I didn't grow up a Deadhead. I didn't become a big fan until 1989. I first saw the band in 1979 — I was 19 — but my head was somewhere else at the time. My wife, Stefani, was a Deadhead, though, and after we met, in 1989, we'd go to see them every chance we'd get. One night, at Madison Square Garden, Bruce Hornsby — who was playing keyboards with them — pulled us up onstage and sat us behind his piano. We were 10 feet from Jerry Garcia, and you could see how that audience zeroed in on him. He was the focus of everything. There was a synchronicity between the Dead and the crowd, and it was mesmerizing to watch Jerry, in his own understated way, steering that ship — knowing it was a big ship that could barely be steered, but if anybody could steer it, it was him.
Obviously, most of today's jam bands are influenced by the Dead. But what disappoints me about a lot of current music is that you don't hear any history in it.
The Dead were aficionados of folk, acoustic blues and bluegrass — particularly Garcia. In the songs he wrote with Robert Hunter, and in Bob Weir's stuff too, you're also hearing music from 40 years ago. Everyone focuses on the magic of Jerry's guitar playing and the vulnerability of his voice, but his sense of melody and chord changes was unbelievable. The ballads especially connected with me: "Loser," "Wharf Rat," "Stella Blue." My song "Lay of the Sunflower," on the Gov't Mule album The Deep End, has a lot of Garcia's melodic sensibilities.
Before I joined the Dead in 2004, I played with Phil Lesh for about five years. He is one of the most original bass players ever. His background was in classical music; he looks at the bass guitar as a piece of the orchestra, like a low-pitch brass instrument. His job isn't just holding down the root notes — he and the drummers, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, are moving all over the place. A lot of the magic in the Dead's music came from Phil and Jerry learning how to play together, combining Phil's approach with Jerry's unique blend of influences.
Jerry is still one of the few guitarists where as soon as you hear him, you know instantly who it is. As a guitar player, that is the thing I strive for: the distinct, recognizable personality that comes out in every note. There was a humanity in Jerry's guitar work as well as his singing that drew you in. He was a very personal guitarist; he played with more heart and soul than technique. And to me, that's what the best music is made of.
As a band, the Dead also redefined success. They created this following that grew and grew, and they did it without compromising themselves. They survived in a world where survival didn't seem possible. They bucked the system and encouraged their fans to do the same: to be free thinkers. There are a lot of Deadheads who were completely different people before they connected with the Grateful Dead.
The Dead still believe in that message. When I'm with the Allman Brothers, the band always leaves it up to me how much of Duane's influence I should show. The Dead are like that too. They're never going to tell me, "Play it more like Jerry" or "less like Jerry." It's always, "Do what you think is right."
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