By Michael Hamad
10:15 AM EST, December 26, 2012
There are countless Grateful Dead tribute acts — great ones, the Dark Star Orchestra, for example — who get it right: Jerry Garcia's treble-heavy tone and mixolydian meanderings, Phil Lesh's restless, rootless bass, dual drummers driving the train through Drums >> Space, and back. They know the arrangements, and they know how to turn on the audience.
Dead On Live, a tribute assembled in 2010 by veteran musician Marc Muller, approaches the repertoire with staff paper and a pencil. Before they ever played a note, Muller sat down and transcribed Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, two albums recorded and released in 1970, note-for-note, from the tight, weird harmonies of “Uncle John's Band” to “Truckin”'s less-than-predictable bass. It took him nine months.
“It's pretty funny, because that's the span in which both records were recorded and released, within nine months of each other,” Muller told the Advocate by phone from his home in Neptune, N.J., on the hard-hit Jersey Shore.
The occasion was a show at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., celebrating the 40th anniversary of the two records. As he started putting it together, Muller realized something: “Friend of the Devil” isn't really “Friend of the Devil” unless Lesh's bass part is there, that there's more to it than plunking G to C to get it to sound like the recording.
Transcribing music is exhausting. Muller sat down in his studio and worked on the bass, for as long as he could stand it. He took a break, then he did it some more. “Before I knew it, I ended up transcribing everything,” Muller said. “It was a lot of work, but it's something I've always done as a kid. I remember transcribing [Led Zeppelin's] ‘Stairway to Heaven' when it came out. It's a thing I always had a knack for.”
As tedious as that sounds, the act of transcription always reveals what's not known but often felt. Muller discovered the Dead weren't just acid-head hippies wasting time in the studio.
“[The albums are] really well put together,” Muller said. “It's not as ad-libbed as everyone thinks. They did come up with parts. They did work on arrangements.” The two records, Muller explained, arrived on the heels of the sessions for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's “Teach Your Children,” and Garcia's deal: he'd lend his pedal-steel talents, and in exchange, CSN&Y would teach him the finer points of harmony vocals, which he then took back to the Dead. “[Garcia] basically said, ‘These guys have their act together. We've got to step up and try to do something like this.'” Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, he said, were the Dead's attempts to “keep up with the Joneses on the other side of California.”
Not surprisingly, transcribing the vocal parts, for Muller, was exasperating; the Dead knew nothing about traditional voice-leading conventions, which would make the task easier for the transcriber. (Contrary motion, for example, between two voices allows you to hear them as separate parts, but there's little of that to be found.) “It's not triadic,” Muller said. “It's not third-above, fifth-below. If you put 20 very knowledgeable, schooled, musician-Deadheads in a room and ask them to sing the melody to any of the songs on Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, just sing what you think the melody is, you're going to get 20 different versions... It's such a sandwich.” When Muller finally extracted each part, he demo-ed them individually, handed the parts to his players, and asked them to sing them back. “We all just fell on the floor laughing. For the first time ever, it sounded like ‘Uncle John's Band.'”
Some Dead On Live shows require as many as 18 players. If a recording has a double-tracked mandolin part, he uses two mandolin players. It's not all rote; there's room built into each song for jamming. Dead On Live plays it loose when it's called for. Jams are handled by a sub-group within the large ensemble, based on the Dead's instrumentation. “We always tip our hats to how the Dead did the jams, too,” he said.
Muller, who attended his first Dead show in 1973 (when he was 13), plays guitar, banjo, mandolin, pedal steel and just about anything else with strings. He's toured with Shania Twain. You can hear his playing on Wrecking Ball, the latest release by Bruce Springsteen. Everyone in Dead On Live is a top-notch musician. He'll bring Dead On Live to Infinity Hall in Norfolk for a show on Dec. 29.
Stepping back into the Dead's catalog, Muller said, was like finding an old pair of shoes in his closet and discovering they still feel great.
“[The Dead was] my musical textbook when I was learning how to play,” Muller said. “It's really part of my development as a guitar player, or a musician or a banjo player, pedal steel, whatever... I just stepped back into being 16 again, and I swear, when I play this stuff, I feel like I'm 16 again... It's just a nice, natural circle.”
Dead On Live, Dec. 29, 8 p.m., $25, $40, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Route 44, 20 Greenwoods Road, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com.
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