By Stacy Santini
“Walk me out in the mornin’ dew, my honey, Walk me out in the mornin’ dew today…….,” the ethereal voice rises and silence falls upon the crowd. A kinetic energy begins to weave itself into the scores of bodies riddled with goosebumps that sway from side to side; the forlorn melody coming from the stage reinforces a brotherhood that this community of listeners knows all too well. Fortunately for Grateful Dead-lovers this is not a recollection of an endearing concert moment, observing Jerry Garcia chant the song, “Morning Dew.” It is an accurate and recent depiction of the infamous voice of Long Islander Tom San Filippo and the band Half Step.
Half Step will be participating this weekend in another Rich Rivkin event on The Great Lawn at the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport called Grateful Fest. Rivkin is the dynamic promoter of all things Grateful Dead on our island. He is an environmental consultant who soaked up the desire and need to keep up the 1960s peace, love and music movement. Many years ago, he passionately started to create “gatherings” at public parks for people to come, be together and enjoy local bands. Today, he is known as a cultural attaché for thousands of Long Island Deadheads, fusing art with live music, and holds full blown festivals at wondrous locations like The Vanderbilt.
On Sunday, bands such as Half Step will be joined by other Grateful Dead song masters like The Electrix, Reckoning and Unbroken Chain and play to droves of Dead aficionados. Perched on a hill, overlooking Northport Bay and the Long Island Sound, up to thirty visual artists will join them.
From the time San Filippo was a boy, growing up in an Italian family in Levittown, peering into the windows of the music store on the corner at the guitars for sale, he was drawn to all things artistic. Although an accomplished graphic artist today, it was music that grabbed his soul for good at an early age, and by seven, he had picked up his first guitar. Although his parents were traditional, they embraced the Beatles, and for Tom, that band’s influence would remain a mainstay throughout his prolific career. His first band, Galaxy, was formed with schoolmate Dave Diamond, of Zen Tricksters fame. In Dave’s basement, they would rehearse Beatles songs until their fingers bled. Tom recalls this time with childlike excitement, “There was no Internet, no digital anything, so in order to practice, we would have to play the record and slow it down by hand. It was a discovery of music, discovering this art form in a very pure way.”
In the infancy of San Filippo’s journey, he was a bass player, and not until Galaxy eventually morphed into The Mighty Underdogs did Tom take the lead with guitar and vocals. There was much discovery along the way and as musicians, San Filippo and his bandmates certainly paid their dues. He remembers how excited they were to play “Fun Day” at McDonald’s for free hamburgers. As they became more well known amongst their peers, they expanded their song repertoire from pure Beatles to include the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and popular Grateful Dead tunes like “Truckin’” and were unofficially the house band for all community events.
There is no doubt that San Filippo enjoyed the notoriety and still does, he openly admits this, but his ear-to-ear grin when confessing is so warm and welcoming that it does not, in any way, come off as egocentric. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Tom San Filippo has a way of drawing people in; he is outrageously funny and has a rare sense of humility. He is impassioned about his career choice and the music that carries his daily routine and simply just wants to share it with the world. It is impossible not to like the guy.
“Songwriting flows through me. Notes and rifts effortlessly come to me; the lyrics take a little longer,” he says, when discussing his song writing, which began at age nine. There have been numerous bends in the road for San Filippo and the bands he was so fundamental in creating, and moments that certainly made time stand still for him. All part of his migration towards Half Step. Today, as Half Step plays to adoring crowds, he can still remember the moment while on tour as the opening act for Debbie Gibson, when the stage crew permitted The Underdogs to jam on the stage of an empty Radio City Music Hall prior to their sold-out Gibson show. “It was surreal to say the least. I looked around as we belted out songs like Bertha and said to myself, this is it, this is where I belong. I really believed that.”
After moving to Amityville with his soulmate and extremely supportive wife, Rose, band members in Half Step, reached out to Tom asking him to join, as proximity was now a friend. By this time, San Filippo was finally embracing Jerry Garcia’s style, something that had been attributed to him over and over again throughout the years. “I just got Jerry’s style and music; he has a very melodic approach and embraces the whole scale. It comes naturally to me.” To this day, he spends a good portion of his time studying Grateful Dead archives and all things Jerry, including his gear.
San Filippo joined a stellar group of extremely talented musicians when he acquiesced to be the front man for Half Step. “Playing and listening to the Dead is like having an extra chromosome, a special musical vocabulary — either you get it or you don’t,” Tom states. “And you want to be around people who speak the same language. With Half Step, I found that.”
Joining Scott Bardolf, Cindy Lopez, Craig Privett, Matt Iselin and Joe Chirco on stage would be an honor for any musician. They are all individually accomplished and when they come together, pure magic happens. Founding member, Scott Bardolf on rhythm guitar, willingly embraces the Bob Weir role and is sublime as his fingers meander across the fret board. Cindy Lopez beautifully spins jazz and blues around the Dead vocals when she sings and as a twenty-year veteran on the Long Island music scene, she complements her fellow band members perfectly. A natural bass player, Craig Privett gives credence to his instrument that would make Phil Lesh smile.
Having the opportunity to share the stage with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, keyboardist Matt Iselin has been playing piano since he was a small child, and his musical ability is apparent with every string vibration. Joe Chirco has manifested his current role as drummer from as early on as he can remember. Once the drummer for the Donna Jean Godchaux Band, the diversity of his percussion skill set is vast and his love for Grateful Dead music reigns supreme; his joy at being a part of Half Step is evident to all who see him play.
It is crucial to note that referring to Half Step as a cover band would be highly insulting. Often compared to Dark Star Orchestra, a hugely popular national band that also plays the music of The Grateful Dead, Half Step channels music from a legendary group and is integral to keeping that music alive. The quality of their musicianship can sometimes challenge even the actual work of the Grateful Dead themselves. There are so many layers to Dead music that there is plenty of room for bands like Half Step to delve deeper and deeper into its complexity.
There’s a reason people flock to Half Step venues, one you just might want to discover yourself. Half Step at The Vanderbilt Museum,this Sunday — be there.
The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport will host the 4th annual Grateful Fest on Sunday, Sept. 27 from noon to 6:30 p.m. Rain date is Oct. 4. Bring lawn chairs, blankets and picnic lunches. Tickets are $25 adults online, $35 at the door; $10 children ages 5 to 15; children under 5 free. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.