A Q&A with Marc Muller of Dead On Live
By Geoff Gehman
Marc Muller is 52 going on 16 or 13. The multi-instrumental impresario gets to roll and rock back time every time he gigs with Dead On Live, an ensemble that plays fiercely faithful versions of records by the Grateful Dead, for which Muller has been eternally grateful for nearly 40 years. Up to 18 musicians, all cast by Muller, perform his transcriptions of the Dead’s every note and every mistake. It’s an act of faith that redefines high fidelity.
Muller launched DOL with a 2010 show devoted to the 1970 albums “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” They were the Dead’s popular-music coming-out parties; they were also Muller’s coming-out parties with the Dead. Since then he’s shepherded concert duplications of later Dead LPs (the live “Europe ’72”) and solo records by Dead founders (the live “Jerry Garcia Band”). He calls the recreations “little eras, little chapters.”
On June 29 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will become a Jerry Garcia shrine. Muller and his DOL mates will mix Dead classics co-written by Garcia (“Scarlet Begonias,” “Dire Wolf”) with non-Dead standards minted by some of Garcia’s musical heroes (Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come”). A much smaller, much looser group will feature violinist Gary Oleyar, who played in a band led by Vassar Clements, who fiddled with Garcia in Old and in the Way, a bluegrass juggernaut, and on the original recording of the Dead’s “Mississippi Half-Step.”
Q: You started Dead On Live after being invited to program anything you wanted for a 2010 concert at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J. Why did you pick the Dead? What part of your soul did you need to feed?DOL expands Muller’s evolution as a sonic weaver. In college he earned pocket money by transcribing Steve Morse’s guitar parts for fellow students. Before forming DOL he performed “ridiculously accurate” recreations of Beatles LPs in a band with Glen Burtnik, a former Styx guitarist. For him, music is a grand tapestry and the Dead’s members are grand loomers.
During a recent phone conversation from his home in Neptune, N.J., Muller discussed the challenges of channeling the recorded Dead and dealing with Deadheads who think he’s deadening the Dead.
A: This project started by design and by accident. I thought it would be fun to pay tribute to the 40th anniversaries of “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” They were released nine months apart, and I was given nine months to prepare the concert. There’s a nice symmetry there.
I started by transcribing “Friend of the Devil.” I thought: well, it’s edgy, okay, and it goes to a C chord. Then I noticed: What the hell is [bassist] Phil Lesh doing here? Most bassists, when you’re jamming with them, will do a descending line or an oom-pah. But Lesh is not just putting out G-to-C; he’s playing an odd syncopation, almost rootless. After I figured that out, I realized that without Phil’s part, you’re kind of just playing a song; without this bass line, why bother?
So I started to go deeper. I thought: well, I can figure out Bob Weir’s guitar part; why don’t I show my buddy how to play it? Before you knew it, I had three songs down. The first tune we rehearsed was “Uncle John’s Band.” The [original recorded] vocals are very irregular, which made them very difficult to reassemble and weave together. If you took 20 very knowledgeable Grateful Dead musicians and put them in a room and had them sing the melody to “Uncle John’s Band,” you’d get 20 different versions. I spent a lot of time following each [Dead] guy’s voice, singing each part measure by measure. When I figured out the vocals and dealt them out and we sang them together, it just blew us apart. That’s when I knew we had something special.
Talk about the circle coming around. It was like I opened up the closet, saw my favorite shoes from high school, tried them on, and said, “Man, they still feel great.”
Q: Why note-for-note renditions of Dead records? Why not, say, authentic performances with vintage equipment?
A: I didn’t want just another jam band that does Dead songs. I didn’t want to be like Dark Star Orchestra, which likes playing in the style of the Dead. I really wanted to pay tribute to how I remember the Dead’s records sounded when I first heard them, when they first became part of my life. I still remember “Brown-Eyed Women” from “Europe ’72”; when I sing it, I remember the melody from that album. I think that many Dead fans share those original feelings from those original records. They remember “Uncle John’s Band” from the turntable; they remember “Mama Tried” from the turntable. When they hear that version they’ve been carrying around for so many years played live, in front of them, it knocks them for a loop—hopefully in a good way.
