One Man's Opinion

By Paul Evans Co-author - The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock And Roll

Meet James, a glib sage, who from a lotus posture in his elegant, hand-crafted gypsy van, holds forth about treks to India and gigs at Buddhist retreat houses and children's theaters. The wizened poster boy for the scene, he's independent, unruffled, a cool survivor. His opposite number is the raffish Dave, a rhyming, winking Artful Dodger who's escaped the straight life for an eternal spree of drink, drugs, guitar riffs, and shaky bravado. Id personified, he mugs for the camera, shamelessly quipping, "Make me a star." Then there's voluptuous, giggling Eleni, a Greek-American sensualist, defiantly provocative and yet also wide-eyed (a dream, she avers, inspired her to grow dreads). Finally, the film's tender heart beats inside the frail, waifish frame of Little Ashley Tree, teenaged maker of "psychedelic shaman art," and a child painfully wise before her time. Hard knocks -- bad drugs and the death of her "soul mate" have cracked her open into a kind of raw-nerve vulnerability. But she's tough, too, and sees as her mission the work of mentoring younger kids who've embraced the perpetual tour.

Sacrament. Style. Manifesto.

Freak flag flying.

A tangible rebel yell.

Such are the Medusa manes of "dreadheads," and the hordes of other dreadlocked jam-band devotees who join together in an endless summer of festivals and shows and tribal gatherings all across America. Jerry Garcia's spiritual progeny, these funky white kids, groovers on Gaia and ganja, go in search of song, sun and transcendence, casting off the 9-to-5 for a 24/7 celebration of their own American Dream: Freedom, The Road, The Feast of Friends.

Brainchild of filmmakers Steven R. Hurlburt, and Flournoy Holmes, Dreadheads chronicles the trip with an audacious eye: from-the-ground-up, tie-dyed-colorful, ultra-real, edgy. Find in it echoes of vintage rock cinema: D.A. Pennebaker's brilliant slapdash snap-shotting of the youthful Dylan; the Maysles Brothers' gritty rendering of the Stones and Altamont. Feel it evoke some of the visionary flavor of Oliver Stone's The Doors. Experience the counterculture soul of Woodstock's controlled anarchy; the earthiness of reggae hallmark, The Harder They Come. But always return to the essential focus on the dreadheads, and their devotion to the music that entrances them. Neither stargazing nor melodrama, the documentary peers close-up into the lives of seekers after a communal high. Dreadheads says Hurlburt, ultimately is "about America -- both praising and critiquing it -- and these kids as Americans, good ones, actually, who embody American independence, a DIY work ethic, and a desire to live on a frontier of their own making." Not a concert film, no mere record of a moment, the movie embraces a vibrant subculture: a flawed peripatetic Utopia wherein the kids are very much all right.

For the past couple years, Hurlburt/Holmes journeyed, following the followers of the Grateful Dead and its psychic offspring (Phish, Widespread Panic, The String Cheese Incident and more). Like the pioneers and Merry Pranksters before them, they crisscrossed the hinterlands and highways -- Maine to California – as a lean guerrilla operation. Lead by camera sharpshooter Fletcher Holmes (Flournoy's son), they captured the vibe in super-8 film and digital video, rendering the misé en scene in quick cuts and jagged angles: their footage saturated with an entrancing, blurry-sharp, composition of improv sound and Kandinsky image. Along the way, they recorded scads of Q&A's -- not only with dreadheads themselves but with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, other Dead luminaries, members of Widespread Panic, Garcia biographers, sharp-eyed academics and counterculture monitors. And, like Pollack painting jazz, Spunhuny (an Atlanta-based jam-band for whom Hurlburt is a songwriter and guitarist) created a soundtrack that deftly complements the visuals with lyrical, visceral renderings of the "dreaddies" in-the-moment aesthetic. Result? Oral history that is seriously hip, existentially humorous and just entertaining as hell.

Dreadheads works, then, as an Altmanesque series of short stories, but as formal documentary, it's packed with other riches as well. We get dreadlock arcana and grooming tips (eucalyptus oil, beeswax: beware the fearsome lice!). One man-child, a singularly reflective sort, offers up a metaphysics of his locks: they're his "antennacles," he says, "big, huge sponges," that enable him to "receive and transmit energy." We hear tales of harassment by buzzkill cops, ever ready to cold-shower the party. And the film's talking heads school us entertainingly about the phenom's deep background. Hair-as-power, we're reminded, has been around (at least) since Samson; and the roots of dreadhead sensibility dig deep in our own American grain: the entire Whitmanesque impulse to shuck constraint, Thoreau and the transcendentalists, the 50's Beats -- all delight in a noble-savage carelessness. To simply keep-on-truckin' has always been the hopeful counterforce to both rigid Puritan self-righteousness and at-all-costs money-chasing. In the age of Enron mistrust, deep-freeze xenophobia, gangsta thuggery, and Martha Stewart materialism, the dreaddies come across not just as holy fools but misfit heroes; and Dreadheads tells their story, sings their song. As an alternative lifestyle, it's a good thing.

