Trey Anastasio on Dead Reunion Shows: ‘I Don’t Want to Just Copy Jerry’
“I learned so much from seeing those guys – about the feel, the vernacular of the songs. But I never really sat and studied what Jerry actually played, until now.”
Trey Anastasio, the singer-guitarist of Phish, is on the phone, taking a one-hour break on a recent morning from his current crash course in the music of the Grateful Dead and, specifically, the roots, branches and lessons in the licks and exploration of their late, founding guitarist Jerry Garcia. On July 3rd, 4th and 5th, Anastasio will represent Garcia’s spirit and legacy onstage at Chicago’s Soldier Field with the surviving members of the Dead – guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart – in what is likely to be their last reunion concerts, a 50th anniversary celebration dubbed “Fare Thee Well.” Keyboard players Bruce Hornsby, who toured with the Dead in the Nineties, and Jeff Chimenti, a veteran of Weir’s Ratdog and the Weir-Lesh repertory band Furthur, will also represent departed spirits: Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland and Vince Welnick.
Anastasio – who religiously attended Dead shows between 1980 and 1984 before turning his focus to Phish – has the deepest hole to fill, and he has set aside the next few months for practice, study and assimilatiuon. “I’m providing a service,” the guitarist says of his role in the reunion shows, which also mark the 20th anniversary of Garcia’s last performance with the Dead, a month before his death, at Soldier Field on July 5th, 1995. But Anastasio expects to come away from the experience, back to Phish, his Trey Anastasio Band and other projects, enriched and challenged.
Garcia was “one of a kind,” Anastasio says. “There are no Jerry Garcias coming down the pike, anymore than there is a Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley. They are all at the same level – the highest level that you strive to get to as a musician. Me and my friends – we’ll all be long dead, people will still be trying to dig into what Jerry Garcia did.” Anastasio pauses, then laughs. “Just like I am today.”
Anastasio spoke exclusively to Rolling Stone about Garcia and the winding musical routes in his guitar playing for a story about the Dead reunion. Here are expanded and additional, unpublished extracts from that conversation.
How much time a day do you spend on your Garcia studies?
Right now, I’m in the thick of it, because I don’t have any [other] shows on the horizon, which is a real luxury. I get up really early, when it’s still dark. I light a little fire in the fireplace, take my guitar and do a song. Yesterday, I did “Help on the Way” [from 1975’s Blues for Allah]. I’ll spend a few hours in the morning on it, then do it again later in the day.
A couple of days ago, I started listening to “The Wheel” [from Garcia’s 1972 solo album, Garcia]. There’s a line he plays after the first verse [“If the thunder don’t get you, then the lighting will”]. It slides all the way up from the bottom of the neck to the top, using these iconic, passing tones. I learned it exactly note for note, memorized it. Then, since I don’t want to go out there and just copy Jerry, the next thing I do is play it in all 12 keys, so that I get it into my body, with the intention of forgetting it again.
There is a lot more intent put into those lines than people might think. It was not just noodling. You can tell if you listen to three or four different versions. But that “Wheel” riff – what happened after I started dissecting it was I started thinking, “I’ve heard this before.” I realized it sounded like a Django Reinhardt riff – not exactly, but some of the vocabulary, the way he was leaving those passing tones. So I started digging through all of these Django songs: “Wow, I’m sure he was listening to this.”
You’re learning the meat of his role in the Dead, musically and melodically. But when you get onstage, you will be entering the empathy he had with the rest of the band. He rarely took solos, in the sense that everybody else stepped back and he wailed. You will have to find your own place in that collective.
I completely agree with you. My interpretation of that style of music is that everybody solos. It’s electric Dixieland – or like West African music and great reggae. It’s a group thing. Funnily enough, Mickey sent me a book last week, The Ants [a scientific study by Edmund O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler that won the Pulitzer Price for general non-fiction in 1991]. It’s about this concept of a super-organism, where the individual is not as important as the hive mind, the swarm – how much can be accomplished when you become part of a group.
I know that we, in Phish, heard that message loud and clear. We’re always trying to do that. That’s what all of those [rehearsal] exercises we did were about. That’s why it’s so easy for me to get up there with Phil [in Phil Lesh and Friends] and get into that style of music right away. That’s where a lot of jam-type music goes wrong for me, when it becomes solo-oriented. It can turn self-indulgent on a dime.
The rhythm becomes static under the soloing, where as in the Dead’s improvising – especially in the 1968-’69 era of Live Dead and 1973-74 – the rhythms were more integral to the soloing. The momentum, like the music above, was both constant and shifting.
I have been finding that I’ve narrowed down my favorite eras to 1974 and 1977. And there’s really great stuff for me in 1971, when it was like, ‘What’s going on here?” It was so unhinged. But if I have to learn some things as a guitar player, I find myself going to either ’74 or ’77, because from the guitar end, it sounds like someone who has been practicing for eight hours a day. And the band was so tight.
