Two events came to pass in winter 2018 which would go on to set the stage for the current state of live Grateful Dead music in the New York City metro area heading into the 2020s. The first was a three-night run at Brooklyn Bowl for Joe Russo’s Almost Dead in March of that year, which wound up being their last appearance (until recently) at the Brooklyn venue and proved that JRAD is, at this point, simply too popular for their former “home court.” A few weeks prior to JRAD’s last Brooklyn Bowl run, an unheard-of outfit who went by the name “HIGH TIME” showed up out of nowhere to deliver their live debut at the nearby Union Pool.

Almost two years and 16 shows later, HIGH TIME has firmly established themselves as the top live Grateful Dead music experience in a city where Deadheads are in desperate need of a fresh and dependable hometown band—one that combines talent with the adventurous desire to pursue such a vast live catalog of music. Since Joe Russo’s Almost Dead leveled up to the national headlining circuit, HIGH TIME’s consistent performance schedule mixed with their growing ability to masterfully harness the power of the “Primal Dead” era (1965-1974) makes their performances feel like they’re worth way more the price of admission (a HIGH TIME ticket typically ranges from an affordable $12-$15).

After a little over a year of hosting monthly sold-out parties at Union Pool that included plenty of psychedelic undertones thanks to liquid light effects which would flood the walls of the smaller venue, HIGH TIME graduated to Brooklyn Bowl earlier this year, where they’ve packed the north Brooklyn venue both times they’ve played there—and both on Sunday nights. Their latest performance at Brooklyn Bowl earlier this fall even featured a notable sit-in from Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, who helped the group tear through very psychedelic renditions of early Dead favorites including “Dark Star” and “The Other One”.

HIGH TIME w/ Ira Kaplan – “Dark Star” > “Wharf Rat” > “The Other One” – 10/6/19

[Video: High Time]

A few weeks after their last Brooklyn Bowl performance on a cooler night in November, the kind that quickly reminds New Yorkers that autumn has checked out and winter has indeed arrived, I Ubered my way down to the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn to meet up with members of HIGH TIME in hopes of learning anything about the band which has quickly collected a fanbase within the city’s the jam scene. After all, the band has yet to attract much media attention, leaving one of the fastest-growing Dead tribute acts in the scene to remain somewhat of a fun musical mystery. They haven’t done many interviews—if anyin their two years of existence, which kept my expectations completely open for what to expect—precisely the mindset one must carry whenever exploring the Grateful Dead universe.

I arrived at the bar proposed by the band, ordered a seasonal IPA, and waited. My phone buzzed—it turns out I’ve been waiting at the wrong bar for 10 minutes–and I wasn’t even high yet! As Weir famously sings, “head’s all empty and I don’t care.”

Turns out that I was supposed to meet at the bar next door, where drummer Adam Kriney and two guitarists Michael O’Neill and Jake Rabinbach were kindly waiting for me. Of course, one does not simply meet to talk Grateful Dead music over beers with a band called HIGH TIME without making it, a high time. After stepping outside to brave the cold for some quick hits of “O.G. Kush” to ease the vibes, we returned to our table inside to immediately begin the tradition of explaining how we all first got on the bus.

Each of the HIGH TIME members’ initial experiences with Grateful Dead music between came via the band’s earliest albums, which, not so coincidentally, ended up resulting in them forming a band that focuses the Dead’s initial run from ’65-’74.

Rabinbach first bought Skeletons from the Closet when he was 10 years old due to his pre-existing love for classic rock radio, while O’Neill discovered albums like Europe ’72, Workingman’s Dead, and American Beauty in his friend’s parents’ collection in middle school.

“I remember being there and thinking the whole thing was rather interesting,” Kriney said of his first time seeing the Dead in Philadelphia on July 7th, 1989, a show later released by the band in 2010 as the Crimson, White & Indigo live album. “I definitely did not understand their music at all, but the whole scene was interesting … I went to a few more shows but I didn’t like the music, I didn’t really understand what the fuck was going on. I was really into heavy metal and punk and really precise drumming growing up.”

It wasn’t until a few years ago, while studying jazz in New York City, that a friend suggested Kriney revisit the Dead’s ’70s material compared to the Brent Mydland era of the late-’80s, and he’s been back on the bus since.

