February was one of the most amazing months of music I have experienced.
It was the tenth anniversary of the Wetlands, one of the most revered and well-known music clubs in the entire country. Since 1989, The Wetlands stage has felt the weight of bands like Phish, Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, The Spin Doctors, Pearl Jam, Rancid, Ani DiFranco, Joan Osborne, and Living Colour, just to name a few. With a list of friends like that, there was no question that the club’s tenth anniversary would be an event to remember.
Bob Weir, Frogwings (Jon Popper, Derek Trucks [Derek Trucks Band], Oteil Burbridge [Allman Brothers, ARU], Kofi Burbridge [ARU], Marc Quinones [Allman Brothers], and Jimmy Herring [Jazz is Dead, ARU]), The Zen Tricksters, Deep Banana Blackout, Percy Hill, and Hanson, yes, Hanson all on board to play Wetlands that week.
The opportunity to see Bob Weir at The Wetlands Preserve? Unbelievable.
Not only was I going to see Bobby and all those other bands, but also going to do lights for them. As Lighting Designer at The Wetlands, I’m responsible for turning shows in a small club into “concert experiences”. Part of my job is to sit down with the artists and discussing what they like in their lighting design. Sitting down with Bob Weir was certainly a trip. Having done lights for bands like The Disco Biscuits, Deep Banana Blackout, Percy Hill, The Slip, ulu, Blind Man’s Sun, and Amfibian, I felt as though I was ready to work for Bob Weir.
As part of my Communications degree from Syracuse University, I studied live and studio music recording, as well as film. One night during the summer of 1997, I was shooting an upstate New York music festival when I decided to put down my camera and run lights for Blind Man’s Sun’s set. I haven’t picked up the camera since. Most people don’t notice when a sound guy is doing a good job. When the lights are good, everyone notices. It’s about as visual an art form as painting and film are. It really is like playing an instrument and painting a portrait at the same time. Think about it what it would be like to see Phish play “2001” without Chris Kuroda’s effects. The lights add to the experience tremendously. The only downside is that the viewer sees it once, and then it’s gone, left for mind to remember. But, the same applies to the music. You hear it and then a second later, it’s gone. OK, so we tape and trade shows, but the feeling at the moment is gone forever. My friend Melissa says “You are in charge of color, (color plays with emotions) and applying the color to the music you hear (becoming an unseen member of the band). You add to the thrill of the moment, creating responses in people that make their experience more vibrant. That’s so thrilling! The lights are apart of the experience each individual person travels with. Color is a visual emotion. Light, beams of color (or the purity without color), is your instrument to play with the band. I can’t give your job enough justice with the emotions that I feel.”
For weeks, employees at the Wetlands knew that Pete Shapiro, owner, was trying to get Bob Weir to play a show there. We ended up getting three shows. Not just Bobby, but Rob Wasserman, The Zen Tricksters, Deep Banana Blackout, Moe, Frogwings, and Percy Hill were also on board. I had the honor of doing lights for most of the nights.
The anniversary kicked off with the band that has played Wetlands more than any other, The Zen Tricksters. The Zens have gained the distinction of being the best Dead cover band in the nation. But hold on a second! These guys aren’t just a cover band. They’re originals are as good as any of the Dead tunes they play. In fact, I’d rather hear them play originals at times. “Done is Done”, off their album entitled “The Holy Fool” is one of those tunes that makes you just jump around, full of crazy energy. So, having been a huge Deadhead in my day, I enjoy doing lights for these guys because I know the music so well.
White light. I love white light. What is white light? Well, it’s just what it sounds like. It’s also called “No Color”. It’s just a light that has no color gel in it, so your just seeing just the white, bright bulb inside. I use white light sparingly because it’s so bright. We also call them “ACL’s”, short for Aircraft Landing Light. I save it for those parts of songs where there’s a “big hit” in a jam, or when you sense a jam is about to hit an apex. I used a lot of white light on the Tricksters. For example, in “Playing in the Band”, when the song comes out of the long jam in the middle, and goes back into the chorus? White light!!
