Photo by Todd Davis

The Schwag is back. Vibe creators and Grateful Dead experience extraordinaires are making their triumphant return, with their tour touching down in Ohio, Illinois, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, as well as several shows in their home state of Missouri. From the beloved classics to the obscure, The Schwag takes audiences in many directions, all with a dynamic flavor and a touch of nostalgic flair.

After a 2010 raid of frontman Jimmy Tebeau’s property Camp Zoe, which was home to several annual festivals including the band’s own Schwagstock, Tebeau was held responsible and accused of maintaining a drug-involved premise. Despite getting sentenced to do 30 months in a federal prison, the star and his group’s following have stayed more true than ever. It seems the love will not fade away. He was recently released and The Schwag is just getting started on a big 2014-2015 tour, which will lead them all over the Midwest and beyond.

Tebeau took some time to discuss his long strange trip with me, opening up on a number of topics – from his musical journey to his recent release from incarceration. As he explains, “Oddly enough, me going to prison has made the band more popular. Now I’m officially an outlaw musician. Which is funny because I’m such a peace and love kind of guy. I hated it at first, but now I’m moving on. I’m out of the halfway house and I want to learn from this experience in any way shape or form. I can’t cry about it anymore. If life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.”

How does it feel to back on the road?

It’s so good…like a breath of fresh air. It was confining being in that prison; a federal prison camp in Yankton, South Dakota. I was there for about a year and then did several months in a halfway house. They let me play local shows when I was in the house. We did a big comeback show at The Pageant in St. Louis, which drew over 1,500 people. We did “Folsom Prison Blues,” which I changed to “Yankton Prison Blues.” We played “Wharf Rat,” and I got to say “I’m doin’ time for some other [person’s] crime”. So we had kind of a theme. And then one of those Saturdays, we got to open for Sammy Hagar at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, which holds 14,000 people. But for being in a halfway house, getting to do local shows was really cool. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. September 9th, I signed out of the house and that night I played a gig in Chicago with the Furthur bus. We did six nights in a row and it was great. We also just did a big festival in Arkansas. All the shows have been hugely successful. The band is sounding better than ever and we’ve been rehearsing a lot. Not only are we back, but we’re playing even more songs than we had in the past. We’re bigger and better than ever and we’re ready. We’re excited to have this travelling musical circus back on the road.

I did four years in the Jerry Garcia Band before I was in prison. I’m not doing that gig anymore. I decided to do just one band and do it really well. I think that was part of my downfall – in two national touring bands and I owned a big, popular venue, was putting on all kinds of festivals and a few things got away from me. I had over 150 employees and things got crazy. I took the hit. Now I’m back. And it feels marvelous. I really reflected on what I’ve accomplished, where I’m at now, and where I want to go with it. I feel more focused than ever. It is like the phoenix rising, like I’m reborn and I’ve got a new outlook on life. I appreciate the gigs even more now. Every time I get on the stage, it’s another great, adventurous musical journey that I look forward to. There is this entire level of energy on stage. I have to look at the positives of the incarceration, and I’m utilizing that every day.

I learned a number of things while I was in there. I was with a number of white collared crime guys, as well as some high level drug dealers with non-violent history. I was in there with an electrical engineer who helped develop the Chevy Volt; he was accused of selling trade secrets to China. The man swore he was innocent. He was a complete genius. I was in there with a college professor that had two PhDs, who got caught up in some financial scandal that he was collateral damage of. I was in there with the director of the Die Hard movie with Bruce Willis, he was there for lying to a federal investigator. There was also a number of people who were caught coming across borders with something like 2,000 pounds of marijuana, had been doing it for years and got caught one time. It was a crazy mix of people. They influenced me, and who I am, because everyone is a product of their environment to a certain extent. It was quite an experience with these characters. I’m trying to take the positives from everyone I met in there. There were a number of guys with very bad attitudes, who I learned to avoid. They weren’t doing good time, they were doing bad time. It’s a crazy thing to say, “I’ve been to prison.” I’d never thought I’d be saying something like that.

How did you pass the time?

I played a lot of music in there. They had a pretty big music department, which I got a job in. I had my own office and was teaching music. I would play for hours and hours every day. I was making quality use of my time. A lot of time for reflection. Peter Shapiro sent me a subscription to Relix magazine. I looked forward to getting it every month. I met Peter backstage at the Brooklyn Bowl. I’d played the Bowl and Capitol Theatre with Jerry Garcia Band; we probably played four or five times up there. I was getting tons of mail from all over too – California, New York, Hawaii, and even from Japan. That helped keep me going.

How has the band changed since you have been released?

We kind of re-branded…we’re calling ourselves the Grateful Dead Experience. We feel we’re more of an experience than a tribute band. When people come to our shows, we all experience something. It’s more of a journey we take together. We’re trying to evoke emotion at the shows. A feeling, an emotional catharsis, a release. We can take the audience down to complete silence during an emotional “Stella Blue” and then come back with a rousing version of “Lovelight” where everyone’s just screaming in complete elation. We get off on that. We all work together with the crowd; it’s not ever us and them. It’s all of us combining our conscious energy together. Tension release that the music creates. We’re making a career out of it and spreading the joy of love and music across the country and beyond. We’ve even had some international offers here lately for South America, Europe, the Philippines, and we’re looking at that for 2015.

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