Monday, July 2, 2018

Whatever happened to the Grateful Dead? 3: Bill Kreutzmann

The profile that follows was originally published in the weekly online magazine ‘Gonzo’, issue #282.  It was the third of a series of pieces I wrote for the magazine concerning former core members of the Grateful Dead, taking a look at their musical activities following the demise of the original band with Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.

I felt that a lot of former ‘Deadheads’, especially here in the UK, had tended to lose interest in these guys’ activities, which seemed a shame as all four of them had, each in their own way, edged into new and worthwhile musical territories.  Obviously, those like me who did keep track could use the internet to keep abreast of their activities and access some of the music.  But for anyone who hadn’t bothered, I thought a few pointers towards selected highlights might be enough to rekindle interest.

My own interest is not so much on the live performance of the band’s old material, which – understandably in many ways – all four of them tend to fall back on.  Not that the reinterpretation of an old song hasn’t on many occasions wowed me, of course.  But it’s what they have done that is new and exploratory that excites me and on which I tend mainly to focus.

                                                                        Sticks Man

                               Profiling the music of Bill Kreutzmann, post-Grateful Dead.

Creatively, I think, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart were the guys who covered the most ground, out of the four surviving Grateful Dead originals, but over the last twenty years or so their colleagues’ work has not been without considerable merit.

Bill Kreutzmann then, this time round.

Kreutzmann kept a low profile, musically during the mid nineties.  He’d made his home in Hawaii, and seems for a good few years to have concentrated his creative energies on other work, including film-making and computer based artwork.  His first serious venture back at the drum-kit was a short-lived trio known as Backbone who put out a self-titled album in 1998.  This one passed me by, I’m afraid, and now seems pretty much unobtainable.  By all accounts it was firmly blues and r’n’b based and even the relatively short tracks on the album contained a fair dose of loose jamming.

Interviewed at the time and asked the inevitable question as to whether he would get back together with his former band-mates, Kreutzmann seemed reluctant.  ‘I didn't want to tour with the band after he (Jerry Garcia) died. It would be like the Beatles without John Lennon. There is no such thing.’  Nevertheless, he was tempted by the idea of a New Year’s Eve 1999 reunion which he thought would be ‘fun’.  An intermittent series of link-ups followed and have continued to this day with the current Dead and Company band.  Some newly written material emerged during the 2003-4 and 2009 periods of touring as The Dead, but seems to have been rapidly sidelined.  A shame in my opinion.  Everyone loves the old songs, of course, and instrumental, even vocal reinvention has always been part of the performance, so I’m not going to knock the pension package ventures but a strong dose of the new is something I’m always looking for.

This Kreutzmann has embraced in a good many of his other ventures, so the rest of this piece is devoted to them.  First up was another band, The Trichromes.  I don’t think they lasted any longer than Backbone, but managed to turn out some very pleasant recordings.  Initially ex-Santana/Journey guitarist Neil Schon was a fifth member, contributing to an e.p. release containing one excellent new song ‘Dice With the Universe’ with lyrics by Robert Hunter, plus a couple of lengthier live tracks.  They were down to a four piece when they recorded their 2002 self-titled album.  This featured eight songs with lyrics by Hunter, including a re-recorded and slightly less satisfying version of ‘Dice’, two more by guitarist Ralph Woodson and a long instrumental to close.  A little reminiscent of mid 70s Allman Brothers, the album mixed pop, rock and folk elements never quite hitting the heights but mostly enjoyable. 

As the decade rolled on, not unlike Steve Kimock (with whom he has frequently played), Kreutzmann participated in a number of short-lived, ad-hoc and one-off line ups.  One, Serial Pod, in 2005 involved a largely instrumentally jamming collaboration with Mike Gordon and Trey Anastasio of Phish.  Other links have included taking the drumming seat with the David Nelson Band on several occasions and in 2006 re-uniting with Mickey Hart as The Rhythm Devils.  This line-up I described more extensively in my Mickey Hart piece in Gonzo 225-6, but here I will just mention one of the few still available soundboard recordings of this band.  You’ll need to go to Live and pay for this one, but – titled Rhythm Devils Concert Experience – it’s a nice compilation of some of their best tracks and can be downloaded for a small sum (it also came out as a DVD).

2008 saw a somewhat more prolonged venture, the Bill Kreutzmann Trio (aka BK3), with Oteil Burbridge on bass and Max Creek guitarist Scott Murawski.  They played a good few gigs around this time and have occasionally reconvened since.  Material included the inevitable Grateful Dead covers, some of Murawski’s songs and one or two new compositions.  Audience recordings of some of their shows can be found on the Live Music Archive.  Something about Murawski’s guitar style never quite clicked for me, so with such material as I downloaded and listened to long since deleted I can’t tell you too much more about them.  They had their enthusiasts though – here’s a quote from a review: ‘At times it got out of hand, at times it worked. One magical moment occurred during the segue into "Franklin’s Tower" where Kreutzmann exploded into one of his patented four measure rolls across the toms, ending in a triplet pattern on the fourth bar that Murawski duplicated with synchronistic beauty. A delight to the senses.’  Maybe you had to be a bit of muso to appreciate them.

