The Grateful Dead‘s Bob Weir first met Dan Kanter when he took his daughter to a Justin Bieber concert a few years ago. Kanter is Bieber’s touring guitarist and musical director, and has worked with such acts as Santana, Stevie Wonder, Usher, Miley Cyrus, Drake, Ludacris, Boys II Men and a long list of others. So Weir – who comes from a much different musical universe – wasn’t expecting Kanter to recognize him. As it turned out, though, Kanter has been a fan of the Grateful Dead since childhood, when his dad turned him onto classic rock.
In addition to his love for the Dead, Kanter is also a well-documented Phish fanatic. He personally recruited Phish’s lighting designer, Chris Kuroda, to design the lights for Bieber’s current world tour. Because of that connection, Kanter started teasing a few Phish songs during musical interludes throughout Bieber shows. Both fan bases took notice and a strange crossover began to take shape. Curious and dedicated Phish fans started going to Bieber concerts – or, rather, taking their kids. And Bieber fans are well aware of the two times that Justin’s been spotted in the audience at Phish shows – most recently, this past Labor Day weekend in Denver. (“He really appreciates Phish’s incredible musicianship,” says Kanter.)
As for Weir – who has performed with Hanson, Justin Timberlake and was seen just a few weeks ago taking his daughter to a Taylor Swift concert – collaborating with Kanter seemed like a no-brainer. Weir has been hosting jam sessions with a rotating cast of musicians for a weekly web series called “Weir Here.” The show is filmed at Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, California, and it follows something of an inverted talk show format. Between jams, the artists take to the couch for lighthearted discussions that often include Internet-submitted fan questions.
A special episode of “Weir Here,” featuring Kanter and Weir performing Grateful Dead songs and taking questions from fans, will stream today at 8:30 p.m. EST. See an exclusive preview clip below, and watch the whole episode tonight on TRIStudios.com.
Rolling Stone sat down with Kanter on the set to discuss some things not touched upon in the show.
How does Bieber Fever affect you, personally, as the musical director and touring guitarist?
Justin’s fans are the greatest fans in the world and they’re so dedicated. I’ve said this in the past and I stand by it: The only other audiences that I know that are as dedicated as Justin’s are the Grateful Dead and Phish audiences, who know everything in every detail. These fans are unbelievable. It reminds me of when I used to see a Disney movie and I never would question it. “Oh, there’s no way a lion can speak!” I just wholeheartedly would believe in it, and that’s how they are.
They know everything about him, including his whole entourage. Through Instagram and Twitter and being in his movie, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D – my favorite movie of all time – a lot of his fans know who I am now. It really blows me away and it’s really just a reflection of how much they love him that they know me. I’m a musician and I love Michael Jackson and I couldn’t tell you the name of his backup singers or the name of his bass player. But here, these kids know Justin’s security guard, let alone the whole band and dancers. It’s really fascinating.
With all the music that you’ve exposed him to, and with a band that knows how to improvise live, how has Bieber grown musically, since you’ve started working with him?
As a musician, he’s grown at an accelerated rate. He’s extremely naturally gifted. Before I met him, he could already play piano, drums and guitar. And he was like a sponge immediately. We have an amazing band. The drummer, bassist and keyboard player are some of my musical heros. So just hearing them play every night, Justin’s musical vocabulary over the past four years has increased extremely.
When you first started teasing a number of Phish tunes throughout Bieber’s concerts, was he aware of what you were doing?
At the beginning when I started doing it, most of the time it was when Justin was offstage doing a costume change and the band was playing. So he would be back in his dressing room, in a hectic way, getting his hair done and changing his clothes. But on stage, I’d be teasing Phish songs – mostly to entertain Kuroda and my wife, who was in the audience. I was just doing it as a joke and then, of course, the Phish fans picked up on it on the message boards and on YouTube and on Phantasy Tour and School of Phish – I frequent all of those sites.
So then I just started doing it because I really loved the mixed reaction. I thought it was great and Justin thought it was hilarious. These days, if I have a friend in the audience who is a huge Pearl Jam fan, I’ll try to sneak that in. When we were in the Bay Area, I snuck in some Metallica. I did “Enter Sandman.” Just for fun. One night after a Phish show this summer [where they teased Led Zeppelin‘s “Heartbreaker” in multiple songs], I tried to tease “Heartbreaker” in as many Bieber songs as I could. It’s really just for fun.
Given that “Weir Here” focuses on the Grateful Dead’s catalog, do you expect Bieber fans to tune in?
I really hope Bieber fans watch “Weir Here.” It’s amazing how supportive they are of me, even when I’m not playing alongside Justin. That is, if they’re not just tuning in to see if Justin makes a cameo. Wink. It’s really cool that, for a lot of them, it’s probably their introduction to the music of the Grateful Dead.
Since you learned a number of Dead tunes for the episode, do you expect that you’ll tease any of them during future Bieber concerts?
I’ve been playing Dead songs around campfires for years, but it was so special to play some my favorites with Bob. I jam a lot of Dead at soundcheck – Kuroda likes when I loop “Sugaree” and solo over it to an empty arena for hours! I haven’t snuck any Dead licks into our show, but maybe I will.