It has been said before but there really has never been a group of musicians quite like the Grateful Dead. And as the years have passed on, I can no longer, as I did then, take their ability to turn sound into magic for granted. It didn't happen at every performance, but when the heavens opened, a perfect harmony existed between audience, band and sound that became a phenomenon beyond the written word. It was part of the elusiveness that was the Grateful Dead.
Musically, they might not have been the technicians found in jazz but their creative minds and spirit allowed them to improvise far beyond the boundaries of any artistic form and genre of traditional thinking. Where most mainstream improvisation takes place within a rhythm section, this was a band with a fierce disregard for convention, where each member would improvise independently against and with each other... all at the same time. And though effort could never influence the process of transcendence, it was part of the challenge of reaching this realm with every performance.
Bob Weir left High School and joined the Grateful Dead at the age of 17 and never looked back. He was able to develop a style of rhythm guitar playing that was unique in its time and was a significant part of what was to become one of the world's most creative but unorthodox bands. While the media focused on the drug culture, there was very little understanding and focus on the creative process, a process that was firm and confident in its direction, yet completely open to new realms and possibilities. They were and remain an exception in a world of increasing contradiction.
developed a new found freedom for other musicians by breaking down the boundaries of jazz. Almost simultaneously, the Dead proceeded to open a new creative dimension and then invited everybody inside. Did you guys know you were expanding upon the musical universe and tearing down creative boundaries?
Bob Weir: We were well aware of it but there were others such as Big Brother and the Holding Company. We were all listening to the same music such as Coltrane but the Dead just stayed with it longer. With Janis's meteoric rise, things changed for Big Brother. Early on, Phil Lesh provided a lot of new information and by the age of seventeen, I was listening to Pendericki and Stockhausen. Further on, when we developed more facility with our instruments, it became possible for us to start exploring those new realms. So there was this overlay of modern classical along with the avant-garde and though there are some classicalists that claim the avant-garde isn't classical, they use the same instruments and sit in the same concert halls so it's all the same to me. It just comes down to how far you are willing to take it.
There was this soul romping of jazz in the 60s' and it was furious and cooking so we concentrated on that along with what Ornette was doing. In the early 70s,' Miles came out with Bitches Brew and Live Evil but we also listened to Return to Forever
which was fusion that hadn't slipped into its dry and intellectual mode yet. Those fusion guys had monstrous facility which seemed unattainable but Bitches Brew was more groove oriented and a clear light post so we did that stuff in rehearsal all the time. We could also pull it off on stage from time to time.
LP: Did the audience always follow?
BW: We would take the temperature of the audience and though nobody ever discussed it, there was an understanding. An understanding that there is only so much of this that we are going to get away with because for the most part, the audience came to hear songs and of course we loved to deliver songs. We were story tellers and that's the whole secret of music as far as I'm concerned, actually of any art. You are telling a story. We used bridges from the developments of new jazz along with the modern classical influences of Penderecki, Stockhausen and ol' Uncle Igor Stravinsky. I also listened to a lot of Bela Bartok and wrote a tune based on a concerto of his that just floored me for at least a month. I listened to it every other night until it was coming out of my ears and fingers. It was a full Bartok progression with lots and lots of dissonance that worked well to my satisfaction. That kind of stuff was happening.
LP: The song," Let it Grow" seemed to develop into an arrangement with many of its harmonic relationships in fusion.
BW: Well, when you couch it like that but I tend to think of guys like Return to Forever as being a little more harmonically developed than we were. But thinking about it, I guess "Let it Grow" was harmonically developed and I wasn't really listening to anything at the time I wrote it. It just came out.