Another good example of when I use white light is The Disco Biscuits song “Eulogy”. This epic tune builds and builds until Jon Gutwillig can’t go any higher on the fretboard, and just when you think he can’t go any higher, he does. Well, I don’t like to use too much white light for The Biscuits, because reaching apexes and bringing it down is not what their music is about. But, during “Eulogy”, white light works perfectly as the song builds. I slowly, slowly bring up the ACL’s until, by the end of that section of the song, I have them at full intensity. Then, when the song goes into the next section, which is quiet and a little evil, I go to all red. But, I’m getting off track, and getting excited in anticipation of The Disco Biscuits upcoming two night run at Wetlands on April 30 and May 1 !!!!
Next on the Wetlands all-star anniversary line-up was one of the “new generation” of Wetlands bands that are taking over the world, Deep Banana Blackout. I had done lights for the Blackout three times before, and it’s always a funky good time. I like to use lots of “moving lights”, like “Trackspots” for Banana. Despite the fact that one of the band members had a fever of 104 degrees, they still played! Hard core. Had the lead singer not told everyone in the audience about the guitar player being sick, you never would have known. They still drew about 700 people and blew the roof off the joint. Blackout played until about 4:00am, which has become normal for bands as good as them. Only at The Wetlands can you go see a band at 10:00pm and walk out at 4:00am!!
moe. was next in the all-star line-up, and this was their first billing as moe. at The Wetlands in quite a while. Until now, they billed their shows as “Monkeys on Ecstasy”. For the anniversary, moe. felt no need to disguise themselves behind a fake name. A million thanks to the moe., who went out of their way to play Wetlands’ anniversary. They played a show in Washington D.C. the night before, and were headed to Virginia the next day. So, they went north and then south again. Thanks boys! As far as lights went, I had the opportunity to just sit back, relax, DJ, and watch moe. Lighting Designer extraordinaire Chris Reagan, pull from his bag of tricks. To add his special touch to the show, Chris brought in a whole bunch of lights from moe.‘s touring rig. Two big moving lights were placed on top of the famous Wetlands VW Bus. If you’ve been to the club, you know the bus is all the way over to the side of the stage, far removed from where the band is playing. By adding these lights, Chris threw some energy over to a part of the club that usually lacks it. As always, moe. played an amazing show.
Frogwings is pure Rock and Roll, as good as it gets. The music contains elements of Blues Traveler, Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Allman Brothers, and Jazz is Dead all rolled up into one. Frogwings is Jon Popper on vocals and harp, Butch Trucks, Oteil Burbridge, and Marc Quinones from The Allman Brothers, and Kofi Burbridge from ARU, Butch Trucks, and Jimmy Herring from Jazz is Dead. (See Bob Makin’s interview with Butch Trucks in last months Jambands.com). This was my chance to really show my stuff to some real heavy hitters. The sound is a mixture of Southern rock, world beat, and hard core. Of the three nights of Frogwings, I ran lights for two. At the end of the last night, I was honored to have been told by The Allman Brothers sound engineer of 20 years, Bud Snyder, that I did a good job.
Bob, Rob, and Jay named their little side project RD3, short for Ratdog 3. Ratdog had finished at successful U.S. shortly before The Wetlands gig, and this was a perfect opportunity for them to get together as a trio and play a more “stripped down, acoustic” show.
On the day of the first Bobby show, I walked into the club for soundcheck at 5:00pm. To find Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman, and Jay Lane on stage (Jay Lane is drummer from Ratdog). I just stood there for about 20 minutes, watching, listening, and taking it all in. Then it hit me…I’m here to work!! So, I grabbed the ladder and soon found myself hanging above where Bob Weir was standing on stage, focusing lights on him. “I could just see it now. I’m going to fall, and land right on Bob!!” Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and everything went off without a hitch.
Bob came onto the stage after being introduced by Wetlands’ creator Larry Bloch to huge cheers and tears. “We can share the woman we can share the wine…” were the first words we heard. All right! I started jumping up and down behind the light board. It had finally hit me; I was doing lights for Bob Weir playing “Jack Straw”! I could hardly believe it. Until that moment, it all felt light just another night of work. Looking back, I have trouble believing that I felt as thought it was just another night of work considering what a huge Deadhead I have been over the years. Little did I know that the best was yet to come.
