ALEX BLEEKER is that guy. An unapologetic Deadhead, he remains undeterred by the group's lousy singing, their incongruent, off-key harmonizing, and their unrelenting, doofy improvisations. Rather than noodling, indulgent wanksters, Bleeker sees in the Grateful Dead a band whose music never went too far.
But to paint Alex Bleeker and the Freaks as wholly indebted to the Dead is a lazy read—one that has been regularly propagated, but is easily dispelled by Country Agenda's lead single, "The Rest."
I knew little about Bleeker (who also plays bass in Real Estate) or the Freaks (who double as a Grateful Dead tribute band), so when "The Rest" kicked in, I wasn't thinking about the Dead at all—I was thinking about the Band. The song has that rustic, slinky, hearty snap of the best farmhouse rock. With a light touch and subtle proficiency, its melodies invoke the Band's melancholic swagger. The Freaks, too, are pocket players who make listening to each other paramount. Instead of gorging themselves, the Freaks set the table and serve the song. Such knowing and tasteful restraint is the opposite of the Dead, who at the height of their star-crossed populist prog-maximalism might as well have been playing different songs in different rooms.
"The Band are more of a musical influence on us than the Dead," Bleeker agrees. "We kind of went into this record listening to this record by Bobby Charles being backed up by the Band, all loving The Basement Tapes."
Though Country Agenda was recorded in a proper studio rather than a house or a barn, it remains crisp, hearty, and unadorned—a reflection of what it sounds like to be in the room with them. From his home in Brooklyn, Bleeker says, "We tried to just do what we do. Largely it came out of how we are as a live band, and it felt earnest and honest to make the record that way."
Country Agenda is the third Alex Bleeker and the Freaks record. Since 2009's debut (which included members of Real Estate), the players backing Bleeker have fluctuated, but a band-of-brothers ethic has prevailed. "We're not hipsters," Bleeker says. "There are a lot of dorks in the band and we're not cool." Upon touring the second Freaks record in 2013, a lineup distinguished itself and stuck.
"The guys who are in the band now are just supremely good players," Bleeker says. "I mean that in every way—they've got chops, and they also have a lot of soul and taste in what they choose to play and what they choose not to play."
Which, again, is nothing like the Grateful Dead. But what Bleeker and the Freaks pull from the Dead is less about music and more about creating a safe, joyous, and fertile space. "Coming from a lot of my experience playing shows, you get these good crowds once in a while, but most of the time you get these people who seem like they're afraid to show enthusiasm," Bleeker says. "You play in a sold-out room and people are standing around, looking at the floor, not knowing what to do. What resonates with me about the Grateful Dead is that the audience is kind of actively involved in the live creation of the energy of the show.
"That kind of spirit and energy, with me as a performer, really resonates," he continues, "along with the combination of being interested in country, folk, and Americana music, [and] progressive, psychedelic, and jazz influences. I think that spirit also resonates with us."