10. Are there any new bands that give you the same feeling the Grateful Dead once did? Is there currently an active group that makes you want to follow their tours and absorb their songs in the same cellular way?
The band that most consistently makes me forget where I am and what time it is is Donna the Buffalo. In a very different way from the Dead, they bring souls together in an ecstatic groove that elevates the welfare of the planet in some small but significant way.
Donna the Buffalo
Another band I really love is Railroad Earth. Todd Sheaffer is a terrific songwriter, and he's surrounded by excellent musicians who exhibit great virtuosity as individuals and who also know how to play together to make something happen that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The David Nelson Band is probably the best band on the planet in terms of carrying on the Grateful Dead's tradition of stringing great songs together with brilliant ensemble playing. That's no surprise. David Nelson was there with Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter and the rest when they created their unique form of musical storytelling. David knows, and his band does, too.
Other bands worth mentioning that aren't very well-known nationally are Free Peoples, from here in Northern California, and Joseph Langham and Each Others' Legend from Flagstaff, Arizona.
Not coincidentally, there is a CD you can get that features a track from each of these artists, It's called Live from Berkeley - a compilation of performances from my KPFA show. It's a fund-raiser for KPFA. If you'd like a copy, send a check or money order for $25 or more payable to KPFA, to Perfectible Recordings, 484 Lake Park Ave. #102, Oakland CA 94610-2730. Stanley Mouse did the cover art, which you can see and hear samples of all the tracks at www.gdhour.com/livefromberkeley.
11. When did you start playing guitar? What drew you to the instrument and what still draws you in now?
I started playing guitar when I was 15. I played the clarinet all through grade school and junior high and was still farting around with it in high school, but I wanted to be a folksinger or a rock star or whatever. My brother (two years older) set a couple of my tortured teenage poems to music and taught me the chords, and from then on, whenever he left the house I went into his room and got his guitar. I taught myself all the songs in the Crosby, Stills & Nash and Beatles' White Album songbooks, and that was it for me. So I was writing songs before I played the guitar.
David Gans by Jeff Kearns
What draws me to it is that it is a tremendous tool for self-expression. As Bobby Weir told me once in an interview, it's a lot easier to carry around than a piano. I can get on stage with my guitar and a couple hundred bucks' worth of electronic tools and make a hell of a lot of sound, tell my story, and maybe leave an impression in some people's minds.
12. Are there any Dead songs you're sick of? Any you don't like to play on your radio shows anymore?
There are some that I don't find terribly interesting over time, but there aren't many - and I try not to let my own personal gripes dictate the content of the show. There are some songs that began to seem obligatory, like filler, over the years - e.g. the "cowboy medley" that came up in every single first set from the early '80s until the end. After a while, it was extremely unlikely that anything interesting would happen in "Me and My Uncle" (especially compared to the exciting versions that came up in the middle of "Other One" jams in the early 70s!) or "Mexicali Blues" - and the transitions between them tended not to be very satisfying either. I got kinda' tired of Bobby's blues numbers sometimes too, although you couldn't give up on them completely. I remember a "Little Red Rooster" from the Greek (can't remember what year) in which both Bob and Jerry played some powerful slide guitar. But the GD originals always had some life in 'em, no matter what.
13. What was collaborating with Robert Hunter like?
It all took place in email! I was on the road, and I checked my email before heading out to a festival gig in Michigan and there was a message from Hunter! He said he'd been reading my online journal with "interest and empathy" and thought I'd like this lyric. Did I ever! The lyric was called "Like a Dog" (see www.dgans.com/lyrics.html).
Robert Hunter by Michael Mullen
I came back to my room after the show and got right to work on setting it to music. The next day, I drove to Ohio and taught the song to the Dark Star Orchestra, who came onstage with me without rehearsal and just nailed it. When I got home from that tour, I played the song on my radio show; Hunter heard it, liked it, and sent me another lyric right away: "Shut Up and Listen."
I've envisioned "Shut Up and Listen" as a nasty, Stones-y rock song but haven't had a chance to play it that way. But I did put an acoustic version of it on my CD Solo Acoustic.
14. Do you have an all-time favorite Grateful Dead show? Is there any other band's performance that competes for your personal top spot?
I don't really have much of an answer to that. I think there is merit in just about every GD show I saw (and I was at Boreal in '85!), and I've seen a zillion other concerts that moved me just as much. Off the top of my head, I'd say the Paul Simon Graceland show with Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo (Berkeley Community Theater, musta' been 1986) was the single most exhilarating show I ever saw. I saw Joan Baez turn the sold-out Greek Theater into an intimate living room concert. Joe Jackson's Night and Day tour in 1982 was brilliantly conceived (no guitars!) and executed with great power. I was blown away by Billy Joel at the Berkeley Community Theater (The Stranger tour). I could go on and on.
Grateful Dead at Greek Theatre by Jay Blakesberg
15. You're a regular on the music festival circuit. Many liken these gatherings to what people were doing in the '60s and early '70s. Do you think that's true - that the peace and harmony vibe is as strong at today's music festivals?
The festival tradition goes back many years before the hippies started carrying the flag at Monterey and Woodstock. I didn't go to any of the major festivals when I was a kid. I was on the wrong coast for Woodstock, and I overslept and missed my ride to Altamont. There were folk festivals for many years before that, and there were bluegrass festivals long before there were folk festivals. My favorite festival scene - MagnoliaFest and the Spirit of Suwannee - is in Live Oak, Florida, in a place where bluegrass festivals were held every year. The producers of those festivals are taking their good vibes to the Bill Monroe Festival site in Bean Blossom, Indiana, for the first time this summer.
