A founding member of the seventies theatrical-rockers the Tubes and the former keyboardist for the Grateful Dead, Vince Welnick earned his musical wings through years of incessant touring. Playing keyboards in The Dead from 1990 to 1995, Welnick performed at some of the nation's finest-and-largest venues, as well as contributing several new songs to that band's extensive live canon. Two cuts "Samba in the Rain" and "Way To Go Home" were co-written with longtime Dead scribe Robert Hunter and helped color The Dead's somewhat stagnant 1990s song output. An avid Beatles admirer, Welnick also brought lauded covers of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "Rain," and "Tomorrow Never Knows" into The Dead's setlists during their final years.
It is just recently, however that he began performing with Gent Treadly. This New York based blues-groove trio first came together in 1994 and began performing the Dead's music long before teaming up with Welnick last summer. Boasting spots in such seminal second-generation jam bands as the Joneses and Dark Star Orchestra on their resume, Gent Treadly are well-established musicians in their own right, with several original numbers to their credit. Yet, since the trio began jamming with Welnick at a private party a year and a half ago, Gent Treadly (Greg Koerner, bass; Tom Kaelin, drums; Mike Jaimes, guitar) has put a new twist on the traditional Dead tribute band by introducing Welnick's often overlooked later day catalogue.
Playing scattered dates throughout the east coast, Welnick and Gent Treadly perform a party mix of classic-rock, Tubes covers, Grateful Dead chestnuts, and Welnick's post-Dead work, along with Gent Treadly's original compositions. Playing high-profile gigs at northeast and mid-Atlantic clubs and festivals, the newly fermented quartet will also release a live album Vince Welnick and Gent Treadly later this year, which will highlight songs from the group's recent tours.
Since the Dead's 1995 demise, Welnick has faced hard times, overcoming depression and estrangement from his former bandmates. For a few years he toured along side Steve Kimock, Bobby Vega, and Tubes' drummer Prairie Prince with Missing Man Formation, but recent economic difficulties have kept the keyboardist's band off the road. Yet Welnick's recent collaborations with Gent Treadly show his voice and performing abilities to be on par with his Dead-era work and have also shed some light on his sparsely visited Tubes' material. Along with guest spots from high-profile friends Buddy Cage, Jorma, and Merl Saunders, Gent Treadly have cemented their musical abilities as a band and continue to perform over 100 dates a year, while Koerner also balances time with his day job as a New York City lawyer. Welnick and Gent Treadly will also embark on a two-week southeast tour on January 23rd, making several stops in The Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.
Jambands.com caught up with Welnick in late October to discuss his newest collaborations, classic-rock and how he just might earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records
MG: For two years you’ve been traveling from California to collaborate with Gent Treadly, a New York based band. What initially drew you to the trio?
VW: I got in touch with Greg Koerner from a contact I had with Jazz is Dead, the Machine, and Blue Floyd. Greg used to play with Dark Star Orchestra. It started pretty simply, with just a couple of gigs on the east coast – one was even a wedding, and it kept turning into more. The clubs kept calling back and people kept asking for more. Next time I came back [East] I did five dates with them and the next time I did ten, and so on.
MG: From what I’ve seen you guys pack in as many gigs as possible when you’re together.
VW: I think we got the Guinness Book of Records for doing the most dates in the most states in a 24hr period. [This August] we went on stage at 1AM in West Virginia and played until 4AM, left about 7 that morning, drove to Virginia, did another outdoor show from 1-3PM, got in the car and drove to Syracuse, NY and were on stage by 11:30 the same day. We haven't qualified for it yet, but I don't think anyone has done that – especially driving.
MG Since the Grateful Dead’s demise, you’ve collaborated with many bands that cover Grateful Dead material. What makes Gent Treadly stand out from other Dead tribute bands?
VW: There are a lot of cover bands that I play with everywhere from Arizona to Chicago that play primarily The Dead. But Gent Treadly also does a lot of cover songs that are really timeless classics. They also do some of the songs I wrote that are on the Missing Man Formation album and a couple of songs I did with The Dead, for instance "Way To Go Home" and "Samba in the Rain."
Gent Treadly is actually one of the heavier groups that do the Dead. It's a case with less being more. They're a three-piece band covering six of seven members parts. Sometimes they also have a female singer Anastasia [Rene, who has performed with Percy Hill], but primarily Gent Treadly is a trio, but they belt it out pretty thoroughly.
MG: With Gent Treadly you also cover songs from you Tubes canon. Have you played with any other Tubes tribute acts?
VW: I get a lot of requests every time I play with a band for Tubes songs. But there is no band I know of that plays any Tubes songs, except for Gent Treadly. In fact, we broke out the first Tubes song I've done outside the Tubes, which was "White Punk." Though [with Gent Treadly] I sing it instead of Fee Waybill.
