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Roving bazaar of all things Grateful Dead hits Las Vegas

Updated June 1, 2024 - 11:32 am

The parking lot has moved indoors.

There’s carpet beneath our feet in place of asphalt, but all of the rainbow-colored tie-dye T-shirts, the skull-festooned dog collars and the meticulously crafted, throwback vomit receptacles have remained in place.

“I’ll get you a barf bag,” our tour guide says by way of introduction.

And with that, Robert Shatzer leads us into a side room on the second floor of the Tuscany on Thursday afternoon and hands us an exact replica of a Grateful Dead airsickness sack from the ’70s, whose dimensions he re-created within an eighth of an inch of the original.

“Boogie Till You Barf,” it reads beneath the band’s signature “Steal Your Face” logo.

The Dead used to package merch in bags like this decades ago, he notes.

The only difference nowadays?

The bottom line of print on the paper container: “Shakedown Vegas 2024,” it commemorates.

With the Dead & Company back in town at the Sphere this weekend, so is Shakedown Street, the roving bazaar of all-things Grateful Dead, from car emblems to clocks to patches to jewelry to infant onesies.

Shatzer is one of the main reasons it’s here, having worked for months to bring the Shakedown to Vegas, celebrating the occasion — naturally — by reproducing the aforementioned barf bags.

The Shakedown dates to the early ’80s, when a traveling crew of vagabond vendors/Dead diehards began setting up shop outside the group’s gigs, peddling everything from food to water to just about every kind of handmade ware you can imagine — and perhaps the occasional illicit substance.

“We’re chaos. We’re a gypsy caravan circus,” explains Tuber Lorentz, a shaggy, affable Colorado native selling tie-dye shirts. He’s been following the band since the early ’90s. “We pop up in the city, and it’s ‘Whoa!’ And then we pack it all up at the end of the night and we’re off.”

The Shakedown has always been more than a place to score Grateful Dead-themed pet gear, though: It’s a party, a gathering place before and after shows, the spot where Deadheads head to feel at home when away from home.

For this communal, come-as-you are crowd, the main attraction here isn’t the merch: It’s one another.

“It’s a place to see all of our family in one spot,” says Sunshine Powers, who runs San Francisco’s Love on Haight art and clothing shop, which has a booth here.

“A chosen family,” clarifies Jenny Aiken, co-owner of Atlanta-based Om Grown Art company, which specializes in custom-made crafts cut from wood.

But Dead & Company’s Vegas stint provided a challenge for all involved here: The Sphere has no traditional parking lot or large, available spaces nearby, so where was the Shakedown to go?

Enter Shatzer, who grew up in the Bay Area — birthplace of the Dead — but who’s lived in Henderson for the past decade.

Along with friends and fellow vendors Liora Soladay and Molly Henderson, the trio set out to find a way to bring the festivities to Vegas.

Doing so was no easy endeavor for this easygoing bunch: hosting the event at a casino — initially in the parking lot during the first two weeks of the Dead & Company’s Sphere residency and then moving indoors to a convention space as temperatures rose — meant navigating something very un-Dead-like: red tape.

“What these guys have done to pull it off here, it’s a feat itself,” Lorentz marvels. “To get all these hippies to sign up for business licenses and tax permits and all that other stuff, it’s monumental that they’ve pulled this off.”

On the road with the Dead

“Three beans, rice, lettuce, salsa, onions, carrots, corn, green peppers and cilantro.”

Robert Shatzer rattles off the ingredients by heart.

“I’ve said that probably about half a million times,” he notes.

After seeing his first Grateful Dead show in 1991, Shatzer got hooked, eventually joining the band on tour for 160 shows total, including their last 120 gigs in a row before frontman Jerry Garcia died in August 1995.

He sold vegetarian burritos on Shakedown Street to fund his travels.

“It was a way to propel yourself across the country, to make a little bit of money just to get to the next show,” he says. You could make the burritos for about $50 with my recipe. And so I was able to start the tour with like $100 in my pocket — that was my share of the gas, my share of the first hotel room, and then enough to make my first batch of burritos. I’m 19, 20, and I’m coming home with a couple of grand more than I left with.”

Like Shatzer, Henderson grew up in the Bay Area and pined to follow the Dead on tour when she was a teenager.

“I just wanted to do it,” she recalls from her clothing booth at Shakedown Street. “And there was no way I could do that when I had to pay for school.

