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Jay Blakesberg: Love, Devotion, Surrender and Photography

For nearly 40 years through portrait sessions and concerts San Francisco-based photographer Jay Blakesberg has captured many of our favorite musicians on film and digital formats.

While he’s best known for his work with the Grateful Dead and all of its post-Jerry projects including last summer’s Fare Thee Well concerts, Blakesberg has also pointed his lens at the wide-range of jamband artists – Phish, moe., Gov’t Mule, String Cheese Incident, Primus, Mother Hips and ALO among others – plus many of alternative rock’s biggest bands during their early club days. Altogether, he’s produced 10 coffee table books that deal with these subjects.

Blakesberg seems particularly enthusiastic about his 11th art photography volume and the direction that it brings him. Rather than concentrate on those onstage, his new book, Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender,” which is available at www.rockoutbooks.com, focuses on those in front of it.

From 1980 through to last May’s Summer Camp Music Festival, the 445 images in Hippie Chick are culled from indoor performance venues across America and festival fields where music is played rain or shine. The photos capture earth mothers and fairy princesses, hula hoopers and whirling dervishes, front row regulars and flower crown makers.

Developing this celebration of the feminine connection within the jamband scene further, Grace Slick provides historical perspective in the book’s foreword while Grace Potter writes the afterword. There’s also an Introduction and three essays – “Love,” “Devotion” and “Surrender” — each written by Edith Johnson, who, as Festival Girl, has documented her concert experiences through social media since 2012. She also interviewed 81 women from the live music scene who offer colorful anecdotes to accompany Blakesberg’s images.

“I really want this book to get a lot of mainstream media attention because I want to bring attention to this world outside. I want people to look at this book as visual anthropology, pop culture history. I want this to reach a bigger audience,” he explained.

Hippie Chick is one of four books compiled by Blakesberg this year. VIP ticket holders at this year’s Lockn’ received an art book that gathers his shots from the last two festivals at Oak Ridge Farm. Those who purchased VIP packages for Fare Thee Well shows will also receive a photo book of the event, while another version will be made available to the general public. Both are tentatively scheduled to be out shortly after Thanksgiving.

Last May, he released Guitars That Jam, which emerged out of his 2013 book, JAM. Both feature artists such as the Grateful Dead, Phish, Neil Young, Gov’t Mule, Widespread Panic and moe. among others.

Although Blakesberg plans to do book signings and appearances on both coasts this fall, he’s already thinking about his next project.

“My goal for late 2016 is to start doing some more writing. I have a lot of stories that I want to tell, and I’ve started a lot of those stories over the last eight to 10 years, and I have just not had the time to put into those stories. I’m not writing for anything in particular that I know of just yet but I just want to do something that’s creative but maybe a little bit different than what I’ve been doing, more of a creative exercise, and explore that and see if I can formulate these stories that I have in my head.

“A lot of these stories are things that have happened to me. Not that I’ve had any kind of a more unique life than anybody else but photography has brought me to a lot of places that have allowed me to meet unique people and be in unique places and I want to try and harness some of those stories into one place, into a cohesive piece and see where that takes it and takes me.”

JPG: You’ve had quite a busy year. In addition to your usual slate of concerts and festival dates, you put together four books – Guitars That Jam, _Lockn’, Fare Thee Well and now Hippie Chick. You also took photos at Gathering of the Vibes and Lockn’. What am I missing?

JB: I also did Mountain Jam and Summer Camp Music Festival. I’ve got Hardly Strictly Bluegrass coming up after Lockn’. I guess that’s it for festivals for me this year. No High Sierra Music Festival because it was the same weekend as Fare Thee Well in Chicago…

JPG: And, of course, the usual slate of concerts…

JB: Oh yeah. Tons of Terrapin Crossroads stuff. Phil [Lesh] has been doing these yearly celebrations. He started in 1965 and they’re playing a show from each year. That’s their 50th anniversary celebration at Terrapin Crossroads. Before every one of those shows I interview Phil about the year in Grateful Dead history that they’re performing that night. I’ve done around 15-17 interviews with Phil. Those are really fun.

There’s a whole bunch of these interviews with Phil on Youtube. Just look up Phil Lesh and Terrapin Crossroads History Lesson and type in a year. Most of them are up there. I know some of them are posted on my Facebook page.