MG: Speaking of timeless music, you’re known to include a healthy selection of Beatles’ songs in your repertoire. To what extent are the Beatles an influence on your songwriting?
VW: Not as far as my songwriting goes. But they were one of the bands- along with the Rolling Stones- that got me playing in bands. When I was eleven, I was starting to listen to the Beatles and they wrote one of the first songs that I sang backup vocals for. Back in Phoenix, I was in a pretty popular rock band when I was 16, in 1967, called the Next of Kin. I started to sing backup harmony on some songs, mostly the Beatles songs. We played this club called the VIP. At the same club, on a different stage, there would be two or three other bands. One of the other bands was the Spiders, who went on to become Alice Cooper.
MG: Last year, you hosted Beatlejam, a traveling Fab Four tribute that also included Jazz is Dead, Blue Floyd, and the Machine. Was it strange to exclusively play Beatles songs after being aligned with The Dead for so many years?
VW: The Beatles are so great to do. I was asked to do the Beatlejam and asked to perform nothing but the songs of the Beatles. Next to the Grateful Dead, that's one of the best bands you could pick to [exclusively] cover. They've got so much that was so popular, you just can't go wrong.
MG: As interesting aspect of Beatlejam is that certain performers played note-for -note covers of the Beatles’ recordings, while other bands really stretched the songs into Dead-like jams.
VW: Blue Floyd did a lot of bluesy stylizations. A lot of songs I would do stayed pretty close to the original versions because why screw with perfect? But there were a couple of songs, like "I'm Only Sleeping," on which I do kind of a "jazz caftylization" to put a twist of turn on it.
MG: Lately, you’ve been playing frequently with Gent Treadly. What’s the status of your other major post-Dead project, Missing Man Formation?
VW: I'd like to get another Missing Man Formation out on the road. Since 9/11 the economy went so flat that it made it cost prohibitive for me to bring out a band. At a lot of these clubs that I'm playing at, the promoters don't want to guarantee anything and, if they do guarantee anything, it's not nearly enough to get a band the stature of Missing Man Formation, [based on] the cost of traveling and playing the kind of guys that played in that band. So I've been coming out and doing basically Vince Welnick a la carte. But you hear a lot of the Missing Man Formation songs with Gent Treadly, as well as a lot of my original music. Some day when there is enough popular demand I'd love to bring them out again.
MG: You new album with Gent Treadly features several songs co-written with Robert Hunter. Are these recent collaborations?
VW: These are songs that I wrote years ago but haven't been put on albums yet. Some of them I took out of Robert's book "Box of Rain". I looked for songs with an asterisk, meaning they hadn't been recorded yet. Robert hasn't even heard some of these songs.
MG: Was it difficult writing music around lyrics that are set in stone?
VW: It's challenging, but it also narrows [the writing process down]. With Robert Hunter there is no room for negotiation – you don't omit a single word of Robert's – so it's totally written around his phrasings. Now on the other side of the coin, when we're actually collaborating together, like on "Way to Go Home," I fed him a tape Bob Bralove and I recorded when we were out on Dead tour. I'd just go "blah ble blah blah blah" and then he filled in the "blah blahs" with syllables that worked. Sometimes he would actually add a few extra words. Like in "Long Way to go Home," he had a syllable for every "blah blah" and then he added "it's a long, long way to go home." Same way with "Samba in the Rain." He filled in all my "blah blahs," plus this really great line that would have taken five stanzas to fit into. So I fit it into four bars by taking a deep breath and singing "Lets get down to dirty to…," so it fit. It worked out cool and is kind of the hookiest part of the tune. So he always brings something to the party.
MG: Have you been open to working with lyricists in other contexts?
VW: I always like to collaborate with people who have finished stuff. Like Ken Kesey, God rest his soul, has got a couple of songs we wrote together. He sent me two poems, "The Dark Side" and "Rag Weed Roof," about a farmwoman. It's a feminist song. "The Dark Side" is about overcoming depression. "The Dark Side" is a double ontondra about a mysterious woman who tries to suck you into the dark side it's really trippy. I wrote music to those and just took words and set them in front of me and it told me what the music's going to be. For instance, on "The Dark Side," I took "D" the sadist of keys, and started playing and singing his words really slowly. It's an interesting song, because every time his chorus comes out, it's a different cord structure and a different vocal and it meanders on and on. It's very cool and very uncommercial. You'll probably never hear it in a record store. But it's not a depressing song it's got a hopeful sentiment to it- so I don't feel bad about the subject matter being depressing because it takes you out of it at the end.
MG: Do you still remain in contact with your former Grateful Dead band mates?