Q: I’m especially fascinated that you copy the Dead’s recorded mistakes, even the loss of a quarter beat in “Cumberland Blues.” Man, that’s not just fidelity, that’s high fidelity!
A: It’s the same thing in “St. Stephen,” which we’ll be doing in the next show, which will have ’60s stuff. On the record half of the [Dead] is playing in four, and the other half is playing in three, and they crescendo and crash in the same place.
So I told my musicians that you have to mute one side, and count it as one-two-three, one-two-three—a waltz—and you have to mute the other side and count it as one-two-three-four. It’s pretty funny, actually.
All that “Europe ’72” stuff is so well choreographed and symmetrical, so beautiful and majestic. It came together when [the Dead’s members] were all young and full of fire. You can’t believe they were playing as high as they could be [laughs].
Q: What do you tell Dead fans who think you’re deadening the Dead by not changing the tunes night to night, the way the Dead did in concert? I’m thinking of that Deadhead who posted you on http://www.jambands.com: “The magic is in the moment, not recreating a moment that no longer exists.”
A: It’s an odd conundrum. People want you to sound like the band, but they will bust on you for trying to sound like the band. What I’m saying is that there’s no way to play “Friend of the Devil” bad. What I’m doing is honoring the feeling of the original records, that when I perform “Europe ’72,” I feel like a 16-year-old again. I’m like an actor saying Shakespeare’s lines, or a musician playing a Mozart piece. When I’m playing that long solo at the end of “Tennessee Jed,” I feel as majestic as the song. I know I’m just acting and miming. But I’m there, inside the song.
I’ve gotten some incredible emails along the lines of: “My son couldn’t be there to watch the Dead in ’73, but last night he was in ’73 with me.” That’s the sort of stuff that makes you feel great, that makes all this hard work worthwhile.
Actually, the current show, the Garcia show, is much looser, much more open. I play Jerry’s pedal-steel part in “Dire Wolf” dead on, basically. But some of our best moments are when we improvise and have fun and just see what bubbles up.
Q: What do you think of changing the term from “tribute band” to “tributary”—a body of water fed by, inspired by, the source?
A: I don’t like “tribute band.” “Tributary” is a nice spin. It reminds me of something Jerry said: Making a studio record is like putting a ship in a bottle, and playing the record live is like taking the ship out of the bottle and putting it out to sea. We’re doing something that hasn’t been done since these records came out—on a bigger ship, in a bigger bottle.
Q: What do you appreciate about Garcia as a singer that you didn’t appreciate as much before DOL? I love his voice the way I love the voices of the Band’s trinity of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. It’s earthy and ethereal, smiling and heart-breaking, a watercolor sunrise/sunset.
A: He’s not an accomplished singer, but, man, he’s an effective singer. I’m not an accomplished singer, either; I couldn’t do a Beatles show and sing Paul [McCartney]. But when I dial in my voice to recreate Jerry’s mournful, beautiful voice on “Stella Blue,” well, it just gives me chills.
Q: What do you appreciate about Garcia as a guitarist that you didn’t appreciate as much before DOL? He had such a malleable, magnetic sound: nicely weighted, effortlessly spacious, a sort of bar-room bluegrass.
A: I really appreciate his distinctive sound, the way you can hear just one note and you just know it’s him. If you put a $50 Sears guitar in Jerry’s hands and he played one note, you’d still know it’s him. To me, that’s beautiful; to me, that’s the ultimate success.
Actually, I could teach a pretty good class on Jerry’s development as a guitarist. You can hear when somebody told him about the modes; you can hear when he began playing the kind of pentatonics Dickey Betts plays in the Allman Brothers. Jerry’s solos from 1971-’72 are more melodic, more like he’s singing them. Then in ’73, ’74 he’s playing more scales; he’s getting scale-lier–if that’s a word. In fact, what I thought would be the toughest solos—in “Weather Report (Part 2)”—turned out to be fairly easy once I figured out they were just a scale run. It’s just something I’ve been practicing since I was a kid.
Q: What do you appreciate about Garcia as a songwriter that you didn’t appreciate as much before you began really digging into his tunes? One of my favorite songs of his is “China Cat Sunflower”; to me it sounds like a sunflower blossoming.
