Mark Karan: Fire Walker

By: Dennis Cook

Mark Karan
We're lucky to have Mark Karan. For the past 11 years he's been the lead guitarist and six-string foil for Bob Weir in RatDog, treading into Jerry Garcia's territory with a skip and a hop, injecting a classic '70s shredding fluidity and 12-bar spirit into the Dead's catalog. But in 2007 Karan announced he was battling throat cancer and needed to take some time off from what had been a long, winding professional career where he'd worked all over the musical spectrum - mainstream, underground and otherwise – on the way to putting his stamp on one of the most spectacular American songbooks ever.

The happy upshot is Karan not only beat cancer but emerged on the other side with a strong sense of purpose that's seen him return to steady touring with RatDog, complete his first solo album, the appropriately titled Walk Through The Fire (released June 30 on Quacktone Records) and soon a new round of shows with his sometime quartet Jemimah Puddleduck (tour starts this Thursday, August 6, in Fall Church, VA. Find dates here).

"It started out as a Puddleduck record and didn't wind up that way. When we started this out about four and a half years ago we discovered how hard it was to get the four of us in the same room to make a record; it was like pulling teeth with our tour schedules. It was a pretty constant source of frustration for all of us, but for me in particular because I was the one most driven to do this. So, after having the whole cancer experience, at the back end of it, I felt just as driven as ever to complete this thing but a WHOLE bunch less willing to wait," says Karan. "I finally came to the conclusion that as much as I love Puddleduck and want some version of Puddleduck [to exist] always if I can, I couldn't limit myself to that and what I needed to do more than anything, regardless of what name I put on it, was move forward."

Mark Karan by Alan Hess
It's a treat to finally see Karan's name on the front of a CD cover. He is often the guy one finds deep in the liner notes, doing the job in a wild variety of settings, as at home in dingy bars as he is in high gloss pro studios or stadium stages. While best known for his work with RatDog and other Grateful Dead related aggregates, Karan has also put in time with the likes of Huey Lewis, Dave Mason, Delaney Bramlett, The Rembrandts, Jesse Colin Young, Paul Carrack and Sophie B. Hawkins. One picks up on an easy moving vibe all over Walk Through The Fire, an album that creeps up on you the way a lot of early Little Feat does, just well crafted and well played rock & roll without a lot of bells 'n' whistles. He brings a wealth of experience and an abiding humility to his craft that's so goddamn tasty but rarely resorts to flash or overt skill displays, preferring instead to move by feel, melody and undisguised emotion.

"That's kinda all I got [laughs]. The truth is I've never been that powerfully disciplined guy who sat there all day and night running scales. That's not my trip. If I'm playing songs I can play songs all night and all day, but if you ask me to practice scales or run licks I'm bored in about five minutes," says Karan. This is perhaps an odd revelation coming from one of the dude's standing in Jerry Garcia big ol' sandals. "What's interesting about that for me is when I reference Garcia in my head, for any kind of inspiration or approach or take on a particular song, I'm usually referencing Garcia from 1968 to about 1974 or 1976, somewhere in there. He got into the faster, more intricate playing with more scales quite a bit later. So, for me, the quintessential Garcia playing, the stuff that really turns me on is his more primitive playing."

Jerry Garcia by Jay Blakesberg
"[How much I reference him] changes drastically night to night and song to song. There's certain songs that I grew up listening to at such a formative age – and also the inclusion of Owsley's little gift in there as well to cement those sorts of things into one's subconscious – so there's certain songs that it's impossible for me to NOT reference Garcia because when that song plays in my head that language is automatically part of it," Karan continues. "So, when we go to 'The Other One,' 'Morning Dew' or any of the songs that were really influential to me as a kid who was a fan of the Grateful Dead, I definitely find myself, it's not quoting or consciously trying to ape Garcia, but I do think Jerry developed a language, much in the same way The Beatles did. You have bands like Jellyfish, The Rembrandts or even artists like of Montreal who are definitely, at least some of the time, speaking Beatle. So, in this stuff I can't help but speak 'Garcia.' I'm not doing licks I've learned or anything like that but it's putting everything through this filter, this approach to hearing melody and how melody might interact with a song."

Karan has mentioned that some nights RatDog will approach things trying to speak in the vernacular of The Who or other iconic artists just to see what spin that gives the familiar tunes.

"I do that as a human, too. If I'm hanging out with a guy with a British accent for more than an hour or two you'll start noticing me with a British accent. And it's not like I'm trying, I just pick up on what ever is around me," says Karan. "It's very authentically like a chameleon, which isn't necessarily trying to be like this or trying to be like that, it's just fitting into its surroundings."

This wonderful mutability is a common trait amongst veteran session guys like Karan, where they're able to change their stripes as the situation dictates but never move less than naturally regardless of surroundings. Karan agrees, "Especially, if like myself, they've had the experience of being in lots and lots of different bands and also doing lots of sessions, where you're called upon at various times in your life to do fairly radically different things musically. You might be called upon to play punk rock one day and finessey, jazzy blues the next, whereas if you've always been in just one or two bands you might have a much stronger identity. I think if I had any issues with my playing it's identity. I think I have an identity but, as you say, it's so mutable. For some people, if they're not intimately familiar with me, it might be easy to lose me as opposed to say a Roy Buchanan, who's so distinctive. I'm talking about guitar players where you say, 'I can name that guitarist in three notes!'"

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