VW: No, not at all as a matter of fact. Once Jerry died, heads started to roll and a lot of people got laid off. I was no longer called in for the board meetings and the band basically broke up around Pearl Harbor Day [laughs] 1995. After that we did do a gig with the Symphony in San Francisco, but that was my last gig with all of the guys-that was in 96.
MG: Have you the seen the latest incarnation of The Dead, with Jimmy Herring on guitar?
VW: I haven't heard anything since they changed their name to The Dead, but I heard the tapes when they first broke out with The Other Ones and I heard them on the radio and it sounded really good. It's kind of hard to hear that and not be in it – like I don't think I could ever go to a gig and enjoy watching them. I'd be agonizing that I couldn't get up on the stage and play.
MG: Did you find it hard adjusting to the Dead’s tour schedule after joining in 1990?
VW: No. In fact, I kept going Jesus Christ this is so easy.' I was coming from a place with the Tubes where we'd play two shows a night-sometimes 200 shows a year- and travel all one-nighters. With the Grateful Dead I was in a band whose tour goes a little over three weeks and we do 22 dates in only six travels and everything is totally first class. I wanted to tour twice as much as they were touring, but they knew that's as much as they could of before people started getting burnt out.
MG: After the Dead broke up did you find it hard readjusting to domestic life?
VW: It was very tough. I found myself totally alone, plus I was going through this magnificent depression where I actually couldn't leave the house. I couldn't leave my house, so I thought how am I going to land a gig?' When I finally did get a couple of gigs-like when someone from Zero would ask me to sit in with them or I would do a gig with Missing Man – I'd be terrified to go out of the house. I wondered if I could even remember the chords…I was a mess emotionally, so I didn't think at one point I was every going to play again.
MG: When did you overcome you fears?
VW: Right after I wrote "True Blue."
MG: You often play "True Blue" with Gent Treadly. It seems to discuss the curse of the keyboard player that plagued The Dead for many years. Can you comment on that?
VW: I feel like a father whose had to bury his sons. They died before I did and I feel like it should have been the other way. I would have rather given my life to that band and would have rather died in than band then to outlived it.
MG: How did you overcome the curse?
VW: What happened with a lot of the other keyboardists is that they get into the lifestyle that comes with that-the money and everything. It gives them all the rope they need to hang themselves. But I had that opportunity a couple of times with the Tubes, and I managed to live through that, so fortunately I played it kind of smart with my newfound fame and fortune. I coughed a pretty good attitude [laughs] but I didn't get into heroin, I never used needles, never used freebase and that kind of stuff. I drew that line as a kid: no needles, no freebase, no heroin and never broke that promise myself
Still…It's not common knowledge, but it is publicly know that I tried to off myself in the RatDog bus in 95, right before Christmas, right after The Dead died. I was out on the road with Bobby and RatDog and we came home on our day off and found out The Dead had died. I was completely done in by it, so I picked up a bunch of valiums I was getting for anxiety and took 57 them and crawled up in my bunk on the Ratdog bus. I tried to join Jerry – and failed – and wound up in a taxi cab as a John Doe at the county hospital and wound up in the loony bin for a couple of weeks. So I pretty much hit bottom there and I'm sure that hasn't helped my popularity with Booby. I think that shook him up so much, and the other members of the band so much, that it contributed to why I am no longer being called to participate.
MG: It sounds like you've worked your way through the darkness of that period.
VW: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I am a stronger singer and player and everything then I ever was in the Grateful Dead. Not that I was so shabby back then, but I learned a lot I have this love for music and passion for it that I never had before in my life. That came out of all this to, when I realized I still can write a song and I still have something to give. That got me back big time and I've never played better in my life now. Gent Treadly is a cool band, fun to hang with and really good guys and there is nothing much we couldn't do especially for a small band of that size.
Vince Welnick and Gent Treadly will tour together in December and January. Here is the current tour itinerary.. For more information visit www.vincewelnick.com and www.gent-treadly.com.
12/11/ 03 -Thurs River Street Jazz Cafe Plains, PA
12/12/2003 – Fri The Matterhorn Stowe, VT
12/13/2003 – Sat Mad Mountain Tavern Waitsfield, VT
12/14/2003 – Sun Webster Underground Hartford, CT
1/22/2004 – Thu Phil's Grill Virginia Beach, VA
1/23/2004 – Fri The Pour House Raleigh, NC
1/24/2004 – Sat Neighborhood Theatre Charlotte, NC
1/25/2004 – Sun The Music Farm Charleston, SC
1/27/2004 – Tue The Station Orlando, FL
1/28/2004 – Wed Alligator Alley Oakland Park, FL
1/30/2004 – Fri Freebird Cafe Jacksonville Beach, FL
1/31/2004 – Sat The Green Room Ybor City (Tampa), FL