The Grateful Dead never played rock 'n' roll.
"The Dead did sort of a loud folk music," Danny Carnahan told me a few years back in an interview. "Jerry Garcia's roots were in traditional music but not limited to bluegrass and old-timey. He was up on all kinds of Western traditions."
Those interests shaped the songs Garcia wrote with lyricist Robert Hunter, tunes such as "Ripple" and "Scarlet Begonias" that draw on age-old folk music for their melodies.
Without that background, Carnahan's band, Wake the Dead, wouldn't exist. The group has found a growing audience for its specialty – rendering Grateful Dead tunes in a Celtic style.
Wake the Dead performs November 1 at the Freight in Berkeley, November 2 at Felton’s Don Quixote’s International Music Hall and November 3 at Sebastopol’s French Garden Restaurant and Bistro. In addition to Carnahan (vocals, fiddle, mandolin), the lineup includes Maureen Brennan (Irish harp); Cindy Browne (bass); Kevin Carr (uilleann pipes, fiddle, tin whistle); Sylvia Herold (guitar,vocals); Paul Kotapish (mandolin, guitar); and Brian Rice (percussion).
All are veteran Northern California musicians, though with varying degrees of interest in and knowledge of Celtic music and the Dead. Knowing those genres, however, isn't nearly as essential to Wake the Dead as a strong background in traditional music.
The roots of American folk music, Carnahan noted in our interview, lie not in this country but in the traditional ballads of England, Ireland and Scotland. A working knowledge of those tunes is what's required to pick up and adapt the Grateful Dead's rhythms and melodies.
"The basic shapes of the tunes, the basic underlying logic is the same," Carnahan said. "Any shuffle can really be turned into a jig. That's what we do with 'U.S. Blues.' We've screwed around with time signatures. It was just scary how well it worked."
Evidence can be found on "Buckdancer's Choice," Wake the Dead's second album. Its eight tracks feature staples of the Garcia-Hunter songbook – "Bob (Weir) tends to write more complex compositions" – set amid traditional reels and jigs. So it is that "Liberty" leads into the reels "The Humours of Tullough" and "Hand Me Down the Tackle." "U.S. Blues" segues seamlessly into the jig "Connaught Man's Rambles."
While the connection makes logical sense musically, Carnahan acknowledged listeners might perceive Wake the Dead as a bit of a novelty. The way to counteract that impression is for the band to keep evolving.
“We’ve worked up a bunch of brand-new goodies for the November shows,” a note on the band’s website says. “Digging into some new, dusty corners of the Dead songbook as well as reimagining some very cool songs from our checkered youth. Do pull out the tie-dye or your favorite iconic garb.”
Carnahan saw his first Grateful Dead concert in 1972. Within a few years, he counted himself among the band's broad circle of friends. It was Celtic music, however, that truly changed his life.
"I discovered Irish music in the mid-'70s," Carnahan said. "I said, 'This is very cool.' Then I went to Ireland in '78 and went completely bananas. I taught myself the fiddle."
Carnahan began blending Celtic music into his work with partners Chris Caswell and Robin Petrie. "Cut and Run" (1994), his first all-original album, includes "Laughing in the Dark," which he wrote with Hunter.
Like his long-time friends Brennan and Kotapish, Carnahan was playing Celtic music professionally, slyly throwing in the odd Grateful Dead snippet among the reels and jigs.
"We sort of tossed Grateful Dead things into wedding stuff," Carnahan said. "Stick in a little quote of 'Dark Star.' I was walking around with this idea in my head (of combining the two) thinking it's too wacky to go anywhere."
Kotapish was entertaining the same notion and when they got together in 2000 "the floodgates opened."
"It was so much fun so fast, we just said, 'Hell, let's just do an album'," Carnahan said. "We called everyone up and said, 'Do you want to do this?' We used it as an excuse to get together all the people we wanted to play with."
That accomplished, Carnahan dropped off a copy of the results for his friends at the Grateful Dead's office.
"Two days later, they said, 'We want to put this stuff out on our label,'" Carnahan said. "Within six months, we had this flurry of gigs. Suddenly, we're a band and we just hit the ground running."
Wake the Dead owes much of its success to the Dead's following. While not as fanatical about the band as some, Carnahan said he understands the group's lasting appeal.
"It's gentle music," he said. "It's easy to understand, easy to get stuck in your head. I don't like crowds but I've never been intimidated being in a Grateful Dead crowd.”
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