Jerry Garcia is many things to many people: master of the exploratory guitar solo; bearded, twinkly-eyed leader of a touring colossus called the Grateful Dead; exceptionally good ice cream flavor.
He's also a matter of public record. Virtually every note he played for an audience has been cataloged and considered. So have the details of his later years and attendant struggles with drugs, divorce and the pressures of being, well, the twinkly-eyed leader of a touring colossus.
If any facet of the man's legacy may legitimately be called insufficiently unexplored, it's Garcia the songwriter. Thursday, guitarist and singer Warren Haynes will lead the North Carolina Symphony in tribute to a man who was named for Jerome Kern, and who might have more in common with the great American songwriter than we've been led to believe.
The Raleigh show, at Red Hat Amphitheater, is the second stop on an eight-city tour that includes a performance in San Francisco, Garcia's hometown, on his birthday. Hearing the songs of Garcia in this classical setting just might free them from the psychedelic amber of our collective memory and alter popular perceptions of the artist. That would please Garcia immensely, fond as he was of altered perceptions.
But hang on. Is this actually a good idea? Sure, the symphonic treatment suits the inherent pomp of Pink Floyd or Queen, but the rustic, tribal sound of Garcia and the Dead? In the wrong hands it could be a tie-dyed travesty. Haynes, of course, knew this, and he was intent on avoiding the obvious pitfalls. He wasn't going to simply serve up a bunch of Garcia songs tricked out for an orchestra.
Garcia's music thrived on the sense that it could go anywhere; without that restless improvisational spirit, the music would lose its power. So it begs the question: Can you really pay homage to the songs of Jerry Garcia without full-on, spontaneous jamming?
Credit Haynes—who has considerable experience playing guitar for post-Grateful Dead outfits The Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends—with finding an elegant solution for maintaining the distinct flavor of music that was, as Haynes puts it, "angular with windows of improvisation."
"There'll be times when the symphony drops out and the band is actually improvising," he told me a few weeks before the tour began in Baltimore. The band consists of Haynes, a seasoned rock rhythm section and a pair of female singers—a nod to the lineup of the solo Garcia Band. "And then on cue the symphony will come back in. Not every song is like that, but a lot of the songs leave room for jamming, which would not normally be part of a symphony production."
Another twist: Improvised passages have been assigned to different parts of the symphony, so that audiences will be hearing orchestrated versions of what the Dead made up onstage. That includes "Jerry's solos, Bob's improv rhythm, Phil's bass lines—which never repeat themselves," Haynes said. "And so you'll hear what originally came from the mind of the Grateful Dead, but it'll be interpreted in a whole 'nother way."
The Grateful Dead was already up and flying by the time Jerry Garcia came into his own as a songwriter. As was the norm for a rock band in the mid-'60s, their early repertoire was all covers: traditional songs, blues, country and R&B. But once Garcia started working with his friend Robert Hunter, a poet who'd begun providing lyrics for the band in 1968, the collaboration—initially conducted by mail—produced a winner immediately (the concert staple "China Cat Sunflower").
Moreover, something clicked in Garcia, who up to then had viewed himself primarily as a player and spent untold hours rigorously practicing scales. By the time of the Dead's third record, 1969's palindrome-titled Aoxomoxoa, he'd experienced a sea change. "I wasn't writing songs for the band to play—I was writing songs to be writing songs," Garcia explained later to biographer Blair Jackson, as published in the book Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip.
In the next few years, he and Hunter co-wrote many of the Dead's most enduring creations, songs known to Deadheads and non-Deadheads alike, including "Casey Jones," "Friend of the Devil," "Truckin'" and "Uncle John's Band." In Haynes' mind, though, Garcia continued to write wonderful songs long after this early-'70s golden age.
"The thing that really convinced me of the vastness of the legacy was when I finally realized how many great songs there were," Haynes said, noting that Garcia "didn't limit himself to current music or contemporary influences. He went as far back as he could go, and in some cases over 100 years. You can study every genre and every era and every decade, there's always going to be something unique and very inventive in each one.
"Even if you go back to certain eras that on the surface may appear cheesy, each era has certain masters of their craft that took it to the next level, whether it be Gershwin or Ornette Coleman. And without those people, none of us would exist. I think Garcia had an amazing handle on that, and how to borrow from the best and keep an open mind about what genres infiltrated your system."
The Garcia estate first floated the symphonic salute idea to Haynes last year, but he began working on it in earnest only about three months ago. Selecting the repertoire from a catalog of roughly 75 songs was, of course, critical. Haynes didn't want to concentrate on his own preferences or songs he'd sung in the past. What he and two fellow arrangers sought was "the marriage between the music and the symphony."
That being the case, it would seem natural to draw upon Garcia's several suite-like compositions—such as the masterful, heavily orchestrated Side 2 of Terrapin Station. Right?
"I'm not divulging what the actual songs are," Haynes replied. But he allowed that the theory has its merits. "I was thinking in a similar way when I was choosing some of the stuff. I spent a lot of time just imagining an orchestra performing the different songs and going through what was originally dozens and dozens and dozens of songs, and then paring it down a little bit more and a little bit more. And so a lot of the stuff is stuff that I've never sung before, which I'm really excited about."
Haynes has blazed his own distinctive style of guitar playing; he never tried to simply echo Garcia's distinctive tone and phrasing. But for an actual tribute to Jerry's music, where nakedly Garcia-esque solos would seem called for, Haynes plans to strike a balance.
"The when-in-Rome philosophy will prevail a lot," he said. "I'm going to tend to think a little bit more in the vein of Garcia influence than I normally would, and sonically as well, as far as the sounds I'll be choosing. Because it is in honor of his music, and of course his guitar style and sound are a big part of the music. I've never been one to copy what someone else does, but only kind of take that influence and filter it through my own personality. Which I think is the right approach for something like this. But I have a feeling that I might go a little further in that direction than I ever have."
While nothing is set in stone, including the set list, Haynes says he will err on the side of spontaneity. "You have to honor not only his individuality and uniqueness, but his appreciation for individuality and uniqueness. He would want someone to take it somewhere other than where he left it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beyond the jams and into the tunes."