If I were to recommend any to go look at, find the ones from 1972. We did two 1972 shows and one year we did a regular interview about the year and the next day we did a slide show of all the Europe ’72 slides. We had a special guest, Dennis Leonard, the recording engineer on Europe ’72, and he told some incredible stories about recording those shows. That’s the one to watch. All of them have been really great ones. We did one with Jack Casady. We talked about the Wall of Sound. The interviews are anywhere from 10-15 minutes long, and usually they’re attached to the whole show.

JPG: Are those going to be once a month, once every couple months?

JB: Up until now they’ve been anywhere from two or three times a month but now that we have Lockn’ and Phil jumped into all of his Capitol Theatre residencies stuff in October, right now there’s no yearly shows scheduled.

Phil, when did the very first show, said, “We’re going to get through all the years, starting in ’65 and going all the way to ’95. As long as it takes, that’s what it takes. If it takes two years to do it, we’re going to do it.” It’s not like it has to be finished by December. It’s just a matter of that’s their celebration of the 50th anniversary.

JPG: Back to books, let’s cover the ones that are going out to the VIPs first – Lockn’ and Fare Thee Well.

JB: After year one of Lockn’ Pete Shapiro, one of the co-owners of the festival along with Dave Frey, they were so excited about the festival and the photographs we captured that they said, “Let’s do a coffee table book.” So, we started playing around with the idea and laying some pages out. We were trying to figure out what would we do with this book? Originally, Pete was thinking that it would be given away to musicians, managers and artists that were part of Lockn’.

After we laid it out and looked at it, we felt like we should wait for two years because it would be a stronger book. After year two we felt the same way but we didn’t know whether this book should be for sale or just be for sale just at Lockn’. So, there were all sorts of scenarios being kicked around.

It might have been me that said, “Why don’t we do it as a VIP giveaway?” because there’s all this stuff you get as a VIP ticketholder — food and beverage and other perks. You might get a poster or reusable water bottle; all these different things that cost money to produce. But, we all get t-shirts, keychains, water bottles and anybody can buy a poster. So, we thought that we’d do something special and make this coffee table book and not make it for sale but make it part of the package for VIP ticket holders. So, it’s of the first two years and we hope to do a book every two years of Lockn’ and create a nice collection of these books.

Dave Schools wrote the foreward for the book. Dean Budnick and Mike Greenhaus each wrote an essay on each one of the years. Every single artist that performed at Lockn’ is represented in the book. We got pretty much everybody.

JPG: Now, will these at some point be available to the general public?

JB: Definitely will not be. We wanted to make it special to the VIP ticketholders. We wanted to make it a very unique thing for them. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some of these floating around on eBay. Some people buy a pair of tickets for them and their spouse, and don’t need two books. So, they may give one away to a friend or maybe there’ll be some trading going on or sell them.

JPG: And what about the Fare Thee Well book?

JB: The Fare Thee Well book is a little bit different. We always went into the idea that the Fare Thee Well book would be a VIP ticket perk but we always knew that we wanted to sell this book because there would be such high demand. So many people would want this book as a souvenir. Once the shows were over and we saw what we had and started having conversations with the band, it all got approved for everybody. Then, me and Dan Berkowitz from CID Entertainment, who does the VIP packages, figured out ways to make the VIP book a little bit special. So, we have a couple cool things that are gonna happen along with the book that you’re gonna get as a VIP ticketholder that the average person who orders the book will not get. I’m not going to say what they are just yet.

We have them pretty much dialed in but we want it to be a surprise so people are happy about it.

We’re just finishing that book now. We felt it was important to get the book out before Christmas because, I think, it’ll make a great holiday gift. We’re proofing the book now. The goal is to have this book back from the printer by right around Thanksgiving and start shipping them to the VIP ticketholders right away and getting them into stores.

It’s a 208 page book. There’s over 300 photos in it. Bill Walton wrote the foreword. David Lemieux, the Grateful Dead archivist, wrote the afterword. Gary Lambert, one of the hosts of SiriusXM’s “Tales from the Golden Road,” wrote two spectacular essays, one is a general overarching historical essay about the band in general that covers 1965-2015 and then one is about the Fare Thee Well shows.

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