'Dreadheads' takes a look at the high life

September 2, 2005 | By Stewart Oksenhorn

Attending shows by the Grateful Dead and like-minded bands, Steve Hurlburt was struck by the dreadheads, the mostly youngish clan of fans that formed a disproportionate percentage of the audience. Just what, he wondered, was the connection between the music and the dreads?

"Dreaddie kids don't follow Phil Collins. They follow this music," said Hurlburt. "And why is that?"

With a background in journalism and photojournalism, friends in the film business - and numerous concerts to catch - Hurlburt turned his inquiry into a film. Between May 2002 and the fall 2004, he traveled to concerts from Phish's It Festival in Maine to Dead shows at Red Rocks to concerts in Atlanta, his hometown and current residence. Hurlburt talked to the dreaddie kids - a term he uses for dreadlock types ages 15-35 - and to musicians, including the Dead's Bob Weir and Widespread Panic's John Bell, and to Noel Erskine, a professor at Atlanta's Emory University a native of Jamaica, the primary source for the latest wave of dread culture.

"Dreadheads," Hurlburt's 77-minute documentary, gets to the bottom of the questions he had about the dreaddies. The film, which has shown at the Psychotronic Film Festival in Savannah,Ga., and at a conference on pop culture in Albuquerque, makes its valley debut this weekend. After a week of mad scrambling to coordinate the screenings with Jazz Aspen Snowmass' Labor Day Festival, Hurlburt has arranged for "Dreadheads" to be shown at the Cabaret Room in Snomass Village's Silvertree Hotel today and Saturday, Sept. 2-3, at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.each day.

"Why do the dreaddie kids separate themselves from straight society when they don't have to?" said Hurlburt. "It's not innate. They're not gay. They're not black. They choose to do it.

"One thing the dreaddie kids mention a lot is freedom - freedom from having to upkeep their hair, freedom from hair-care products. And they also talk about the freedom in the jam-band scene - the freedom to improvise, to go off."

That is quite a ways from what the origins of dreadlocks are. Hurlburt's investigation revealed that dreads were worn historically by two separate castes of people: the priests and the warriors.

"That was interesting. On the one side, it was to connect with God. On the other, it was to look like a madman, like a warrior," he said. "But for these kids, it was neither spiritual or a warrior thing. It's an outsider statement, and to some degree, a connection with the ganja side of Rastafarianism. And it's also a style."

Hurlburt says that "Dreadheads" also examines what dreaddies are not. "One of the first questions people ask is, 'Aren't these all upper-class trustafarians?'" - a term of derision for the well-off who wear dreads as an affectation - "who have all the money they need? I find that not to be true. They're from middle-classes, broken homes. So their family, their support community, is the other dreaddies.

"Another thing people ask is, 'Is there a religious reason, a Rasta connection?' And I found that not to be true 95 percent of the time." Hurlburt noted, however, that the popularity of Bob Marley, the late reggae king, has been the strongest inspiration to go dread over the past 30 years.

"Dreadheads" also puts a pin in the myth that the way to achieve dreadlocks is not to shampoo. He says shampooing is a must, but conditioner and combs are no-nos. The key is to not allow one mass knot to form, but to continually pull apart separate knots into dreads.

The musical component to "Dreadheads" goes beyond the thematic link between dreads and jams. In addition to appearances by Widespread Panic's John Bell and Dave Schools, the Dead's Weir, and guitarist Jimmy Herring, the soundtrack features music by Schools' side project Slang, Project Z and Lake Trout. The original soundtrack is by Spunhuny, a band that includes Hurlburt on guitar and vocals.

Hurlburt has done some extracurricular studies on dread culture. When he made "Dreadheads," he had long, straight hair. Last year, he grew dreads, which he still sports.
"From my circle of friends, very few of whom have dreads, they don't hesitate to suggest that I might want to cut it all off and start over," he said. "From people I don't know, I get looks. But I've never been singled out for maltreatment, and a lot of the kids have."

Stomp and Stammer

October 2005 |David T. Lindsay

Dreadheads[NR]:  Morbid curiosity or promised enlightenment, this modern-day approach to jamband hygiene is both funny and entertaining even though the tie-dyed followers onscreen look as if they’d walked underneath a dysentery cow en route to the psycho ward.  Smart enough to supplement bad taste with good-natured Q&A, Atlanta filmmakers Steven Hurlburt and Flournoy Homes pull no punches covering metaphysics, head lice and family ties.  Though not the least bit interested in Phish, ganja or hair sculpting, I couldn't take my eyes off it.