Written By: Chad Berndtson
:: The Art Of The Sit-In - Jeff Chimenti ::
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the
scene’s most adventurous
players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews
Schnier, Nikki Glaspie, and others.
It might surprise some to know that before keyboard ace Jeff Chimenti first joined
Bob Weir’s RatDog in
didn’t know a single Grateful Dead song. Surprising because, some 17 years later, he’s one
of the most ubiquitous
musicians in the extended Grateful Dead scene post-Garcia – a crucial piece of RatDog,
Furthur and several
incarnations of Phil Lesh & Friends.
[Photo by: Dave Vann]
He’s praised for his dexterous style; catch Chimenti light up the keys in the midst of a
high-flying “Eyes of the
World,” for example, and know what it is to be dazzled. But much of what he does also
comes from a jazz-world
upbringing – a feel for dynamics, a distinct grasp of rhythm shifts, no matter how quick
the twists and turns or
malleable the jam and a real sense of adventure.
JamBase caught up with Chimenti just after his return from Furthur’s Paradise Waits
excursion in Mexico. He
respectfully declined questions about touchy subjects like RatDog’s current lineup and the
future of Furthur, but
obliged us with a good bit of feedback all the same.
JAMBASE: RatDog is back in action, though you guys played the Peach Festival last
year. Was it tough to
shake off the rust at that gig?
JEFF CHIMENTI: I didn’t feel it as being rusty, but merely adjusting to the
different lineup as quickly as
possible. I think we were all in the same boat and in my opinion, I think it came together
quickly. It was a fun festival.
JAMBASE: You play in Furthur, you play in RatDog and you've also played with a
bunch of Phil's Friends
lineups. Curious how would you describe the RatDog vibe, especially in relation to the
other ensembles. It's still
primarily Dead music and yes, it's different musicians, but RatDog seems to have a
particular personality all its own,
and having been playing with Bob for a long time, you can probably articulate what that
JC: That is difficult to describe, but I do agree that RatDog has its own
personality. RatDog has been touted
as jazzy from what I would hear from fans, and that’s not being negative in my eyes. Maybe
that had more to do with
the prior instrumentation on stage, but I don’t think it will lose that vibe going
JAMBASE: If I recall you'd played keys since you were quite young, were formally
trained, played around the
Bay Area, worked with quite a few jazz ensembles and if I remember correctly, you joined
RatDog through Dave Ellis.
Did you have any background in Grateful Dead music before you joined?
JC: I honestly did not know Grateful Dead song one. In retrospect, half of me
wishes I did having never
seen them live, and I missed some amazing stuff, I’m sure. But I do feel that lacking that
background was a key
factor in my getting RatDog, as Bob preferred that, apparently.
The good thing was that as time progressed – and having to listen to Grateful Dead music
to learn it – it was a wealth
of great songs and was fresh for me from a listening standpoint. I had no idea how much
great music they made
prior to my own entrance into the scene. Wow! I am a fan now, though [laughs].
JAMBASE: What do you remember about meeting Bob and your early days with RatDog?
JC: The first day I was going to meet and play with Bob, there was a power outage,
and we all sat and
talked for four to five hours. Just as we were going to call it a day, the power came back
on and we jammed a bit.
That started a regimen of getting together a few days a week for a couple months before I
performing with RatDog. I had always felt welcomed and encouraged by the guys from the
get-go and that was a nice
JAMBASE: You've sat in with many other bands and often collaborate. Tell me a
favorite recent sit-in story,
either you sitting in with a group or someone else sitting in with a band you were part
JC: I have been blessed all of my musical life to have had the chance to play with
many iconic musicians. I
hope that doesn’t end! Besides getting to sit and play next to the great Johnnie Johnson,
who paved my way into
RatDog essentially and what a treat that was, I think a show that stands out was getting
to a soundcheck at Radio
City [Music Hall] to find out that Elvis Costello and Diana Krall were joining us for the
evening. That was a blast.
JAMBASE: What made Furthur a special band, to you?
JC: All of the Dead-related ensembles I have been a part of have had their special
qualities. To speak on
Furthur, I feel that it grew quickly and had a very intuitive and telepathic rise through
the years. It seemed as even if
we did not get together to play prior to tours, it would just pick up from where we last
[Photo by Dave Vann]
JAMBASE: How were the Paradise Waits shows you've just played?
JC: They were fantastic. All issues aside, it was a very positive thing and I
personally kind of like these
destination events. I can see these types of shows growing in popularity.
JAMBASE: What else are you working on right now outside of work with the Dead
JC: I had gotten together with some old friends that I used to play with years ago,
and we did a couple of
sessions, essentially just to jam, at TRI Studios and they were recorded. My friends had
an existing working trio
called FOG, now with me added, and basically after hearing the tracks, we decided, what
the hell, let’s put it out.
We just released the first recording date as FOG TRI Sessions Vol. 1. It’s very
but a nice acoustic take of the
songs chosen. It’s kind of one of those recordings where you pop on headphones, lay down
and relax with it. I think
it sounds good and hope that those who grab it feel the same.
I have also been involved for the last three years on an actual “musical” project co-
writing the music along with the
creator of the project, Miranda Jones, which is being produced by Bob as well. It is
called “The Precipice,” and there’s
good info at upontheprecipice.com. There’s too much detail to describe it here so
best to visit the site. That has
kept me pretty busy while off tour, I have to say.
Jeff Chimenti has been part of some of the strongest nights of Grateful Dead music in the
post-Jerry era. Here’s a
cherrypicked list of fine performances from the past six months in which Chimenti shines
Furthur at Mann Music Center, Philadelphia, Pa., 7/13/2013
A fine example of Chimenti injecting himself and steering the band into some very creative
jams, even when the
entire band itself isn’t quite firing on all cylinders. An average Furthur show, an above-
average night for Jeff.
RatDog at Peach Festival, Scranton, Pa., 8/16/2013
Calling it the best sampling so far of what the “new” RatDog sounds like isn’t fair
considering that until the tour gets
underway, it’s pretty much the only sampling (along with the following night at the same
venue). But it sure sounded
encouraging – and Chimenti is as ever in his element.
Furthur at Red Rocks, Morrison, Co., 9/22/2013
A top-flight Red Rocks run closed with the band spinning this jammy wonder. Set 2 has one
showpiece after another,
from “Let It Grow” to “Eyes” to “Dew” to “Help > Slip > Franklin’s,” and with old pal
Branford Marsalis in the mix, it’s
Phil Lesh & Friends at Terrapin Crossroads, San Rafael, Ca., 12/6/2013
Most of the Phil Lesh Quintet regrouped at TXR in early December, but instead of Rob
Barraco, it was Chimenti –
along with a third guitar voice in Neal Casal – rounding out the band. All four of these
shows were meaty,
mesmerizing affairs but we’re partial to the third night, which went heavy on psychedelic
blues and a monster second
stanza built around “Viola Lee Blues.”
Furthur at Hard Rock Hotel, Riviera Maya, Mexico, 1/22/2014
By all accounts Furthur was “on” throughout the Paradise Waits festival. Judging by a few
recordings that have
emerged, and also fan feedback, Night 3 was the money, with furious jamming throughout.