In other words, people have been gathering in peace and harmony to enjoy great music and fellowship for decades - no, centuries! We are simply carrying on the tradition, and I am very happy to be part of that tradition. Festivals are a great thing. Performers get to hear each other play, jam with each other, get close to the audience - everybody wins! And it's great for me as a radio producer too because I always come home with new music to play on the radio show.
16. How'd the recent shows with your new band Guilty Pleasures go? Will this band go forward?
That was such a high experience! It started with Klyph Black, bassist of the Zen Tricksters. I just love that guy, and when we were doing some gigs together in February, I asked him if he'd like to come out and play the Invitational at Sweetwater with me. He said yes, and we agreed to do a few more shows to help cover the cost of his plane ticket and all that. Then we cooked up a band - Rob Barraco (Klyph's former bandmate who went on to play with Phil Lesh and Friends and The Dead) on keyboards and vocals, Barry Sless of the David Nelson Band (and currently playing with Phil and Friends as well) on pedal steel and electric guitar, and a young drummer I know in San Francisco, Adam Perry.
Rob Barraco by Susan J. Weiand
We only had one day of rehearsal, and then three shows in three days. Barry had to leave before the last gig to rehearse with Phil and Friends, so we did the May 8th gig with David Nelson. Everything about this tour exceeded my wildest dreams. The music was thrilling, the audiences were tremendously responsive, and we even came out of it a few bucks ahead.
You can hear two of the shows online, and the others should be posted soon:
May 6th at Six Rivers in McKinleyville, CA
May 7th at Lalo's in Mt Shasta, CA
I don't know when we'll be able to do it again. Barry is insanely busy with three regular gigs (he also plays with the Flying Other Brothers). Rob just put out a CD, Dragonflys, and is about to start touring with that band. Klyph plays full-time with the Tricksters. And I have a lot of solo work as well as various collaborations. I think everyone would like to do it again, but it's a matter of lining up the clear spots on all our calendars.
17. What role do politics play in your music?
I grew up in a time when we thought music would change the world. And it did, to a certain extent, although the world has continued to change and not in entirely desirable ways.
David Gans by M. Sheehan
Many of Donna the Buffalo's songs are spiritually positive and politically/socially conscious. I asked Jeb Puryear once if he was promoting any particular political, spiritual, or religious agenda, and he said something like, "No, but I figure if you're going to play music for people, you might as well have something positive to say." He cited The Beatles and Bob Marley as major influences. That's pretty much how I feel about it too.
I wouldn't say I specialize in political songs, but I have written quite a few in recent years because what's happening to the country and the culture and the planet and the human race is very important to me. After years of writing songs that were mostly about my own experiences, I made an explicit effort to write something that was purely fictional. The song I wound up with was not what I thought I was writing, but I was happy with the result ("An American Family," which is on Solo Acoustic and whose lyrics can be found at http://www.gdans.com/lyrics.html), a portrait of three family members coping with the economic straits of the present-day American kleptocracy.
And, partially inspired by the example of Donna the Buffalo, I have two new songs whose message is both socially critical and personally optimistic - "It's Gonna Get Better" and "Shove in the Right Direction," both of which you can hear online here.
18. Anyone you haven't worked with that you'd really like to?
I would love to sit in with Donna the Buffalo. I got onstage with them at the first couple of Suwannee events, but that was before I really got into what they do. Now I'm prepared to get down into that deep groove of theirs and help stir the soup.
Donna the Buffalo by Todd E. Gaul
The monthly Invitational that I do at Sweetwater has given me opportunities to play with lots of fine musicians. This week I will share the stage with, among others, the great bluegrass musician Laurie Lewis. I have some other ideas and some pretty cool acquaintances who have expressed an interest in joining me there.
I have been singing Beatles songs with Chris and Lorin Rowan (Peter's younger brothers), and we have talked about doing some gigs together. I did a couple of songs with Peter Rowan a few years ago, and I'd love to do more with him. I have toured with the great Seattle singer-songwriter Jim Page, and we hope to work together again soon.
I am feeling both challenged and satisfied these days, so I'm not spending much time or energy pining for unattainable musical partners.
It would be fun to get Bill Kreutzmann into a jam some time.
19. What's the most fun you've ever had on stage?
Another impossible question! I have been blessed in that department. I've had peak experiences playing all by myself with an audience that was really in it with me and a good PA making the connection. Two shows in the Northwest a year and a half ago spring immediately to mind: a house concert in Portland and a gig at Bishop's on Vashon Island, near Tacoma WA.
Gans & Lesh by S. Millman
But the most thrilling experience I can recall is the first three shows with Guilty Pleasures. I played way above my skill level in that context. I haven't played electric much in recent years so I was a little bit nervous about that, but the muse was kind to me and I played better than I ever thought I could.
Another peak experience was playing a sold-out show at the Fillmore Auditorium on January 31, 1998 - David Gans and the Broken Angels with special guests Phil Lesh and Vince Welnick. We sprang "St. Stephen" on Phil that night, and he rose to the occasion mightily, as did everyone else on that stage that night. I'll never forget it.
20. Is there anything more precious than music?
Music is one of the things that make life on Earth such a precious gift. The intimacy of real love is another. The ability to travel, to appreciate the beauty and magic of the planet is another. To have all these things in good measure is a tremendous blessing, and I am very happy to say I have all three in my life.
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