"I don't mean to sound crazy or anything, but the Grateful Dead are like a religion," says Stephen "pUNK" Cunningham of '80's jam-band Sandoz and Grateful Dead tribute band Fungus -- two bands who, over the years, have played a lot of shows at Thirsty's bar in North Oakland.
For the past 17 years, he and like-minded folks have gathered Wednesday nights at Thirsty's for Dead Night, billed as the nation's longest-running Grateful Dead tribute night.
"It's been our sanctuary, our only sanctuary," he says.
Two weeks ago, Greg Laughlin bought Thirsty's, and the doors have been locked ever since. He says he'll be open as soon as he gets possession of the liquor license. But what about Dead Night?
"I didn't even know there was a Dead Night going on down there," says Laughlin.
Patrons and employees were both caught off-guard by the abrupt closing, says Kat Vandegrift, a dreadlocked young woman who's worked behind the bar since January and has been a patron for as long as the law has allowed.
Presiding over Dead Night has been Jennifer Cunningham. She and husband Stephen met at the bar where she first got the idea of combining beer specials with fan-recorded Dead music. After Dead leader Jerry Garcia died in 1995, Cunningham says she saw a lot of kids at Thirsty's who were too young to have experienced the band in its heyday, so she hung a sheet from the front wall for projections of concert footage.
"People come for the atmosphere," says Vandegrift. "I know people that hate the Grateful Dead and I see them in here once or twice a month for Dead Night."
But other than Dead Nights, the bar had been struggling to attract clientele for some time. "The bar scene has changed," says previous manager and longtime patron Gene Ney, owner of Gene's Place in South Oakland. "Pitt students, CMU students, they don't hang out in North Oakland."
Laughlin plans to renovate and update the beer selection, and add about seven more televisions. He hopes to keep Dead Night going.
"It depends on what makes money," he says.
"It'll be interesting to see with the new management if they hold the same ideals that Jennifer held onto for the past two decades," Stephen Cunningham says. "Without her love of the music, I predict that within a year it won't be the same. It's like coming to church on Sunday and it's closed. Where do you go?"