Joan Wehner wouldn’t miss what’s become the signature musical event at Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek.
Dead on the Vine that combines great wine, food and music from Grateful Dead tribute band Last Fair Deal returns to Virginia’s Eastern Shore on Aug. 5. Reserve your tickets that include dinner and a glass of Chatham wine here.
You bet Joan, 83, will be there. Decades ago, she didn’t understand what inspired her son to pack a bunch of sandwiches and pile in a car with friends for a weekend of stadium shows in the northeast. Then there was the time Jon and his brother rented an RV and headed to Cincinnati to see a show.
“She gets it now,” says Jon Wehner, vintner at Chatham Vineyards along with his wife, Mills.
While his bootleg collection is long gone, Jon still holds on to his ticket stubs from the 40-some Grateful Dead concerts he saw between 1987 and 1992, the last one at Hampton Coliseum.
“I always enjoyed the music because a lot of times, the songs tell a story,” he says. “They’re really a fable. It’s like listening to a fable that’s relaxing.”
Well, I ain't always right, but I've never been wrong
Seldom turns out the way it does in a song
Once in a while, you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right
Last Fair Deal plays music from the Dead’s entire catalog, favoring the 1970s. The seven-piece band started at a jam session at Doc Taylor’s in Virginia Beach and has since morphed into playing 15 shows a year, including Dead on the Vine.
“Everybody in the band is a Deadhead,” says its leader, Patrick Higgins, one of two guitarists who also joins in on vocals. “We focus on harmonies. We have dedicated vocal practices. If you really listen, the Dead had some intricate harmonies, and we concentrate on three-part harmonies a lot.”
The age range in the band — from late 30s and 40s to Patrick and lead guitarist Dave Perkins, both in their 60s — reflects the expansive Dead audience that today includes younger Phish fans.
“If you have a certain kind of a soul, this music resonates with you,” Patrick says. “Those people are still being born today.”
Dead on the Vine started on a small scale stemming from a conversation between Jon and Clark Driese, a friend who worked in Chatham’s tasting room. Both had sons attending The Montessori Children’s House of Franktown. The initial Dead on the Vine was a fundraiser for the school with Clark’s Grateful Dead cover band from college providing the music.
“Parents all volunteered to help, it was tremendous fun, and the event took on a life of its own,” Mills says. “The school thrived, and the concert evolved into a signature Chatham event.”
Every year the crowd grew, and when the Wehners transitioned to a professional Dead tribute band, a community friend suggested Last Fair Deal.
“I instantly liked Patrick; he’s got a heart of gold,” Jon says.
“We just clicked,” Patrick says. “Mills and Jon are great people.”
Dead on the Vine at Chatham is not the stereotypical scene described in a 1990 Rolling Stones piece that cited overcrowding, drugs and violence forcing some concert venues to ban the band. The annual concert in its 15th year attracts a mellow crowd of families, singles and kids of all ages. Last Fair Deal plays a couple of sets of Dead tunes that pair well with Chatham wine and a homemade dinner that’s typically a summer grill with ample vegetarian and vegan options. Beer from Cape Charles Brewing Company is on hand.
It's a blast that Mills loves after years of enduring Jon play Dead music on long car rides.
“The first thing I would do for family road trips is put on the Dead,” Jon says. “The kids would fall asleep, and we’d have the Dead on for hours.”
The first time Mills heard the music was listening to a Dead album in the 1990s. “I did not understand Jon’s love for the music until I heard it live,” she says. “I definitely had a hard time reconciling the Jon I knew with Grateful Dead music. I had the wrong idea about the Dead, a total misconception.”
While Deadheads are in their element at Dead on the Vine, so it seems is everyone who comes. “Fans that spans generations, industries and cultures,” Mills says. “Our event is family friendly, a favorite aspect for me.”
The Wehners have been told over the years they host the best party on the Eastern Shore.
“We have 700-plus guests here for good wine, food and fantastic music that builds with each set,” Mills says. “I love the long transitions from song to song, waiting to hear what the next song will be. There’s always a drums solo – the Dead always had two drummers – this is definitely one of my favorite parts. It feels impromptu and one drummer follows the other. The diehards stay for the last set when everyone – everyone – is swirling, twirling or dancing in some way, having a great time.”
If you get confused, listen to the music play
Some come to laugh their past away
Some come to make it just one more day
Grab tickets now for Dead on the Vine 2023 on the Chatham website