Europe ’72 was really the first big one for me,” added Rabinbach, whose previous work includes playing guitar on all studio recordings by Francis and the Lights between 2007 and 2010. Rabinbach also admitted to having been taken to see the Dead twice in 1994 and 1995—which he, too, remembers pretty clearly. “The ’94 run at MSG was good I still think, but I don’t really like Brent that much. I think he overplays and people hate on Vince [Welnick]. [But] If you listen to that ’94 MSG run, Brent’s not there to shit all over it so you can actually hear the songs and Jerry still sounds pretty good. 1995 was pretty weak, though.”

“It’s about the jams, the exploration and the journey they were on with the music at that time,” O’Neill also mentioned when discussing his preference for early Dead. “As long as that’s the era we focus on, then I think we’re giving ourselves enough space to really explore the music ourselves. Our ‘Playing in the Band’ can suddenly start to sound like Guided By Voices or Tortoise and become a lot more than just another Dead jam.”

Aside from each of the members’ firm opinions on the Brent/Vince eras, the three are quiet and surprisingly relaxed considering they were set to link up with their other bandmates for a HIGH TIME rehearsal after the interview. They’re soft-spoken and humble, and seem generally appreciative to have the opportunity to act as the latest storytellers to carry Grateful Dead music into the future.

Impressively, HIGH TIME has grown into one of the city’s top Dead attractions thanks to mostly word of mouth. Old school. Los Angeles-based Dead cover band Grateful Shred has seen a similar rate of growth in popularity over the last two years, and they’ve received the benefit of having their national tours supported with sponsorships from industry-leading media publication Relix. HIGH TIME’s ability to bring out the ‘Heads whenever they play has been much more organic in nature, as word of their live abilities and affordable ticket costs has spread amongst music fans around the city, leading to noticeably larger crowds at every show.

Structurally, the band’s ability to take on those Dead jams is easily their biggest strength. Grateful Shred may have the strong choral vocals worthy of comparison to Crosby, Stills & Nash, but HIGH TIME undoubtedly stands out with the high-voltage power of the early Grateful Dead. If a band is going to focus on playing songs from the “Primal Dead” era, then each member better have the creative abilities and an equally-strong fundamental understanding of their instrument to chase the music by way of group improvisation as wildly and unpredictably as the Dead did in their earliest, most undisciplined era.

HIGH TIME has a firm grasp on the exploratory ethos shared by bands who engage in group improvisation on stage, which they take into great consideration when mapping out how they want to present this music in their own way.

“There are two kinds of ways the Dead jammed,” Rabinbach pointed out. “There’s vamping, where they would play the same simple chord progression for a while and Jerry would just kind of solo over it, and maybe there’d be some peaks and valleys in there. Then there’s deep exploration kind of jams, where maybe suddenly everyone would fall out except for Phil and Jerry, or Phil and Billy. Then, they would build a new song right there in the middle of whatever song they were already playing. The Oklahoma Fairgrounds ‘Dark Star’ [10/19/73] is a great example.”

Rabinbach continued, “When I say shit like, ‘They kind of stopped jamming after ’74,’ I know they kept jamming in the later years, but I think they did a lot more vamping. There are still deep jams to be found in the ’80s, no doubt about it, but every show from ’72 to ’74 has some fucking moment where they just composed a brand new thing that materialized in front of our eyes. That’s really hard to do, and I don’t think we always reach that, but we’re getting better at it and that’s what we’re striving for … You take risks and listen to each other, and if somebody makes a drastic call while playing, fucking go with it.”

As for whether or not the band would ever budge out of their ’65-’74 catalog range, fans shouldn’t bet on it.

“Eh, there’s always talk amongst ourselves about expanding and then that talk always comes back around to, ‘Nope.'” Rabinbach added. “There’d be something like 200 more songs to learn which all other Grateful Dead bands already play. They can have them.”

While a headlining show at Brooklyn Bowl might be a career peak for some bands, HIGH TIME refuses to sit still and continues to search for new territory to conquer as they will expand their growing fanbase across the river into Manhattan with their live debut at Bowery Ballroom later this week on Sunday, December 15th.