by LIZA MITCHELL
For the last 17 summers, fans of the Grateful Dead have come together on the hottest day of the year to celebrate the life and legacy of the late Jerry Garcia. The China Cat Sunflower Festival is a gathering reminiscent of the epic, transcendental concert tours that generated a traveling family known as Deadheads.
The 17th annual China Cat Sunflower Festival will be held from 4 pm to 9 pm, or more specifically, 4:20 pm to dusk, on Sunday, August 12, at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, 1021 W. 1st Street, Jacksonville, 356-2992 (www.rain.org/~karpeles). The event is free and open to the public.
Named after the Grateful Dead song, the China Cat Sunflower Festival was born in 1996 as a living tribute to Garcia, who had died the previous year of a heart attack at age 53. The festival has evolved over time but is always held on the second Sunday of August, between Garcia’s birthday and the day he died.
This year, the festival will also honor the late Rick O’Shea, an avid kite maker, and Michael Houser, the former lead guitarist of Widespread Panic, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on August 10, 2002. Houser and the rest of his bandmates were hugely influenced by the Grateful Dead when they started playing covers 25 years ago. Widespread Panic is now considered to be one of the highest-earning touring bands and will celebrate Houser’s life on August 10 at the Georgia Theatre.
A blessing and chant will signal the start of the festival, with a drum parade leading revelers into the adjacent park grounds to form a drum circle. Bands including Papa Million (www.facebook.com/papamillionband), the Ouija Brothers (www.ouijabrothers.com), BayStreet (www.baystreetband.com), and the Glass Camels (www.facebook.com/glasscamels) will perform the music of the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Widespread Panic and others.
Brenda Star Walker founded the China Cat Sunflower Festival not only to celebrate Garcia’s life and music but also to continue the familial bond of the Grateful Dead shows. As a huge fan of live music, Walker said she was “blown away” by the traveling culture that became as much about a Dead show as the music itself. “When I saw my first show in 1992, I got it really quick,” Walker says. “It was really an amazing thing, even compared to any other music I’d seen because the tribe is so together. It’s really a sweet family. Everyone was standing up and singing every word to every song through the whole show.”
In the three years that followed, Walker saw 28 Grateful Dead shows—until the music stopped with Garcia’s death. The idea of a family-friendly festival seemed to be a perfect way to keep the spirit alive. “When it was over, it was like, ‘What do we do now?’ I was driving around one night and thinking about how we could honor this amazing thing,” she says. The idea of a Jerry Garcia Memorial began to take shape. “I thought if we call it the China Cat Sunflower, every Deadhead will know exactly what that means.”
The inaugural festival was held in the rear yard of the former Jacksonville Art Museum. Admission was $1 and 1,400 people showed up. After the museum closed, Walker began moving the festival around to nearby restaurants that offered refreshments for attendees and the opportunity for restaurant owners to turn a nice profit on a Sunday afternoon. “Then I started doing it because I wanted it to be more like Shakedown Street, which was the parking lot scene at the Grateful Dead shows, and not have money exchanging (sic) hands,” Walker says. “We encouraged people to bring their own picnics, musical instruments, hula hoops and such. Pack it in and pack it out.”
Walker said the change in venue to the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum offers festivalgoers the best of both worlds. “What a sweet place it is. Inside, it’s cool and wonderful and musically very acoustic, and outside, we have that fabulous park right there.”
Vendors will be on hand to showcase everything from handcrafted jewelry and hippie chic tie-dye to baked goods and arts and crafts. The environment is inviting, and the vibe is as infectious as the music. The self-perpetuating momentum of the China Cat Sunflower Festival is a true testament to the spirit of the Grateful Dead.
The festival will come to a close at dusk when the gentle beating of the drums ushers in the setting sun “like a crazy-quilt stargown through a dream night wind.”
China Cat Sunflower
by LIZA MITCHELL