Dead At The Improv

Here Comes A Bit Of Grateful Dead's Sound, But Without Nostalgia.

By Stephen Seigel

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: The very name evokes waves of bittersweet nostalgia or complete disdain. Either you were there, shimmying to a killer "Scarlet Begonias/Fire on the Mountain" medley amongst a sea of like-minded tie-dyed seekers, or you were forced to flee the room whenever someone stuck their favorite bootleg tape in the deck, even if it was Cornell '77. But whatever side of the fence you staked out, the influence the band had on music culture is undeniable even today--perhaps especially today, almost four years after the passing of the Dead's musical and spiritual leader, Jerry Garcia.

Music The Grateful Dead took chances; they never played the same set twice. Hell, they never played a song the same way twice, instead playing around with traditional song structure in order to allow space for extended improvisational jams. Sometimes it worked, with the band locking into an undeniable groove, bouncing solos back and forth almost telepathically, and sometimes it was somewhat embarrassing to watch, this pack of obviously gifted musicians engaged in ragtag meandering, stumbling around, searching for that elusive groove. But such is the case when flying by the seat of your pants is an essential part of what a band represents: taking chances. And this philosophy not only inspired a devoted following to make it to as many shows as possible throughout the course of the Dead's existence, it inspired a bevy of musicians to form bands that emulated this risk-taking.

As documented in Dean Budnick's recent book, Jam Bands, literally hundreds of bands have sprung up in the Grateful Dead's wake, continuing the basic tenets the Dead proposed almost 35 years ago. Whether it's the complicated jazz-rock of Phish (who have earned themselves a following just as rabid, if not as large, as the Deadheads), the harmonica-driven blues-rock of Blues Traveler (who organized the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, originally conceived as a traveling compendium of modern-day jam bands, though its focus has branched out in recent years), or the sax- and violin-inclusive acoustic jazz-pop of the Dave Matthews Band, all of these bands have taken the Dead's improv aesthetic and turned it into box office gold.

While all of these bands have adopted principles laid out by the Dead, perhaps no other touring and recording musician out there today, save for the original Grateful Dead members, boasts a sturdier Dead-related pedigree than David Nelson, who began his musical career in the early 1960s--before rock and roll devoured the culture whole--as a member of the bluegrass trio, the Wildwood Boys. The other two members of the Boys were future Dead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia, and future Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

The Wildwood Boys rehearsals, often conducted in Nelson's parents' living room, consisted of the three learning note-for-note faithful renditions of bluegrass standards. As Hunter states in the liner notes of the David Nelson Band's second and newest release, Keeper of the Key (DNB Records), "As folk singers, we'd gotten so ethnic there wasn't anywhere to go but the stratosphere of authentic bluegrass which we slavishly imitated. If we were so audacious as to write an original number for the idiom, I imagine riots would have broken out, Kentucky Bluegrass cops beating down the doors with banjos." But a few years later, when rock music emerged as the popular music of youth culture, the Boys went on to incorporate the qualities of bluegrass they loved so much into rock, in the process freeing themselves to write songs themselves.

Garcia and Hunter went on to become writing partners for Grateful Dead tunes, Garcia composing the music, and Hunter providing the lyrics. In addition to performing session work on three of the Dead's landmark albums--1969's Aoxomoxoa, and 1970's Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, all on Warner Brothers (the latter two considered by most to be the Dead's most successful studio outings)--Nelson went on to form, with Garcia and John Dawson, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, which earned a gold record with the album The Adventures of Panama Red (Columbia), based mostly on the success of the countercultural hit song, "Panama Red," which Nelson sang.

But throughout the years, both Garcia and Nelson would return to their bluegrass roots, Garcia with a one-off project called Old and in the Way, and Nelson with the combo, the Good Ol' Boys, whose Pistol Packin' Mama release, on Grateful Dead Records, was produced by Garcia. Finally, the two played together again in the mid-'80s in the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, as documented by 1988's Almost Acoustic (Grateful Dead Records), in which the boys jam on renditions of tunes by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Mississippi John Hurt.

And just as the bluegrass tradition informed much of the Grateful Dead's music over the years, the David Nelson Band (formed four years ago from the ashes of Nelson's Dead cover band, Dead Ringers) continues to incorporate the music he grew up playing into his rock and country mix. The band is comprised of quite a pack of noteworthies: Guitarist and pedal-steel player Barry Sless played in San Francisco's Kingfish (which also counted the Dead's Bob Weir among its one-time members) and co-founded Cowboy Jazz, which recorded for Rounder Records; keyboard player and accordionist Mookie Siegel also did time in Kingfish, as well as Weir's post-Dead combo, Ratdog; bassist Bill Laymon has played with The New Riders of the Purple Sage, Jefferson Starship, the Jerry Garcia Band, and Kingfish; and drummer Arthur Steinhorn, who's performed stints in The New Riders, Cowboy Jazz, and Kingfish.

As evidenced on Keeper of the Key, a document of a 1995 live show from Baltimore, Nelson's band retains the Dead's sound more faithfully than probably any other jam band out there right now. And though they do play the occasional Dead tune in their live shows (crowd-pleaser "The Wheel" is featured on Keeper), and incorporate the extended improvisational jams the Dead pioneered, the David Nelson Band is a far cry from the mostly Dead sets of Dead Ringers. Nelson co-wrote six of the album's nine tunes, three with his Wildwood Boys mate, Robert Hunter. The end result is a celebration of the Grateful Dead's beloved sound, without delving into mere nostalgia.

Needless to say, the tie-dyed masses won't be disappointed.

The David Nelson Band, with special guest Scott Huckabay, will perform an all-ages show at 9 p.m. Friday, February 5, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Advance tickets are available for $8 at Congress Street Store, Hear's Music, Zip's University, and Guitars, Etc. They cost $10 at the door. For more information, call 740-0126. TW

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