What discussions have you had with, say, Phil or Bob about repertoire? You’ll be playing three nights, two sets each – about nine hours of music. But you’ll be drawing from a 40-year repertoire.
Phish play so many three- and four-nighters. And we can’t get all of our stuff in. I talked to Bobby a little bit about this. If you do 18 songs a night, that’s not that many.
And they’ll all go long, too.
When I first started getting into this, I made myself an exercise: I’m gonna write down 60 songs off the top of my head. My list was called “60 Songs It Would Be Sad Not To Hear One Last Time.” It came in about a minute.
Then Bob sent me this e-mail: “I’ll help ruin your vacation. You can learn these 60 songs.” And I wrote back: “These are great. May I be so bold as to add the possibility of ‘Casey Jones,’ ‘Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,’ ‘Friend of the Devil,’ ‘Tennessee Jed,’ ‘Bertha,’ ‘Dire Wolf,’ ‘Sugaree,’ ‘Candyman,’ Dupree’s Diamond Blkues,’ ‘China Doll.'” [laughs] None of those were on his list. And the ones that were were great.
I’ve seen a few of Phil’s shows over the past year, and it’s interesting the way he emphasizes the late-Sixties material – “Viola Lee Blues,” the Anthem of the Sun album – that didn’t get aired a lot in late-period Dead shows.
My guess is they won’t know [what we’re playing] until five minutes before we go on. We’re going to rehearse in June a little bit.Then we’ll all be together before the shows. I figure it will keep changing and changing, which is fine with me.
Are you going to be Jerry’s voice – singing in his place?
In my opinion, Jerry was one of the great American singerrs. He knew how to deliver the heartache in those slow tunes. Bobby says, “You’ll sing some, Bruce will sing some, I’ll sing some.”
Those post-Jerry configurations [of the Dead] – that’s always been the issue. I don’t think anybody can be Jerry’s voice. My thought is, I love Jerry’s voice, and I love these songs. I’m happy to joyously sing whatever comes my way. But my take on it is that everybody sings – the audience too. They’ll sing. We’ll sing. Everybody knows the words. People have such lifelong relationships to these songs. When I say I’m providing a service — it’s to the songs, the memories, the community.
What do you hope to take away from this experience – of being in the Dead – back to Phish?
One is just guitar stuff. I’ve made a conscious effort to learn everything I could about Jerry’s incredible style. I’m playing in different positions on the neck. It’s opened up a whole world of people I’d never listened to before. I’m exploring this Fifties and early Sixties country stuff. The other thing has to do with songwriting. When you get inside of these songs, especially the Garcia-Hunter ones, they’re so vivid – the lyrics, the spacing, the intent.
Can I give you a few, quick examples? I was listening to “Brown-Eyed Women,” which is Garcia-Hunter, and “Jack Straw,” which is Hunter and Weir. Both of those songs, are character songs about people from the Depression. When you talk about the Bakersfield, California country sound, that’s where the Okies ended up. So those sounds and that lyric content are married.
Both songs draw on the history of the Dust Bowl emigrants.
Bob was saying that “Jack Straw” came after he was watching Of Mice and Men on TV. He talked to Robert Hunter about writing a song with two characters like those in Of Mice and Men, ne’er-do-wells travelling around. The reason Bob sings one verse and Jerry sings another is they’re characters in the song, Shannon and Jack Straw. They sing back and forth to each other. “Brown-Eyed Women” is kind of the same thing to my ears. This guy – he’s a drinker, a carouser making whiskey. It’s the same kind of American perspective, a Dust Bowl-character song.
And those characters are so richly drawn – by Hunter and in the vocals – that you can almost touch them.
And these lines become universal. They jump out of the songs, because the writing is so specific and purposed. It wasn’t about the band. Phish had a tiny taste of that on our last album [Fuego], in “The Line”: “Let’s pick somebody and get inside their head.” But by the time we were done, I felt like I was singing about me, about everybody. It’s that concept of getting very focused as a writer in order to touch something universal, instead of just throwing out a bunch of platitudes and generalizations.
There are many layers of achievement in this music, by guys who weren’t that self-aware. Garcia was pretty analytical in interviews, but much of what the Dead accomplished was by a kind of intuition-on-purpose.
I still feel like a student. I had an interesting conversation with Mountain Girl [Garcia’s second wife, Carolyn] at this Garcia tribute thing [in 2012 for the guitarist’s 70th birthday]. She sat down with me in catering and said, “I just want to tell you something, because I know you’re a big fan of Jerry’s. He got up at 7 in the morning and practiced. He was completely nuts about practicing. This Captain Trips image of himn sitting around, smoking a joint and having the music come out wasn’t what I saw. The guy I saw wanted to be the best possible singer, songwriter and guitar player.”