Playing in the Band
By Kristin McGowan, Contributor
For the perfect pairing of Grateful Dead and traditional Celtic sound, look to Wake the Dead, a California group of experts musicians.
For almost 17 years, Wake the Dead has dug deep into the canon of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, releasing their fourth album, Deal, this past fall. Founding member Danny Carnahan, vocalist, fiddler, and Grammy-nominated songwriter, explains. “We weren’t pounding a Grateful Dead square peg into a Celtic round hole because there was already such overlap and so much mutual respect for the various traditions,” he says.
“I was listening to the Grateful Dead really loud, practicing my fiddle, walking in circles in the living room when I first discovered it,” said Danny. I was playing a reel and “China Cat Sunflower” came on and I found myself locking in with the two guitar licks of Garcia and Weir. I remember thinking, ‘WHOA…this is something worth noticing.’”
Danny wasn’t the only one to make the connection. Harper Maureen Brennan, part of the acclaimed Harpistry collection, would toss bits and pieces of Dead songs into gigs on the harp to amuse herself when she thought no one was listening. Mandolin player Paul Kotapish had also heard the cool underpinnings of the British Isles pervading certain Garcia/Hunter songs. The trio met at a party and quickly assembled a group of the best and coolest people they could think of to play with and jokingly tossed a CD of their efforts to some of the people who ran the Grateful Dead. Two days later they had a deal with Arista Records and a gig opening for Bobby Weir at the Fillmore.
“All seven of us had never been in a room together so that was a steep learning curve. We didn’t even have a name when we were signed. ‘Wake the Dead’ dropped out of the clear blue sky. It was perfect,” says Danny.
On their self-titled debut album, Danny, Maureen, and Paul were joined by strings genius Joe Craven, who had played with Jerry Garcia’s band earlier in his career, and vocal giant Sylvia Herold, who, ironically, had missed the Grateful Dead movement completely. Rounding out the group were jazz double bassist Cindy Browne and Kevin Carr on fiddle, uilleann pipes, and pennywhistle. Hand percussionist Brian Rice stepped in permanently for Joe in 2006. Individually, the members had been touring as Celtic and folk musicians for decades, collectively gathering thousands of tunes.
“We didn’t come at this haphazardly,” says Danny. “We’re all so deep in the various folk traditions and so conscious of how everything is connected. When we try to put something together we really listen and think about whether it will work.” More often than not, it did work, due in large part to Jerry Garcia and Richard Hunter’s own foundations in folk music. “It infused their music in ways that frankly, most of the Deadheads missed,” says Danny. “We stripped all these songs down to their underwear and dressed them back up in different clothes.” With Danny and Sylvia on lead vocals, the lyrics are not lost; their artful harmonizing is showcased on the first album in “Black Muddy River” and on the second, Buckdancer’s Choice, in “Prodigal Town,” a Hunter tune never performed by the Grateful Dead. The joy these friends feel isn’t lost, either. Amidst the mandolin, harp, pennywhistle, and piping is a genuine love of this music, this coalescence of sounds, and this voyage to a destination unknown on a ship built of an unlikely combination of material. “We’re all using the same notes that Bach used, just in different order. We were lucky to find each other and have the free time to explore the possibilities, to discover phrasing in an O’Carolan tune (“Lord Inchiquin”) that leads into ‘Sugaree,’ grinning at each other thinking, ‘this is cool.’”
A collaboration that still delights Danny from the early days is “Friend of the Devil.” “It’s the one in which so many weird things seem to work for reasons we still can’t put words to. It combines at least six or eight different themes and feels and brazenly toggles between reel time and jig time in a way we never really did again. It was a very in-your-face, look-what-we-can-do kind of exercise. It’s the quintessential statement of what we did then in the early days that was making us all sort of grin at each other all the time.”
In the early days, the joy extended to their shows and watching their differing devotees come together. “Our demographic is not just Deadheads – we also have the Celtoids, whom we love equally. Their individual ideas of themselves and the rest of the world is very distinct and the boundaries were very distinct. I remember playing at a Celtic festival to mostly Celtic fans, but it was near Marin County, California, which was ground zero for the Grateful Dead. The buzz was out and the Deadheads came. From the stage, the Celts were bobbing and clapping (the song begins with the traditional Irish jig ‘Banks of Lough Gowna’), but as soon as the lyrics were identifiable as ‘Friend of the Devil,’ 50 tie-dyed hippies jump up and start dancing in front of the stage. And the others were looking like, ‘What the hell just happened? Who are these people?’ It was this wonderful meeting of two cultural groups. It took them a while to make peace with each other but they started really enjoying it.”
Danny Carnahan’s own passage to Wake the Dead came through the California Celtic explosion he helped set off in the 1980s as half of the ground-breaking Celtic duo Caswell Carnahan. “I wasn’t born in Ireland; I’m Irish, but I wasn’t born there. I spent a whole lot of time there learning Irish music, but I can’t claim to be a traditional musician because I didn’t learn from the old guys in the village pubs; I learned it more academically. So I’m kind of a post-traditionalist, a contemporary Celt. Some of the purists didn’t like me from day one as a result of this. We tossed Scottish, Irish, and Breton music together, some Balkan music, and started writing new stuff that was deeply informed by that but was new.”
In Deal, Wake the Dead grows from their Grateful Dead roots into the Summer of Love, incorporating the Youngbloods, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and more. All the tracks were recorded together, live, including vocals. “The Grateful Dead was the glue that started the whole concept, but we quickly realized that the music of your puberty years is the most powerful. It’s locked in with so many emotions and yearnings. The Dead was just one of those bands we were marinating in back then.” Danny likens their ability to expand to a traditional pub session. “You just string tunes together – one pops in your head and it leads to another and you end up stringing three or four together before you reach for your drink.” Each tune triggers a memory, creating an instant playlist. “When you’ve been on the planet as long as we have you literally have thousands of songs and tunes to pull from. There’s lots of songs waiting to be done.”
Deal brings the beautifully clear voices of Danny and Sylvia together in Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” On Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, Danny is delighted. “Entirely appropriate. I’m a great believer in the oral tradition, whether it’s written down or not. There’s intent and mostly unappreciated power in poetic expression. I think history will remember him as a real towering literary figure of the 20th century. I can’t think of another ‘popular’ songwriter that even remotely qualifies for the Nobel Prize. He’s in a category all by himself.”
Dylan, on Irish contemporary Van Morrison, once described him as “merely the vessel and the earthly vehicle” for “Tupelo Honey,” because of how perfect a song it was. Of Wake the Dead, with their seemingly effortless erasure of musical boundaries and expert interpretation, Dylan could easily say the same.
This article was originally published in Irish America‘s December / January 2017 issue. ♦