“So, I made up some shirts,” she continues, “I went on the road. I did the summer tour, made more money than I would have made working at, say, a fast-food restaurant or something that I could get when I was 18 years old. And it just snowballed.”

Henderson would later bring her four younger sisters on tour with her.

All of them paid their way through college on Shakedown Street.

It’s this mix of commerce, creativity, wanderlust and unfettered fandom that unites the disparate bunch of Deadheads gathered at the Tuscany.

The vendors span generations, ranging from Ken Czajka, a retired mailman from Buffalo, New York, who sells framed artwork, to 30-something Las Vegan Jocelyn Poirier, owner of The Honeypot boutique downtown, to “Grateful” Don Bryant, a former military medical officer who now lives in Thailand and who first saw the Dead live in 1973.

“It’s an overused phrase, but we are a collection of like-minded individuals,” Bryant says. “I think there’s a very adventurous part about each one of our souls. Shakedown is out there on the road. There are 22-hour workdays followed by 12-hour drives to follow the band. So at the core is a love for the music. But it’s also a business. We’re paying for our livelihood by following the band that we love.”

In doing so, they’ve become an indivisible component of the Dead live experience.

The Grateful Dead truly was a band of the people: To cite but one example, the group allowed fans to record their shows from the get-go, resulting in rampant tape trading among their faithful who swapped music and memories alike, forming a tight-knit community that’s endured for decades.

Shakedown Street is a direct extension of this mentality.

“What we do is part of the culture of this band,” Henderson says. “The fans not only come to see the music, this is a whole other aspect of why they come.

“To make this happen in Las Vegas, I feel was necessary for everybody: necessary for the vendors, necessary for the fans,” she continues. “Something would be missing if we weren’t here.”

Big hurdles, big crowds

Long hours, late nights, a lack of sleep: The process of bringing the Shakedown to Vegas proved to be nearly as exhausting as being on the road with the Dead for weeks at a time.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” notes Soladay, a native of South Africa, whose future husband introduced her to the Dead in 1993. “We had to move mountains to make it happen.”

Soladay, Shatzer and Henderson initially looked into properties closer to the Sphere, from The Venetian to The Linq to the Flamingo.

Everywhere was either too expensive, didn’t have enough space or wasn’t available for four all-day stretches at a time.

They eventually found what seemed to be an ideal spot in the Tuscany, about a 10-minute walk to the Sphere, though their work was hardly done: They still needed a fire permit, a special-events permit, a promoter’s license and more, all these formalities that stood in stark contrast with Shakedown Street’s decidedly informal origins.

With the help of local promoter Danielle O’Hara, founder of Nevermore Productions, they were able to get the paperwork done just in time for the Shakedown’s May 16 launch, the event spanning eight of the nine weeks of the Dead & Company’s initial Vegas run. (The band recently announced more dates for August.)

At the Tuscany on Thursday, the Shakedown was in full swing only an hour after its 11 a.m. opening, Shatzer estimating that it’ll draw 5,000 to 10,000 fans daily.

“It’s more than we expected, so it’s been really, really nice,” says Debbie Hansen, director of banquets and catering at the Tuscany. “We’ve time-traveled back into the ’70s. They’ve done a lot of work putting this on.”

A band, a way of life

A new twist for the Shakedown after all these years: carpet.

And air conditioning.

“Usually, you pull into a parking lot, and you got, like, dirt and stuff all over,” says Barry Bailey, a Californian who’s worked the Shakedown since 1983 and who now runs BB Pots, which sells handmade pottery. “It’s nice and cool in here. And we’re having a great time.”

Around him, the room is filled with strangers who don’t act like strangers: “Like your shirt!” one middle-aged fan bellows to another. “Like your shirt!” the other guy exclaims in return, a common refrain here.

Shatzer strolls through the hall, eager to share the backstory for nearly every vendor we encounter, greeting one after the next like a college buddy you haven’t seen in years.

“You can have these really intimate conversations or experiences with each other all over the country,” he says, “and then you run into each other again down the road in another venue, in another state, and you just pick up right where you left off. That’s the magic that I really, really enjoy.”

Later on tonight, the Dead & Company will take the stage once again, just up the street.

You could argue that the show really begins on Shakedown Street, though.

Of course, there’s a clear difference between the two: Here, the show never ends, because the show is a way of life.

And there’s no curtain call for that.

“You’ve got the music, you’ve got the lyrics, you’ve got the art,” Shatzer says of the multifaceted appeal of the Grateful Dead, building toward the thing that ties it all together, the reason he’s here. “And you’ve got the community.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.

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