Reid Genauer has been a part of the Northeast jamband scene for decades since starting out as one-half of then-duo Strangefolk in 1991, while still a student at the University of Vermont. After an eventful decade of music, Genauer left the band after the turn of the century and ended up forming a new collective, Assembly of Dust, in 2002. But although the Northeast is where his music roots took hold, Genauer has now found a new start in Northern California, where he has been welcomed with open arms into the community that contains the Bay Area-centric extended family of the Grateful Dead.
Now about a year into his life on the West Coast, Genauer has jammed with Phil Lesh, welcomed keyboardist Jason Crosby into Assembly of Dust and recently cut a live album, Tales from the Oregon Trail with AOD and former RatDog guitarist Mark Karan, and although he still prefers to be seen as a songwriter as opposed to a jammer, he’s the first to admit his connection to the jamband scene, professionally and spiritually. Here, he discusses these things and more, including what ties the East and West Coast music scenes together and why revisiting Strangefolk years later is like putting on “an old but cherished suit.”
Have you found a new musical community out there?
Yeah. It’s interesting—I probably know as many musicians in the Bay Area as I did in New York, or near to it. I suspect in part because of the style of music I play. I wonder if you were in an indie band that toured for X years, whether you’d find that same correlation or not. There’s a huge New York, bicoastal current, and that accounts for a lot of it. I remember playing in Strangefolk in the 90s, showing up in San Francisco and having a fan base here, having it be one of our better markets—better than Rochester, NY, by orders of magnitude. Culture travels; culture finds culture. With Strangefolk, we could go to any place that was likely to be early adopters of technology, that was likely to over index in Birkenstocks and vegetarians, and that was probably a good spot for us. I think that probably has a lot to do with it, a similar mechanism if you will.
It’s interesting to see how the Northwest corridor and the West Coast kind of talk to each other, musically, over the middle states.
Even more so than the north-south flow. You tend to sort of lump the East Coast as everything from Maine to Alabama, and it’s not, really, as far as music as an indicator of culture and migration of people and ideas. But it’s very strong between the Northeast and the Northwest.
What do you think that is, the influence of the 60s and the 70s and general San Francisco music scene?
I think it probably has something to do with it for sure. If you look at the macro level, the general populations tend to be densest along coastal regions in any country, because that’s where all the action is at. If you just look at how the climate lines up dictating culture and the ecosystem—there’s mountain culture on the Northwest, there’s mountain culture in the Northeast and there’s mountain culture in Colorado, and there tends to be a highway of people that travel from one culture to another. New York certainly doesn’t fit into that generalization. Like you said, there are financial and cultural tectonic shifts that had taken place [in certain areas].
Trying to take a historical view of it, if you look at the folks in the covered wagons, pioneers, they were coming West after Lewis and Clark, coming to see the Pacific Ocean. The goldmining rush and the 60s—it wasn’t a financial pull as much as a cultural one. If you look at the pioneers, you could argue it was a combination of both, they were seeking opportunity, but they were also people looking for an adventure. Then of course Silicon Valley and the pull of technology. It’s similar. All of those—the pioneers, the gold rush, the 60’s and the tech industry—have elements that are similar, people who are looking to redefine the future as opposed to rehash the past. People who are excited by possibility and change, risk-tolerant and adventuresome. That is the thing that I notice the most. On the East Coast, we spend a lot of time tying ourselves to the past—Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island and European ancestors. Even the industry there, it’s Old Navy and finance. Here, it’s very little emphasis on the past and a lot of what the future is, and it’s always been that way.
Have you found that moving out there has affected your musical space in any way, your songwriting or anything like that?
Yeah, I feel inspired by being out here. Partly it’s a beautiful place and the climate is so much different than I’m used to. Walking out and seeing a sunny day, more times than not, certainly affects you. It plays into some of that optimism. Most importantly though, there’s a very tight group of musicians playing in the jamband world and the sort of new bohemian world. If you were to look at it pound for pound, there’s probably as many or more in New York, but as a percent of the total musical population, it’s higher [here]. It’s a very networked group of musicians. A lot of them I knew—guys from The Mother Hips, New Monsoon, Hot Buttered Rum, to name a few, and of course the guys from Grateful Dead and those in their side projects. I just wound up knowing a lot of people out here in that scene. I’m inspired by watching them come together and play in all these different formations. There’s like ten different bands made up of thirty different guys, a rotating cast of characters. I felt inspired by seeing that kind of community and that kind of frequency with which they’re playing. There is optimism and an openness and a flexibility about what can be, without necessarily defining it. Some of these bands are and will make a run of it, and some of them are experiments.
Obviously one of the best parts of the jam community is that all these bands come out and play together and they’re all friends, especially in San Francisco and New York. Phil Lesh is a big part of that in the Bay Area, and you played with him recently at Terrapin Crossroads. How did you come to meet and start playing with him, and what is your current relationship with Phil?
I met him years ago at the Gathering of the Vibes. I played ‘tweener set, a solo set before his, and he happened to catch my set as he was prepping for his. This was early 2000, relatively new into what would become Phil Lesh and Friends. Somebody was nagging me when I was getting off the stage and pulling at my shirt. I remember getting kind of annoyed that someone was being aggressive with me. It turned out they were coming to convey the notion that Phil wanted to introduce himself and say hello. I went and spoke with him for a half an hour in his trailer, and it was awesome for me. I am a longtime fan and definitely was happy to meet him and happy that he had taken notice of me. Later that week, I got a call from his manager asking if I might want to come and sit in for a tune at Jones Beach with Phil and Friends, so that was awesome. I got a chance to meet him again and to play there. I’ve just been sort of hanging around Terrapin Crossroads and have played there formally and informally.
That’s one of things that’s cool—there’s this whole spectrum of the ways that people gig. Again, it happens on the East Coast as well; I just wasn’t as connected to it. I’ve been more formal in my gigging for all these years where there are dates on the calendar months in advance, everybody knows it and we rehearse for it. We talk about setlists and travel plans. It’s kind of weighty—expectations for tickets sales and travel. There’s a lot. If you look at Terrapin as a microcosm of that spectrum, you’ve got the Grate Room, where those of us who are not Phil Lesh can have a real show. Assembly of Dust played there, and I played a solo show there with a backing band when I first got here. I’m expecting and hoping that Strangefolk will play there. That’s a gig. It’s a performance space. It’s a hard ticket. Then he’s got the bar, with great musicians playing in there any night of the week. It’s still a gig, but it’s really loose. People are calling songs on the stage and airdropping each other charts with iPads, learning the tunes in the moments before you play it. There’s a lot of just, “Hey, do you want to come sit in on my gig and play a song or two?” I actually just came across Phil most recently in the latter. It was Jason Crosby’s gig, and he had a whole cast of guys to play with, Jason Crosby and Friends. Phil happened to be one of his Friends and I happened to be one of his Friends. Jason was musical directing the whole thing and was good enough to put me on “Althea” with Phil. It was great. It felt kind of serendipitous and causal and everything that the first encounter wasn’t, which was ten thousand people at Jones Beach—a different kind of energy than a pick-up gig in what’s sort of become the local hang.