The collaboration that thrilled me somewhat more began the following year when Kreutzmann jammed with a singer-guitarist known as Papa Mali.  Aka Malcolm Welbourne (he got the nickname from Burning Spear, we are told), he already had a couple of well-received rootsy r’n’b albums under his belt at this time.  Louisiana born and New Orleans based, his music had a nice if somewhat inconsistent swamp rock feel about it, with raw vocals reminiscent of if not quite in the same league as Dr John.  He was and still remains a fine, improvising rock guitarist.  Playing with Kreutzmann, along with Tea Leaf Green bass man Reed Mathis and multi instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, brought out a hitherto unexplored psychedelic edge to Mali’s music.  What ensued reminded me strongly of the energy, drive and raw edges of the Grateful Dead back in their 1967-69 heyday.

Check out their two shows, available again on the LMA, at the Las Tortugas ‘Dance of the Dead’ event (31-10-09) for a powerful dose of this band.  They tended to start the proceedings by going straight into a jam that would segue into some of the potentially looser material from Mali’s albums such as ‘Do Your Thing’ and ‘Firewater’.  There’d be a smattering of 60s Dead covers, before running on to the often lengthy highlights of their early gigs.  These included Mali’s ‘Early in the Morning’ – a blistering hard rock version of the folk song ‘Little Sadie’ - ; and powerful covers of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Bottle Up and Go’ and Dr John’s ‘Walk on Guilded Splinters’.  It was psychedelic rock at the top of its game, jam-heavy but loaded with excitement.  In the second of the two Las Tortugas shows they broke out, pretty much for the first time, a new song with some of the best Robert Hunter lyrics I’d heard in years.  It’s the lament of a punch-drunk loser character, beyond caring whether he lives or dies.  For my money ‘King Cotton Blues’ is up there with ‘Wharf Rat’ or  ‘Black Peter’ amongst Hunter’s most affecting ‘in-character’ songs.  Check out the unforgettable chorus: ‘King Cotton Blues, boys / Be it understood / Shotgun is too merciful / Hanging is too good / Drowning too uncertain / And poison is too slow / To snuff a worthless widow’s son / Whose time has come to go.’

With Willie Nelson guesting on the chorus vocals this song was the centrepiece of their 2010 album ‘7 Walkers’ – which was the name they’d given themselves as a band by then.  Hunter presented them with several more strong lyrics tailor made for Welbourne’s croaky but passionate vocals and bayou stylings, such as ‘Louisiana Rain’, ‘Chingo’, ‘New Orleans Crawl’ and ‘Sue From Bogalusa’.  By the time of the album’s release, Mathis (back with TLG) was replaced by former Meters bass man George Porter Jr.  They were still shredding it live through 2010 and on into 2012, with the album’s title track extending into a powerful live epic.  A second album was spoken of, more Hunter lyrics apparently in the pipeline, but it never happened.  Though they never disbanded as such, they’ve not played as a band since.  It’s possible a period of perhaps severe ill-health on Welbourne’s part may have had something to do with this.  Videos I’ve seen of him in more recent years show a man who has lost an awful lot of weight, though he seems healthy enough now and brought out another solo album in 2015.

Kreutzmann, meanwhile, maintained his loose association with Reed Mathis in various jamming situations and the two continue to play together when the opportunity arises.  For a while in 2014 they had a four-piece band formed, under the name Billy and the Kids, with Aron Magner of the Disco Biscuits and Tom Hamilton Jr.  Compared to the 7 Walkers venture I felt both the name and the repertoire (Grateful Dead covers pretty much exclusively) lacked inspiration.  It was quickly superseded, following the Dead’s 50th anniversary ‘Fare Thee Well’ concert series, by the Dead and Company outfit.  Some one-off shows have proved more interesting, in recent years.  In September 2014 for example, a line-up for the ‘Lock’n’Step Festival’ combined Magner, Hamilton and Burbridge with guitarist Steve Kimock and featured a wonderful guest spot on two songs by blues man Taj Mahal.  And in December of that year Kreutzmann linked with members of the David Nelson Band , Mathis and multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby in the curiously named Trypto Band.  Meanwhile back with Murawski he has worked with former Copperhead bass man ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and Donna the Buffalo singer Tara Nevins – a combination that looks interesting, but which I’ve yet to hear.

Of the two former Grateful Dead drummers it’s Mickey Hart who tends to grab the limelight with his flamboyant character, exotic percussions and imaginative ventures, while Bill K tends to be the solid rhythmic backbone of whatever band he plays with.  But his improvisational skills match those of all his former outfit’s members, and – so long as it’s not just rehashed Dead songs – I’m more than happy to listen to anything he gets involved in, should the chance arise.  Some of it may perhaps leave me cold, but when the spark ignites it’ll be powerful and exciting stuff.

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