brattleboro's Stone Church, and more.
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Victoria Chertok: What is it about the Primal Dead/Live Dead era that makes it stand out?
Jack Betzen: It's just the raw rock-'n'-roll psychedelic approach the Grateful Dead took to the music. They could jump off the ledge really quickly with the music and find themselves somewhere else. They played mixes with danceable beats and used two drummers, so it was less jazz and more of a rock-'n'-roll, blues-band feel. During those years, they incorporated so much into their music and they became more solid as a band. They had a willingness to experiment.
The Grateful Dead's 1972-74 shows have always been some of my favorites, but doing a deep dive in the 1960s is really popping out for me, because I can listen to any show from 1968 and it might be the same exact set list but the songs are so different. They would jam out in different ways and go down rabbit holes, and they were very experimental in that time period.
V.C.: What can the audience expect at your Stone Church show?
J.B.: We're going to be playing some newer songs. The big thing is that with a new lead guitarist we will revisit some songs that we have played in the past and see what the new lineup will do with that.
The way Primal Dead works in my mind is it's almost like a ceremony. Every show the Dead played back in the late 60s would have the same setup: “Dark Star,” “St. Stephen,” “William Tell Bridge,” and “The Eleven.” As always, we will be sure there is plenty of feedback, because that is our favorite song.
V.C.: What do you mean by “feedback”?
J.B.: “Feedback” appeared on the Live Dead album (1969), but feedback would really be just the peak of the song or the night for the Grateful Dead. They would likely be in an acid test, and the music would be peaking and they would let their speakers and their guitars would ring out to create very psychedelic noises, almost deliriously.
And then from the ashes would come “Morning Dew” or “Death Don't Have No Mercy,” or something like that.
It's a metaphor for how life will overflow with stress and worry and then it will all overflow and it will all be all right.
V.C.: You've said that you dig playing at the Stone Church in Brattleboro. What makes it a special venue?
J.B.: That place is so special. I first found it when I saw the Garcia Project several years back. Corynne and I came up there we were living in Conn. at the time and we said “let's check out this show.” We fell in love instantly with the atmosphere of it, the stained glass everywhere, it's so beautiful, the perfect setting, right on Main Street in Brattleboro. It feels like Church, like you're attending Church there especially when it's packed with Deadheads.
Feels like home where you can do whatever you want. Where you feel free like you're with your family and can be expressive. Corynne [Arsenault] and I moved up here because we wanted to be closer to that venue. We love it there.
V.C.: Were drums your first instrument?
J.B.: They were. When I was 8 years old, I remember going to a parade and asking my dad, “What is that thing that sounds like a paper?” He said, “That's a snare drum,” and since then I wanted to play. The moment I got my first drum set that same year, I was hooked.
I was in every single band growing up: jazz band, concert band, marching band, pep band - anything you can name, I was in it.
V.C.: Who were some of your early percussion/drummer influences?
J.B.: Keith Moon was the first drummer that I ever even thought about, from The Who. He's an animal. We listened to a lot of like The Beatles and The Band around the house.
Levon Helm is to this day my favorite drummer. He was a one-man show in my mind. He could hold down a beat like no other and sing lead, write songs and be a front man behind the drums, and I've tried to do that. His energy is so powerful.
V.C.: One of my favorite songs from the Primal Dead era is “Turn on Your Love Light.” What's one of yours?
J.B.: I would have to say “Alligator” is up there, but “Viola Lee Blues” is the most definitive Grateful Dead Primal Dead–era song for me.
It has all the aspects. It has a tight groove, it has weird time signatures that throw you off, it creates tension, and then it relieves tension. It has feedback built into it.
It's the song to check out, man, if you want to hear those groovy Primal Dead songs.
'Get up there and play': Remembering Jason Ferguson
V.C.: I am so sorry for your loss. How can we keep Jason Ferguson's memory alive?
J.B.: The last gig that the band Rainbow Full of Sound played was at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton, Florida, which was from the last tour that Jason did. Apparently, he drove home to New York, and he passed away in his sleep.
I had to play there - on that same stage that I shared with him - a week after, and it was a very emotional night for me. Luckily I had the Garcia Project - my other family - on stage with me. They were so loving and helpful.
I thought about keeping his legacy alive. What would he say to me? He'd tell me to get up there and play. He made music with his family and friends, and music was what it all evolved around.
V.C.: Why was Jason special to you?
J.B.: He was the most humble guy I ever knew. He just wanted the music to be the best it could be, regardless of who he was playing with.
He was so kind about it. He would find a way to say, “This is good, but this is how you can do better.” He was like our big brother, always guiding us in a better direction.
He was a very-sought-after musician on bass and guitar. He was a busy man. He never turned down a gig. Jason would say, “The show must go on!” He's standing next to me and saying that.
V.C.: Jason owned a company, JLF Audio, where he built and repaired Grateful Dead sound equipment and repaired many guitars, even though he was busy playing in several bands and touring New England and all over. Talk about multitalented....
J.B.: His music abilities were only one half of the traits which made him so special and such an asset to the Grateful Dead community. Anyone who ever needed anything worked on would send it to him. He was the gear guru!
Anyone he talked to felt better for knowing him. He was so kind and so loving and so special. He was likely the best player in the room and he did not show it at all. It was never about his ego, just about the music being made.