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This weekend, the Mauch Chunk Opera House in downtown Jim Thorpe features three bands with reputations for playing phenomenal concerts, that go long and late, and never fail to surprise.
 
Cabinet and East Bound Jesus take the stage this Friday, June 28. Then it’s Dead On Live on Saturday, 6/29 bringing us their flawless take on the music of the Grateful Dead. Both the Friday and Saturday shows are only $20. It’s a perfect way to enjoy summer.
 
The following is an interview with Marc Muller of Dead On Live, whose Jerry Garcia show is featured on Saturday, June 29. DOL is a group that plays note-for-note renditions of the amazing Dead catalog. And they’ll surprise you with stuff no one plays. Read on!
 

De(a)dication

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.”

Dead On Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera HouseOn 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.”

Dead On Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera HouseQ: 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.”

Dead On Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera HouseA: 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 geoffgehman@verizon.net

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The Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, and The Band performed at a huge concert 40 years ago in Watkins Glen, NY in 1973. Your intrepid blogger shares memories of that remarkable event.

I was 16 back then, and I had already been to lots of shows. It seems like I remember them all, but events like Watkins Glen in particular would always color the way I experience live music as I’ve made my way through life.

Watkins Glen Concert 1973

Three friends and I had decided to go there, maybe four hours from where we lived in Brewster, NY, to see three of the biggest bands of the day – The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. It was the summer of 1973, yet news of the event had spread virally, by word of mouth, long before there were such things as viral events. Just like today, word spread fast then, but about less things.

We left early the day before the concert in order to avoid the crowd that would be on the road the next day. However, by the time we were within twenty miles of Watkins Glen, we were surprised to encounter already immense traffic. This was a problem, not only because we thought we had left well in advance, but because the engine of our Peugeot was air-cooled and the constant stop-and-go caused the engine to overheat.

Watkins Glen 1973

Eventually, we just pulled the car over and bid it adieu for a couple of days, and walked the last few miles to the show, joining tens of thousands of other people along the way. The situation was certainly unexpected, but what choice was there?

By late afternoon, we finally made our way into the concert grounds, and pitched a tent as a base of operations. Then we easily moved up to maybe thirty yards from the stage to enjoy a soundcheck that turned out to be the real first night of the show.

The Allman Brothers began with a two-hour check, then The Band came on for another two. It was obvious there were so many people already there that the concert organizers had decided to give everyone an extra day if the musicians were willing, which they were.

Watkins Glen Concert in 1973

Now it felt like a festival, not just a long concert. It had required a lot of effort to get there, but something great was happening, something almost spiritual. The heat of the day had disappeared, and in the dim, clear light of evening you saw people everywhere, but you could get around with no problem, and settle down anywhere.

For me, it had become a gorgeous good time. Four hours into our unexpected free night, The Grateful Dead jammed for four hours more, until midnight. I remember Jerry Garcia, 31 years old and hair still black, thoughtfully surveying the unexpected ocean of people before him, numbering around 150,000 souls, most either sitting or lying down, in one of the mellowest, most peaceful summer evenings imaginable.

The actual concert began the next day. It dawned clear, but you could tell – it was going to get mid-summer hot. I woke up to feet all around me, as overnight it had gotten a whole lot more dense with people. But I was determined not to give up our hard-won spot near the stage.

The Dead started things off around noon, then four hours later The Band took the stage. Shortly into their set it began to rain like mad.

watkins98I recall Garth Hudson performing The Genetic Method during the storm, but everyone else onstage had taken cover. An hour or two later when the driving rain mercifully stopped, I beheld a sea of sopping-wet humanity, and I myself was caked past my knees in mud.

But still, it was summer, everybody kept it together, and I recall looking around and noticing it didn’t look like anyone had left. Soon as the rain let up, The Band came back out and resumed things where they had left off, and everyone forgot about the conditions and went back to listening to the bands they had come to see.

Watkins Gen 1973

Personally, I was there to see the Allman Brothers. Their set the night before had merely whetted my appetite for more. I sorely regretted not having seen the original band with Duane Allman (my all-time favorite guitarist, then and now) and Berry Oakley in concert (both died in motorcycle crashes), and at this point wasn’t going anywhere until I saw and heard the band that they had become.

It was the Brothers and Sisters Allman Brothers, and they did not disappoint. They took the stage led by a 26-year-old Gregg Allman, with Dickey Betts, the elder statesman at 30, up front, and Chuck Leavell on the piano on stage right. Butch Trucks, Jaimoe, and Lamar Williams put down an impeccable backbeat for the band, which performed with an almost regal confidence and authority.

Halfway through their three-hour set, I could no longer ignore how loudly nature called, so I walked back to the facilities, which I don’t recall being bad considering the size and density of this crowd. For me, it was certainly the most memorable porta-john visit ever: the fabled Watkins Glen sound system, set up with the help of Bill Graham, was doing its job beautifully, as the strains of Les Brers in A Minor mingled with my own sweet relief.

I found my way back near the stage and by then it was just my friend Nancy and I, as my other two friends had moved back to the tent. Unfortunately, when we walked back to the original campsite, they were gone. I can’t say I was terribly surprised. Conditions had taken their toll on a lot of folks by then.

Watkins Glen 1973So we began the long midnight trek into town as, in the distance, the Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead had come together to perform Mountain Jam. It was well after midnight, and I was essentially asleep on my feet, having only semi-slept the night before, completely out in the open, under the stars.

Once back in town the sun began to rise, and we went into a diner, somehow getting a seat. A nice-enough guy was hitting rather persistently on Nancy, so we thought what the heck, let’s see if perhaps there’s a ride here. His car was a few miles out of town, and so, like everyone else, we rode most of the way on the hoods of other cars.

Once at his car, we did indeed manage a ride – all the way home. This was something of a feat, because there were about 200,000 other hitchhikers. I should still be there, out on the side of the road, thumb extended, trying to get home.

Watkins Glen Concert in 1973It was a gentle relief to finally make it back and clean off the mud with a blessed hot shower, instead of enduring a pounding rainstorm. My dad had put the front-page picture from the NY Daily News (where my mother was a reporter) on the refrigerator. It was an image of the crowd shot from the stage, and he had circled what he thought was me in red ink. I leaned in for a closer look, and indeed, there we were.

Then I went to sleep unconsciously for 18 hours, the longest I’d ever, and have ever, slept. Summer was still in full swing, so the next morning I took the family car for a couple of days, without permission, and thus began yet another opportunity for my parents to deal with their circa-1973 teenage son.

Thanks Mom and Dad for letting me go in the first place, and for not asking too many questions when I made it back home. It was a great time that I’ll never forget.

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