Last year, Grateful Dead fans were laser-focused on the band’s 50th anniversary “Fare Thee Well” performances in Santa Clara, California., and Chicago.
There has been no singular event this year, but there are still plenty of chances for Deadheads to get their fix. Dead & Company, led by Bob Weir and John Mayer, played Citi Field in June, and bassist Phil Lesh & Friends are playing Coney Island’s Ford Amphitheater in September.
Perhaps the most unusual Dead-related project on the road this summer is the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, in which guitarist Warren Haynes and a symphony orchestra tackle the Dead’s catalog.
amNewYork spoke with Haynes, who has been a member of the post-Garcia Dead, Phil & Friends and the Allman Brothers, while also leading his own band, Gov’t Mule.
How did the idea for a symphonic celebration of Jerry Garcia come about?
I got a call about three years ago from the Jerry Garcia estate saying that they wanted to do Jerry’s music with a symphony featuring guest artists and wanted to know if I was interested in being the first one. I replied that I would be honored.
Were any of the orchestras skeptical when you first approached them?
Not to my knowledge, as orchestras tend to do a lot of “pop” or “non-classical” stuff. I think they were pleasantly surprised when they heard the music and the actual scores and arrangements.
How do you balance having an orchestra reading sheet music with the improvisation that you and the Dead are known for?
We can’t change the symphonic arrangements on the spot like we’re prone to do in other projects but we honor that spirit of improvisation in three ways: 1) There are times when the symphony stops playing and the electric band improvises for an undetermined amount of time. Then the symphony will re-enter on cue. 2) Sometimes I’m improvising to what they’re reading so I’m the only one improvising. 3) Sometimes what they are reading was initially improvised, in the case of “Dark Star” by the Grateful Dead or, in the case of “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead and Branford Marsalis. Steven Bernstein, the arranger, assigned all the originally improvised parts to different instruments in the orchestra.
Do you see a lot of commonalities between classical music and Garcia’s compositions?
Certain ones have similarities such as “Terrapin Station” and “Blues for Allah,” but for the most part, no. I think a lot of his songs utilize and combine a lot of history in the sense of American songwriting dating back many decades. My main mission was to pick the ones that work really well when married to a symphony as I don’t think all rock music or pop music works well that way. Luckily there are a lot of songs in the Garcia catalog that work extremely well and the end result is a very unique take on the songs.
What do you like about playing these songs with an orchestra vs. with The Dead or Phil & Friends?
When I first was approached about doing this I was excited about the opportunity to cast these songs in a different light but also about the opportunity to work with a symphony, which I had never done before. It was always something I thought about doing “in the future” but never really had the right reason. Playing [Garcia’s] “Wolf” [guitar] makes it even more special.
What are your favorite songs to play with an orchestra?
All of them are fun for different reasons. Part of the beauty is being able to sing these songs with the orchestral accompaniment, which sometimes is covering one or both of the original guitar parts. I enjoy figuring out what to play to add to the overall picture.
Are there any songs that you found something new in playing them this way? If so, which ones?
The arrangement of “Black Peter” is very much a “New Orleans” treatment, which causes me to respond differently in the way I’m approaching it especially at the end where I’m gravitating toward “bottleneck” guitar. “Blues for Allah” is a very interesting arrangement which encourages me to take a more “bluesy” approach when the coda comes in at the end. The girls are wailing and I’m playing blues on top of it which is exciting.
Are there any songs you didn’t expect to work but did or vice versa?
At first I had ruled out “Touch of Grey” but when we wanted to add new songs for this tour I revisited the idea and decided it would be fun to hear the symphonic take on it. It works great.
You open each show with “Dark Star.” Why?
The first four minutes of the show are taken from a version of “Dark Star” in 1968. I chose this section that I really liked and Steven Bernstein scored it for the symphony. Everything they are reading was originally improvised. It sounds more classical in its nature because it’s being played to a straight beat rather than a swing beat, which we discovered at rehearsal by mistake. I like opening the show this way because it’s very unique and I think it sets the mood. I don’t know of any orchestral music that sounds like this.
What else are you working on these days?
Gov’t Mule is releasing an archival album, “The Tel-Star Sessions,” on August 5th. We are going to start recording another studio album in November. Mostly writing songs for this in addition to touring.