Dead Sky: Navigating The Golden Road

Greg Louzan


Born out of a common love for Grateful Dead music, Bozeman’s own Dead Sky has been responsible for rampant bone shaking and face thievery in the Gallatin Valley over the last two years. The band is made up of some of Montana’s most seasoned musicians and features many familiar faces from the Bozeman music scene. Dead Sky features members of Pinky and the Floyd, MOTH, The Hooligans, Kelly Nicholson Band, Slomo Joe trio among, other area projects. Joe Knapp (vocals and guitar), Luke Flansburg (vocals and guitar), Rich Robiscoe (bass), Kelly Nicholson (vocals), Joe Kirchner (Keyboards) and Brett Goodell (drums) make up this Bozeman sextet. Having seen the band for the first time outdoors at Pine Creek Lodge on a Friday the 13th in September, I was struck by their fresh interpretation of classic Dead songs. Seeing them again on the second night of their two indoor shows at Pine Creek in February it was clear that the band is moving “like a steel locomotive rollin’ down the tracks” and have grown even more comfortable exploring the catalogue with one another. The other night I had the opportunity to sit down with guitarist and vocalist for Dead Sky: Luke Flansburg. We talked about everything from their grassroots start to the process by which they’ve started selling out shows in the Bozeman area for eager deadheads across the age spectrum.

Greg Louzan: Where did the idea for Dead Sky come from, when did you recognize the need for a Bozeman-based Grateful Dead tribute?

Luke Flansburg: The idea first came out of a gig at Museum of the Rockies with the Kelly Nicholson Band, which is the core group of Dead Sky with 5/6 members playing in both. After playing “Deep Elem” blues and a few Dead songs, one of the Outlaw Brewing bartenders suggested that we play a couple more. This got the wheels turning and spawned a new project once the longtime Hooligans bassist Rich Robiscoe joined as bassist. Rich was turned on to the Dead during his time in the Hyalite Blues Band and has been playing these songs for 30+ years. So he has been a huge help in further educating us about the philosophy of playing Dead music and his contribution to the band cannot be overstated. From our first show at the Filling Station for the Day of the Dead celebration to our most recent shows at Pine Creek we’ve been improving and having a blast. It wasn’t so much recognizing a need in the market but more of a natural evolution of a bunch of friends that love playing Grateful Dead music together.

GL: How do you guys go about learning a new song such as “Help on the Way”/”Slipknot”/”Franklin’s Tower”?

LF: Everyone agrees on a specific version and studies up on their parts. In this case we chose the studio version from “Blues for Allah” and brought it into rehearsal after everyone had done their homework. There isn’t a ton of jamming at rehearsal but instead we work through sections of a song like “Slipknot” until we all feel comfortable taking it on stage together. Joe and I will agree on who is taking vocals and rhythm guitar or lead guitar. From there we were able to get through “Help on the Way” fairly quickly but “Slipknot” took an entire practice to nail. A big part of this was getting the whole band to count it out together until we were all comfortable with the timing. Also getting musical cues established and recognized helps in trickier sections, especially on stage. Once we get to the point where we play it live we feel so comfortable with it that even if something goes astray we can recover smoothly. For “Franklin’s Tower” we don’t even really practice it because of the simple chord progression and spontaneous nature of the song. By the time we get to “Franklin’s Tower” we are ready to let loose and improvise based on what we’re feeling from the audience.

GL: Is there a particular era that the band is fond of?

LF: Myself and a few others are big fans of the Spring 1977 tour, everything including and surrounding the Cornell Show. Having Donna Godchaux in the mix for those shows helps since we have a female vocalist in Kelly Nicholson. If I had to pick another I’d probably say the Europe ’72 album which is a classic album and has a strong early Dead vibe which we all like. We aren’t necessarily trying to play a certain era or vibe like Dark Star Orchestra does, recreating specific nights from Grateful Dead history.

GL: Will this mostly be a local project or are there plans to take Dead Sky out on the road and play in places outside of Montana?

LF: As of right now it looks like we will mostly be playing around Bozeman and Livingston but we’re certainly looking to play in Missoula. Some of us have families and day jobs so right now I don’t see us going further than we could travel and play in a weekend. Jackson could be a possibility in the future if everyone is on board. But we’ll probably steer clear of bigger cities for the time being, especially since established Dead acts already exist in these cities and can sometimes be a bit territorial.

GL: Are there any songs in the works that you and the band are particularly excited about?

LF: Right now we’re working on “Women are Smarter” which everyone is excited about and I’m hoping we’ll get into some Jerry Garcia Band stuff in the future. I’d love to play a big Dark Star at some point but we’ll have to see. Right now we have about 50 songs in our repertoire with a few wish list songs sprinkled in. Our plan is most likely to cap it at 60 until we are really comfortable with them. With a lot of classic and familiar songs it leaves plenty of options for a two-night run.

GL: For a state that only hosted 1 Grateful Dead Concert in the band’s decades-long career, Montana has a thriving population of deadheads. How has Dead Sky been received by the Montana community?

LF: Only one show in 1974, but I feel like the lifestyle in Montana lines up perfectly with the music and culture surrounding the band. Being a ski town and an outdoor hub has attracted a lot of deadheads to Montana and between Bozeman and Missoula there is a consistent desire for Dead music. Of course, with how Bozeman is growing too it attracts people from all over the country, many of whom are deadheads. I have a friend with a computer program that is able to pinpoint the hottest markets for Dead cover bands and related music; it has Bozeman in the very top echelon.

I left my interview with Luke more encouraged than ever about the steady rise of the Bozeman music scene and this semi-new project. With new venues popping up and touring acts consistently making a stop in town, the options for live music in Bozeman are more abundant than ever. If you are a fan of Grateful Dead music and live in the Gallatin Valley, Dead Sky is a must see. I would encourage anyone with an interest to check out Dead Sky at the Filling Station on April 24th, rest assured they have something in their bag of tricks that will make you smile, smile, smile.  

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