Jack Straw, Walkin Blues > Take me to the River, Queen Jane,
City Girls > Fever, El Paso, Desolation Row, Loose Lucy
Barely Standing jam, K.C. Moan, Friend of the Devil, Wang Dang Doodle,
Little Red Rooster*, This Time Forever > Shade of Grey, Easy to Slip, Bass solo
(w/ St. Stephen tease), Drum
solo, Other One*, Cassidy*
E: Knocking on Heaven’s Door
Bombs Away, Festival, Blackbird, Eternity, All Over Now# > Maggie’s Farm#,
Barely Standing, Looks Like Rain, West L.A. Fadeaway*, Easy Answers*,
Bird Song*, Bass / Drum solo, Throwing Stones
E: Sugar Magnolia* > Sunshine Daydream*
Baby Blue > She Belongs to Me, Twilight Time, Artificial Flowers,
The Winners, Black Throated Wind, Victim or the Crime, Stuck inside a
Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again#, Ripple#
Strange Heros, Minglewood Blues, Easy to Slip > Supplication Jam > Easy to Slip,
Josephine > Other One > Bass and Drums > Wang Dang Doodle##,
All Along the Watchtower## > Going Down
the Road Feeling Bad##, Gloria##
E: One More Saturday Night##
- with Warren Haynes
- with Mike Falzarano of Hot Tuna
- with Hanson
The Bob Weir shows were full of surprises, especially the special guests on the third night. Warren Haynes made several appearances. This was Warren’s second time playing with Bob, the first being at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in honor of the late Blues great, Robert Johnson. However, the Robert Johnson appearance was short, and one at which the two didn’t really get to know each other. How Warren got to the invited to play with Bob at Wetlands, I don’t know. I do know that Warren was a little nervous about playing with him. For thirty years, Bob played rhythm right next to Jerry’s lead and Warren now found himself in the same spot. Warren was, in a way, taking the place of Jerry Garcia.
Known as one of the best slide guitar players today, Warren added a nice compliment to Bobby’s licks, and it looked as though he was having a great time. Apparently Bobby thought the same thing, for he invited Warren back the second night. Warren is a great friend of The Wetlands, having played there on many occasions over he past ten years. One night I was going through the Blues Traveler list of shows from the late eighties and early nineties, and Warren played with them at Wetlands several times. When speaking of Warren, Wetlands owner Pete Shapiro says…“Warren represents a lot of what Wetlands stands for.”
Mike Falzarano joined RD3 for a few tunes on the 12th. I always enjoy watching “Falzy” play, and seeing the big smile on his face as he mouths the words to the songs being played. On the 13th, between sets, of group of throat singers from the Mongolian province of Tuva called Huun-Huur Tu performed. I had never witnessed a “throat singing” performance, and it was pretty impressive. Imagine “beat box” performers, like The Fat Boys, but using their throats and playing Mongolian stringed and wood instruments. This unique appearance by Huun Huur Tu was the work of Wetlands Talent Buyer, Chris Zahn. “I got a call from the guy at Shenachie Records the day before and he told me that he had this group of throat singers in town to play The Town Hall”. Chris thought about it, and it struck him that it might be interesting to see them play with Bob, Rob, and Jay. He phoned Rob Wasserman at his hotel that day, and Rob agreed that it would be a nice addition. So it happened, and more history was made. If you get your hands on tapes of this show, give these guys a listen!!
As if throat singers from Mongolia weren’t enough, another surprise awaits the crowd for the end of the show. The entire night, rumors ran rampant throughout the club of a “special guest”. I ran into fellow writer Rob Turner before the show, and he knew something was up since there was an extra drum kit sitting on stage with a blanket over it. The New York Times reported that day that there would be special guests and that they would be three people that you would never imagine playing with Bob Weir. While walking through the crowd during set-break, I heard people saying, “Its’ going to be Neil Young!”, and “Bob Dylan”, “Trey Anastasio”, “the ghost of Jerry Garcia!!” No one could have imagined it would be Hanson.
