Bob Weir has, by his own count, “two to three full-time jobs,” including a new performance studio, Tamalpais Research Institute, or TRI studios, a facility allowing live HD audio and video streams that feed directly to the Internet, his longtime band RatDog, a possible Dead reunion, and the continuing adventures of Furthur with bassist Phil Lesh. But none of these duties seem as unique as his debut venture, First Fusion, into the area of the Grateful Dead Meets Classical Music. On May 7, at the Marin Center in San Rafael, California, Weir, and his RatDog bandmates, will collaborate with the Marin Symphony Orchestra in a benefit for that nearly 60-year old organization of musicians.
Jambands.com sat down with the singer/guitarist for a conversation detailing this special liaison during the tail end of the latest Furthur tour. Weir is understandably excited to talk about the new possibilities of these orchestral maneuvers, while also appreciating the fact that if it is a successful experiment combining his “little core group ensemble” with the larger classical ensemble mixture of musicians, he may suddenly have more than two to three full-time jobs to ponder. We leave that to fate as Weir appears to be doing in this conversation about the origins and development of his relationship with the orchestra, his ongoing work with Phil Lesh in Furthur, the World According to the late Owsley Stanley, the status of his musical, and the ways a veteran musician stays on top of his game in an evolving musical universe. Weir isn’t slowing down, and one can sense that in his words and music he chooses to play in 2011—in the studio, on the road, and beyond.
RR: How did you get the idea to do the First Fusion gig with the Marin Symphony, and what is your relationship to the co-orchestrator, Dr. Giancarlo Aquilanti?
BW: Well, first off, I didn’t know he was a doctor, but I’m not surprised. Giancarlo is a wonderful guy. He has been working, on and off, with the Marin Symphony for a number of years. He also teaches down at Stanford [as a professor of Music Theory and Composition]. I just recently learned that he’s a doctorate, as well. Like I said, I’m not surprised. Really, when the project came up—I guess this was about one and a half to two years ago—I had just played a gig at the Warfield. I rarely go out front after shows because, you know, I just get descended upon. But there were a couple of friends of mine that I wanted to pop out and see, so I did.
As usual and as expected, I sort of got descended upon, but a couple of folks that were trying to get to see me said they work with the Marin Symphony Orchestra, and could I possibly talk about doing a fundraiser for them. I have always been a proponent of all kinds of music education. I believe in music, so I agreed to talk with them and we set up a dinner date. They made it plain to me that if I would do a benefit for them, they would give me the use of the orchestra and someone to help me do arrangements.
It was actually their idea to do a bunch of Dead tunes to fully orchestrate them, and I rose to the bait. Over the past year and a half, I had been working with Giancarlo on orchestrating a bunch of Grateful Dead tunes. For full orchestration, we’ve come up with about an hour’s worth of music—a bunch of fan favorites that we’ve taken our time on and fully orchestrated. It’s an adventurous approach, we took. This is not 101 Strings Do the Dead. You know, for what it’s worth, both Bach and Mozart—and to some degree Beethoven, well, a lot of people—were famous for taking folk tunes and playing with them until they had full orchestration. Similarly, we took that kind of approach with the Dead tunes and booked them way the hell out.
RR: What’s interesting to me is the relationship between classical music and improvisational music. On the surface, some people may feel that classical music is very much set in stone in structure and would appear to be the complete opposite to improvisational music. But I don’t feel that’s always the case.
BW: It is in some cases, and it is not in other cases. I would say the bulk of classical musicians, a great many classical musicians, do not improvise. They pride themselves in being able to quickly and adroitly read what’s on the page and learn it and perform it with accuracy and passion. That said there are also a lot of classical musicians who moonlight as jazz musicians and do improvise. And, so, we’ve tried to find those guys in the group that we are playing with, and leave more room open for interpretation for the guys who want to take the ball and run with it.
The first set is going to be probably somewhere around an hour and a half. And that is much much freer—it’s a smaller ensemble; I may have as many as eighteen pieces that I am working with. Now, embedded in all of this is a small rock ‘n’ roll ensemble. I’ve got Jay Lane on drums, I’ve got two bass players, Robin Sylvester on electric bass and Rob Wasserman on acoustic upright, and I’ve got Jeff Chimenti on piano and me on guitar. The first set—some of the stuff is going to sound more like a big band arrangement of the Dead tunes. It’s a lot of fun. My core group swings like crazy. We’ve come up with a number of arrangements. I can’t tell you the names of the tunes; I’m going to have to save that. We’ve got some fairly extended arrangements of some of my old favorites. There were way too many tunes to get to in a two and a half hour show, so I just picked some favorites, deciding early on that we were going to stick with these and go with it.
So the first set features a smaller ensemble with looser arrangements and a lot of improvisation. The first set is pretty much all about improvisation. The second set is going to be tighter because there are a lot more pieces to organize. But that said, the whole thrust of this endeavor is to find ways to get back to what’s happening between my little core ensemble and the orchestra. We have sections that we’re going to ostinato, or repeat, for instance, in a given tune with small variations on them. We’re working out, basically, sign language. I’ll be working with Giancarlo who will be conducting, and we’ll work out sign language for when we want to ostinato, or when we want to repeat this section, or we want to build it in this direction on that, and give some of the guys
who want to solo a chance to riff, or, if we find two or three guys who want to work together to play against each other. Meanwhile, working up a vocabulary of probably sign language that will allow us to improvise with the orchestra. I’ve not seen this successfully done, so far. I’ve checked a few attempts at this by various people, but that to me would be the fun of it if we have success with this, and I think we will, and then there is a whole lot more material to get to, and a whole lot more adventure to be had.
RR: You had initial rehearsals earlier in the year, and then you’ll have more in April after this current leg of the Furthur tour ends?
BW: Yeah, and then we’ll let it rip.