RR: When the core group was initially rehearsing with the orchestra, did you see some looks on some of their faces which you had not seen in quite a while?
BW: At first, given the number of pieces playing and the number of voices in the ensemble, everybody had to kind of think about what they were doing, which is always a good exercise for a musician—to pare down your drift to the most essential statement of what you’re up to gets you to really become legible throughout the ensemble. It was the obvious thing we had to do, and we did that right away. It sounds like my core ensemble is playing, more or less, like the rhythm section in a big band. But that’s a lot of fun. Between Jeff and I, and bass and drums, we really draw that in that big ensemble. When we get to the second set, and the full orchestration, it’s like that in a huge way—hang on to your hat, it’s a big ride.
RR: You mentioned the diversity of your influences, and I’ve noticed how you have managed to transform your music over the years within the bands that you’ve played with your own timeless style. During the current Furthur shows, are you finding yourself remaining contemporary while your roots are in the past?
BW: I think I’ve probably developed a bit as a musician since Jerry checked out. In order to get my little point across—whatever that may be in any given moment—once again, I’ve had to pare down and simplify and refine and try to find more power in less strokes. And, also, to better and more cleanly find my rhythmic approaches, for instance, because that’s kind of what I’m about—I’m about melodic development, but I’m also all about rhythmic development.
Over the last few years, over the last decade and a half, I guess, I think I’ve gotten better at defining rhythmic feels and getting people to fall into that kind of stuff with me. It’s sort of my job anyway as a rhythm guitarist. I can play leads, but my great passion is to drive the band. I work with the bass player. I work with the drummer. I work with the rhythm section. Music is indescribable other than by music. And that’s what we do—we describe worlds for people to dance to, danceable worlds.
BB: I think the flexibility of your playing also allows for you to pull in a diverse range of musicians. For example, the other night at Radio City, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Larry Campbell, and Teresa Williams sat in with Furthur on various tunes. Their ability to relate to the music and come out the other side is a beautiful thing. What was your feeling about those guests on that particular night?
BW: Believe me (laughs), I had a great deal of fun that evening. Those guys know the songs. They know where the songs live. Basically, it was a show-and-tell session: “This is my take; let’s hear your take.” We just kicked the tunes around. (laughs) They went on for a while. The big surprise for me that evening was Diana’s piano playing. I knew she was a great singer, but I wasn’t prepared for what I heard from her on the piano. I was sort of thunderstruck by that.
RR: Are you finding new ways to communicate with Phil Lesh on stage in Furthur, or are you refining some of the vocabulary you’ve used with him over the years?
BW: Both. We come up with new stuff, but Phil and I have been having a conversation on this music for 40-some years. We can hear each other thinking, and we’ve learned how to intuit each other to a varied degree. For instance, when I’m intuiting with Phil’s head on a given line, my job is to be there when he gets there with a little surprise for him, and he’s working that same angle with me. That’s where the fun begins.
RR: You both lost an old friend a few weeks back when Owsley passed away. You’ve been a big influence on several generations with how one approaches music in theory and practice. I was wondering how he influenced you and your work.
BW: We rarely, if ever, had musical conversations. His whole worldview was to question everything. Absolutely everything that comes your way, you question it with all your sense of being. Critically, yes; but not negatively so much as playfully. You go where whatever information, whatever comes your way, seems to want to go; you go there. And, then, you also go to where your own intuition takes you, and figure that the reality of the situation is going to be somewhere in between.
RR: Has that philosophy stayed with you all these years? What is interesting is that you were going to do a musical based on the life of Satchel Paige, the legendary baseball player who had a long and vital career, and you’ve become Satchel Paige—that individual that just endures through his ceaseless work.
BW: In order to keep playing music the way we’ve been playing it, we have to keep it fresh, or we’ll go nuts. It’ll go stale, and we’ll just sound like we’re just going through the motions. And that can’t be. People won’t come to hear us do that, and I couldn’t go to a gig to play that kind of music. I’d go nuts. I’d find another line of work, or put a gun to my head—one or the other. The music’s got to be full of surprises; it’s got to be full of new revelations. It could just be the tone of my instrument on a given song. It could be a new rhythmic wrinkle or a new harmonic wrinkle or a new melodic wrinkle that grabs me and takes new form in a given song.
As for the Satchel Paige piece, you know, that reached the 90% completion plateau, and then, I discovered the hard lesson that once you have a piece like that written, it’s kind of a full-time job finding people to back an endeavor like that. And, I already have two or three full-time gigs. (laughter) That’s sort of back-burnered for the time being. The music is still there, and the piece, at some point, I may try and get that on the boards. It’s written; it’s good to go. It’s a good piece, as well.
RR: Indeed. You also mentioned your development as a musician since Jerry passed away. Are you able to define Jerry’s enduring influence on your life and music?
BW: (long pause) You know…some day, I’m going to write a book. I owe it to myself, and I owe it to the world. And that’s something I’m going to have to address in the book. There’s nothing that I could say in a few minutes here…
Jerry was a genius, he was a bright, bright light, and he was one fun and engaging guy—whether it be music, or anything else that he was into at a given time. I still hear him when we’re playing. I still hear the crackle and sparkle of his harmonic and melodic sensibilities. It directs me. It’s not like he’s gone for me. He’s still there every time I pick up the instrument. That much I can say.