One look at The Hanson boys, of “Mmmbop” fame, and you’d think they were Deadheads. I spoke to them during soundcheck and asked them if they were into the Dead, and Taylor Hanson replied, “We like a few Dead songs. We respect what they’ve done over the years.” I replied with, “Well how could you not?” The truth is, this appearance was engineered by the powers that be at The almighty Wetlands. When Pete Shapiro asked me two weeks before what I would think if Hanson played with Bobby. I thought it was a great idea, but, I did think he was kidding. When I walked into soundcheck that day to find Hanson playing “One More Saturday Night”, I realized he was very serious.
Your probably asking yourself how in the world this pairing of musicians came about. The story goes that Peter Shapiro knows the Hanson manager, Sterling, who is a Dead fan. Naturally, Sterling, jumped at the chance to see his boys play with Bob Weir. Bob didn’t think it was a bad idea either, and took on a sort of fatherly nature during the whole thing. I spoke to Rob Wasserman days after the gig and asked him what he thought.
RW: “I like seeing young people that are positive, and these kids were just that.”
MI: So what’s next for you and Ratdog?
RW: Well, we came back to California and are working on a new Ratdog album due to be out in the spring, probably on Grateful Dead Records. In our music now, we are trying to cross new boundaries, and not just play things from the Grateful Dead world.
Also in the works for Rob is a CD with the band, Banyon, which is Steven Perkins (Jane’s Addiction drummer), and Mike Watt. (You can catch Banyon opening up for moe. at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York on April 10.)
Hanson joined RD3 for five songs, “Wang Dang Doodle”, “All Along the Watchtower”, “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”, “Gloria”, and “One More Saturday Night”. Considering the fact that they only had a few hours of soundcheck rehearsal time with Bobby, they did extremely well. The Hanson appearance did garner mixed reviews from Deadheads. Some were shocked and didn’t know what to think, while others thought it was interesting and fun. I happen to be one of the latter. Peter Shapiro said it best, “Music is fun. Plus, I think Jerry would have got a big kick out of it”. Well, for all we know, Jerry could be rolling in his grave, but it is true that the guys in Hanson are maturing musically, and are breaking out of the pop status they hold in order to explore different avenues of music. Just the other night, I was flipping through the channels, and I came across the program “Hard Rock Live.” Hanson was the special guest, and they rocked out! After the Wetlands show, Bob Weir invited them to visit his recording studio some time.
I asked Zach, Taylor, and Issac Hanson what they thought of playing with Bobby. “Jamming with Bob Weir was an honor and we learned a lot from the experience” says Isaac, “he is nothing short of a legend” adds Taylor. “We gained a lot from the experience, learning to go with the flow and experiment musically.” Drummer Zac concluded with a question, “How cool is it to play for an audience that for the most part had never heard us play before?”
The media coverage that the show received was phenomenal. The New York Times ran a half page story the very next dat and Rolling Stone ran a big picture and reported on the show in the “Random Notes” section of the current issue. MTV mentioned the show on the “MTV News 1515” program, as well as various mentions on VH-1, NBC, and CBS. Oh, and for the first time, Wetlands was mentioned in a whole bunch of “Teen” Magazines.
As far as lighting went, it was an amazing experience doing lights for the man that stood next to Jerry Garcia for thirty years, who wrote Cassidy and Sugar Magnolia, and who usually plays to crowds of 30,000 people. Since the show was mostly acoustic, I kept color changes subtle and strobes and white light to a minimum. There was only one thing that bothered me. It was the cameramen that took up so much space to film the show on the third night, but I just blocked them out. .
To this day, people ask me what it was like running lights for Frogwings and Bob Weir. At the time, it just seemed another night of work. But now when I look back, it was so much more than that. Plus, it will look real good on my resume. But beyond that, for now on whenever I pop in a Dead tape, I will think of my time working for Bobby.
Matt Iarrobino lives in New York where he is The Lighting Designer/DJ for The Wetlands Preserve and works in the film industry.