A: His ability for melody. I love the melody of “China Cat,” although I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about in the lyrics. My favorite [Dead] song to play, though, is “Jack Straw,” which is like the ultimate Jerry and Bob [Weir] number. Put on headphones and listen to what Bob is playing on guitar in the middle and what Jerry is playing on guitar over there and what [keyboardist] Keith Godchaux is playing over there—a New Orleans honkytonk mixture. That is the biggest teamwork song for Jerry and Bob; they’re writing and performing so together. That’s just a beautiful tapestry. That’s the bible
Q: Have you had any memorable encounters with Dead alumni?
A: A few years back I sat in with Steve Kimock [former guitarist in such Dead spinoffs as The Other Ones] and Donna Jean Godchaux [former Dead vocalist]. There I was, standing next to her singing “Eyes of the World” and “Scarlet Begonias,” which she sang at the first concert I attended [in 1973]. I told her about [Dead On Live] and she seemed interested, and maybe confused: “Wow, that sounds hard: I could never do that.”
At our last gig at the Stone Pony [the fabled club in Asbury Park, N.J.] our emcee was Sam Cutler, who was the Dead’s manager during the whole period I’m doing, from 1970 to 1975. That’s when he was the man; that’s when he was sailing the ship. He was sitting backstage with us, telling stories off the cuff, and we were listening in amazement. He said the Watkins Glen concert [“Summer Jam,” a 1973 gig with the Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and the Band for nearly 600,000 at a racetrack in upstate New York] was held at Watkins Glen because [Band keyboardist] Richard Manuel was always sick and didn’t want to travel [from his home in upstate New York]. So Sam, who was running the show, brought the festival to Richard Manuel.
Q: How far can you take Dead On Live? Are you planning to venture into ’80s material like “Touch of Gray”?
A: Actually, we’ll play “Touch of Gray” during our Halloween concert at the Count Basie Theatre. The first set will have “Slipknot,” “Help on the Way,” “Franklin’s Tower.” We’ll be covering the first double-drumming period, when Mickey Hart joined the band. The second set will be a nonstop dance party: “Estimated Prophet,” “If I Had My Way,” “Shakedown Street,” “Touch of Gray,” every Bobby [Weir] rock ‘n’ roller, every Garcia uptempo [tune]. We’re calling it the Halloween double-drummer dance party.
You know, it’s a tough ship I’m sailing. I’m never going to be a millionaire doing this. I would like to leave our Northeast quadrant and take our show to San Francisco and Colorado—the garden–and see what they think. But it’s a big, expensive package and I don’t know how to do it.
I spend hours trying to get things done; sometimes it seems like working against gravity itself. But when it works, it’s really big fun. I’ll keep doing it as long as people come. [Pauses and laughs] Maybe. As long as it doesn’t kill me in the end.
Marc Muller: The Scoop
He attended his first Grateful Dead concert, and his first concert, in September 1973 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., a favorite Dead venue. He was chaperoned by an older brother who owned a VW Bug and who turned him onto the Beatles.
His first truly influential musician was guitarist Jeff Beck, whom he first heard live in 1979 at the Palladium in Manhattan, sitting in a sixth-row center seat with a scalped ticket. “I was this little teen-age Deadhead with his Dead T-shirt and hole-y jeans. When Beck played “Space Boogie,” I just stood there and my jaw dropped and I went ‘Oooohhhh!’ After that, I found my way to all the classics: Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Clifford Brown.”
His Dead On Live cast includes drummer Joe Chirco, who performs in a band led by Donna Jean Godchaux, an ex-Dead singer.
In 1995-2004 he played steel guitars in Shania Twain’s group.
His latest solo record, “Topsky,” contains “Southern-fried” jazz instrumentals featuring Victor Wooten, the hyper-imaginative bassist. The title is a word that Muller heard endlessly during rehearsals with Twain’s band. “Play it again, guys,” said Mutt Lange, then Twain’s producer-husband. “From the top—topsky.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He attended two Grateful Dead concerts at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia, the last one in March 1995, nearly five months before Garcia died. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org