Grateful Dead Members to Reunite With Branford Marsalis at Lockn' Fest 2018

Virginia jam fest will also feature a Led Zeppelin blowout led by Umphrey's McGee and Jason Bonham

Branford Marsalis, who first performed with the Grateful Dead in the Nineties, will rejoin surviving members of the group at the 2018 Lock'n Fest. Credit: James R Anderson/photog.com

A Grateful Dead late-career highlight will be celebrated during on August 26th, when Lockn' Festival headliners Dead & Company – featuring John Mayer with former Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann – will reunite with jazz veteran Branford Marsalis, whose collaboration with the band at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum in March 1990 has become one of the Dead's most legendary shows.

Marsalis, the saxophone-playing member of New Orleans's Marsalis jazz dynasty, joined the Dead in 1990 after he was invited by bassist Phil Lesh to sit in for one song, "Bird Song," Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter's poignant elegy to their recently deceased friend Janis Joplin. Marsalis had only minimal knowledge of the Dead's repertoire, but stayed onstage for the rest of the evening, his lyrical soprano and bluesy tenor lines inspiring them during the entirety of the 90-minute second set, from a blissful "Eyes of the World" to an elliptically rocking "Estimated Prophet." "I was an anthropologist that night, just checking this shit out," Marsalis told Rolling Stone's David Fricke in 2014. "But it was a serious throwback to how I view music. There wasn't a set list. They barely spoke to the audience. And the audience didn't perceive that as disrespectful. The crowd was there to listen." The collaboration was released as Wake Up to Find Out: Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale NY 3/29/90. 

Bob Weir, for one, eagerly awaits their reunion at the Arrington, Virginia, event. "As I’ve always said, if we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job," he noted. "With Branford, at Lockn', I’ll expect we’ll be working overtime."

Marsalis, who ended up jamming with the Dead and a couple of its offshoots several times following his Nassau debut, happily accepted their invitation. "I still remember fondly my time playing with the Dead in 1990," he said, "and this latest iteration of the Dead aesthetic is filled with great musicians. I look forward to making music with them."

The collaboration represents the kind of left-field, historically conscious programming that Lockn' has become known for over the last six years. This year's edition of the fest, which runs from August 23rd through the 26th, also features jam scene vets like Tedeschi Trucks Band and Lettuce plus Toots & the Maytals, George Clinton & P-Funk, Sheryl Crow and more.

In another twist this year, the festival's promoter-producer Peter Shapiro has enlisted drummer Jason Bonham, son of John Bonham, to join Umphrey's McGee for an entire set of Led Zeppelin music. For Umphrey's, it's a big deal; the band has been working Zeppelin covers into its sets for years. "They're one of our biggest influences," guitarist Brendan Bayliss says. "We technically have three drummers in the band, and I guarantee you that all three would say John Bonham taught them more about rock & roll than any other drummer. Getting the opportunity to play with Jason is another example of Pete asking, 'How can we make this place go off?'"

Shapiro organized 2015's massive Fare Thee Well concerts that united the Dead's surviving members with Phish's Trey Anastasio. Now he's helped assemble a new Dead offshoot: Joe Russo's Almost Dead, a strikingly energetic Dead cover band led by the powerhouse drummer for Lesh and Weir's Furthur band, which toured from 2009 to 2014. Russo's group will make its third Lockn' appearance this summer ­– Weir sat in with them for five songs last year – and has quietly been selling out multi-night stands across the country. "In an age when hip-hop and pop really dominate everything, this scene continues to percolate," Shapiro says, "The Grateful Dead thing is maybe stronger now than it was a couple years ago."