Tribute bands sometimes find themselves stifled by having to hew to the music made by those they're emulating. In many cases, they're little more than cover bands with a singular focus. But with Crazy Fingers, a Grateful Dead tribute band, that's never been the case. They not only emulate the Dead, they also have released two albums of original music with a third possibly on the way. Now, with the tragic death of singer/multi-instrumentalist Corey Dwyer -- a man they viewed as their creative mainstay - the band is forced to take stock of their legacy.
Formed as an impromptu ensemble to provide the entertainment for a private party in Delray Beach on Halloween 1990, the original band -- initially consisting of bassist Bubba Newton, drummer/vocalist Peter Lavezzoli, former guitarists Al Zilinsky and Mike Greene -- turned their mutual affection for the Grateful Dead into an ongoing enterprise.
"There are countless stories of bands getting together in such a fashion," Lavezzoli suggests. "But in this case, it was the beginning of a 24-year journey that is continuing, because of the endurance of the Grateful Dead's music and also the South Florida community that has supported Crazy Fingers throughout all of our musical endeavors."
Embraced by the local Deadhead community, Crazy Fingers developed a work ethic and business savvy that resulted in regular weekly club gigs and even headlining a series of outdoor festivals. At the same time, they've opted for a certain spontaneity that's inspired by the Dead. "Crazy Fingers built their reputation by being one of the few Dead tribute bands that would rarely use a set list," Lavezzoli observes. "Most of the time, our singers would decide which songs to do as the show went along, based on the mood of the band and audience on any given night. There were no restrictions or leaders per se, and no role playing in terms of having a Jerry (Garcia) or Bob (Weir) guy. Rather, it's a shared responsibility among all the players to keep the music honest. This gave Crazy Fingers an authentic, to which South Florida audiences have always generously responded."
With the arrival of vocalist and lead guitarist Rich Friedman in 1993, singer, keyboard player and later rhythm guitarist Corey Dwyer in 1993, and keyboardist Josh Foster in 1996, the band evolved into its most successful incarnation. Lavezzoli credits Dwyer -- who passed away last week from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in early April -- for encouraging the band to write and record its own material.
Born and raised in New Mexico, Dwyer relocated to South Florida in the late 1980s, and after joining Crazy fingers, he became an invaluable member of the outfit. "Corey was unlike any other musician," Lavezzoli insists. "In addition to being devoted to playing the Dead's material, he was also a highly prolific songwriter with a wealth of original material, as well as an unusual aptitude to pick up almost any instrument and play it well. He was just as impressive a guitarist as he was keyboardist and singer. Within a few years, Corey was also playing saxophone, violin, and mandolin. And whenever called upon to do so, Corey would also play bass or drums, proving to be highly adept on all of these instruments."
Lavezzoli also remembers Dwyer as a prolific songwriter who encouraged Crazy Fingers to begin creating their own material. He and Newton began writing together and later teamed with longtime friend Billy Gilmore to form the Grass Is Dead, a bluegrass side project that offered an acoustic take on Grateful Dead material.
Dwyer also took on the role of the band's recording engineer, helping to develop Crazy Fingers' live PA system, as well as his own home studio, which became the site for both of the band's recording projects. He later opened Dream Factory Studios in Boynton Beach, and eventually began engineering recordings and directing music videos for other South Florida artists.
"In spite of his many creative interests, Corey was often the most consistently hard working member of Crazy Fingers," Lavezzoli remembers. "Whether he was setting up the PA at the regular weekly gigs, or often showing up as one of the only official band members present when other members were either sick or out of town, Corey kept Crazy Fingers going year after year."
According to Lavezzoli, Dwyer rarely took time off, which, he says, took a toll on his personal life and creative output. "For most of the last decade of Corey's life, Crazy Fingers had slowed down on writing new original material and mostly focused on working as much as possible on the South Florida live music circuit," he explains. "During a time of economic recession, live bands needed to double down and focus their efforts on steady work if they wanted to survive, and that's exactly what Crazy Fingers did. This was certainly a recipe for the band's survival, but not for the songwriting ambitions of Corey or Bubba Newton, and it's safe to say that Corey became creatively frustrated, feeling the long-term effects of running on the tribute-band treadmill year after year."
Happily, the routine didn't damper Dwyer's spirits. "Corey was a fun-loving and engaging live performer, and very much a people person, so he was always able to find joy and friendship in the Crazy Fingers audience," Lavezzoli says. "It was Corey's jovial spirit and lively onstage demeanor that will be sorely missed. Although everyone in the band is musically accomplished, Corey was easily the most comfortable stage performer, always engaging the audience and his fellow band members with his infectious sense of joy and soulful expression."
Sadly, the band now has to focus on the difficult task of finding someone to fill the gap Dwyer left behind. "Showmanship on Corey's level is difficult to replace," Lavezzoli muses. "It's hard enough to find good musicians, but it's even harder to find good musicians who also have great stage presence, especially on such a variety of instruments."
Not surprisingly, the band is devastated by Dwyer's loss, a loss that Lavezzoli and his band mates have only begun to try and process. "Corey has left a void in the band that will be difficult to fill," he maintains. "It's safe to say that no one will ever be able to do all the things for Crazy Fingers that Corey was able to do. And yet, the band must and will continue, with the renewed purpose of honoring Corey's legacy. We'll continue to play the original material that he brought to the band, and hopefully one day return to the studio to finish our CD, which is something that Corey definitely would have wanted."
A Corey Dwyer Memorial Benefit, 2 p.m. to midnight on Sunday, May 25, at the Backyard, 511 NE Fourth St., Boynton Beach. The show is free with a suggested minimum donation of $10 at the door. Visit crazyfingers.net.
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