Photo Credit: Gillian Grisman
Does anything get the blood pulsing quite like a good setlist played with style and energy? “Don’t Let Go,” “Jackaroo,” “Catfish John,” “Grateful Dawg,” “Iko Iko” and “Gomorrah” was just a quarter of the material that appeared during the first frame of the Sam Grisman Project’s Jan. 6 tour opener in San Diego, Calif. The second set proved just as promising as renditions of “They Love Each Other,” “Shady Grove,” “Peggy-O,” “Dawg’s Waltz,” “I’ll Take A Melody” and more, permeated the seaside venue. Then as they trekked up the coast on their debut run, Sam Grisman, Ric Robertson, Aaron Lipp and Chris English maintained their momentum.
Harkening back to his father, David Grisman’s independent and intertwined catalog of covers and originals with Jerry Garcia, Sam, and his band have been selling out venues while playing just such material. Along the way, they’ve welcomed some notable guests too. Peter Rowan sat in on “Moonlight Midnight” at Mill Valley, Calif.’s Sweetwater Music Hall. Then, Dawg himself joined for much of the group’s acoustic presentation in Seattle, a gig which also featured an appearance by Italian guitarist Beppe Gambetta on “Freight Train.”
While the material might be the first thing to spark an interest in the Sam Grisman Project, the musicianship will keep listeners grooving from the show’s start to finish. Offering fiery electric numbers fueled by recognizable rhythms and fortified jams as well as acoustic performances in front of condenser microphones–creating an intimacy even within the full-capacity settings of most shows–the group’s live gigs are a guaranteed good time, not just because of their excellent choice in covers, but the level of skill in which they deliver it.
Fresh off the release of their debut EP, Temple Cabin Sessions Volume One,which features seven cuts of covers such as “Stealin’,” “Friend of The Devil,” “New Speedway Boogie” and “Mission in the Rain,” Sam Grisman Project are kicking it into full gear. After welcoming Billy Strings’ fiddler, Alex Hargreaves, on the Pacific Northwest leg of the tour, the band will continue to garner nostalgia on stage in Nashville, Tenn., on Feb. 7, before picking up a series of Colorado dates with their guest, mandolinist and electric tenor guitarist, Dominick Leslie.
Ahead of the Sam Grisman Project’s final Pacific Northwest tour dates, the group’s namesake spoke about the project, as well as his own musical development.
How did this came together?
This has been a concept that I’ve had for a little while. I have been a sideman and a bass player almost my whole life–I’ve been playing in bands since middle school–touring with my dad since I was maybe 13 or 14. I found my network of young musician friends going to a series of camps and festivals, mostly in the bluegrass scene. I grew up really passionate about music—“bass” was actually my first word.
I really aspired to play, and I grew up in an extremely musical environment. It was kind of a rude awakening. I vividly remember picking up a guitar as a three-year-old child and just sort of assuming because everybody else I’d seen in my life could pick up a guitar and effortlessly fall into making some pleasing music.
However, I soon realized it would require practice because everyone I knew was serious about this as an art form, and it really takes time to be able to articulate anything on any of these instruments. I was extremely encouraged growing up in the environment that I did, but I also I wanted to be good immediately because I heard all of this extremely high-level music at all times and from all angles.
The drive to practice is something that kind of came later to me when I encountered all of these younger kids who were also serious about music. I didn’t have a self-motivated practice. Also, my dad didn’t really want to push me too much; he didn’t want to discourage me from music. He tried to keep it enjoyable, but at the same time, my first learning experiences with music were pretty serious because my dad’s a serious musician.
Can you talk more about your early days learning alongside your father.
He’s not a bass player, but he has a very strong musical concept, and he basically wouldn’t teach me anything but this one song for about a year straight. He had gotten a cello from a family friend and tuned it in fourths like a bass would be tuned. We played this fiddle tune called “Sally Goodin,” which is one of the classics, an old-time traditional. I mean, there’s a version of it in every style. There’s a Texas swing version, the old-time musicians play it, the bluegrass musicians play it.
It was more strategic because there is only one chord change that happens in the song. So, he taught me this tune in G, and we focused on keeping time because the bass and the mandolin are the two counterparts in the bluegrass rhythm section that make up the core of the time. But really, the bass and the mandolin counterbalance each other. So my dad was teaching me how to groove for a year while playing this one song. He would play the melody, and I would have to play in time behind him. And he didn’t really sugarcoat it. He wasn’t a dick about it or anything, but he would constantly be telling me, “You’re rushing. You’re dragging,” and scrutinizing my playing to get me towards the right place.
Then after about a year of doing that, when I finally was keeping a groove on the instrument, he basically told me, “OK, well, this song is in A actually, and you’re going to have to learn how to use your left hand now.” One day he just put a bunch of tape on my fingerboard and showed me where I would have to put my left hand down to fret an A note. [Laughs.] And that’s what started the rest of my bass journey. I was maybe five.
On the topic of childhood, were you at an age where you understood the significance of your dad’s musical companionship with Jerry?
I was pretty young, but Jerry was probably my dad’s friend who came over the most to make music in the first part of my childhood. So I didn’t have any concept of how special that was. It just felt like my dad’s best friend coming over. I remember how the space felt when Jerry was around and a few key differences. It’s funny, the stuff that you remember as a child.
I also remember that my parents wouldn’t let anybody smoke cigarettes in the house, but whenever Jerry was around, he was smoking cigarettes. The house smelled like cigarettes and was filled with positive energy and laughter. And I remember the sound of Jerry’s laugh, which is probably reinforced by some of these great candid moments on some of these records that my dad put out.
When you said that, the first thing I thought of was the Shady Grove recording of “Dreadful Wind And Rain” when Jerry lets out a full belly laugh before cutting into the lyrics.
That’s awesome. We played “Wind And Rain” last night. We played in Santa Cruz, Calif., and there’s been bad flooding there for the last week or so. Somebody came up to the front of the stage during one of the acoustic moments in the set and said, “I live in a trailer in the forest, a lot of us have just been going through hell this last week, and I’ve been listening to the song, ‘Dreadful Wind And Rain,’ and it’s been really cathartic, and I’m wondering if you can play it.” We were running out of time, and the venue had a hard curfew. We were supposed to switch back to some electric stuff in our setlist to end the evening with some higher energy, but it seemed extremely important, so we played it.
Speaking of the band’s setlist, tell me about the arrangement of material you’re choosing to play during your live shows.
We’re pulling from three major catalogs. My dad’s catalog of Dawg music. Jerry’s catalog, which encompasses his songs from the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band–the traditional music that he exposed people to. Then we have Ric Robertson in the band, an incredible singer and songwriter, and one of my oldest, dearest friends. We met at mandolin camp when we were 14.So we’re doing some Ric Robertson originals.
We’ve got Aaron Lipp in the band as well, who is an unbelievable singer and songwriter. And he’s an incredibly high-level multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, keys, lap steel, banjo, basically anything you put in front of him. And Ric is a high-level multi-instrumentalist as well. He plays guitar, keys and mandolin.
We have a special mandola out on the road that we’ve nicknamed “Nelson Mandola,” It’s this 1914 Gibson Edge mandolin that my dad gave me for my 21st birthday. He recorded some Dawg as well as some Garcia music on it. And our drummer, Chris English, is a great singer. So we’re playing some of his original music too.
You’ve got Alex Hargreaves joining you on your Pacific Northwest run?
As a four-piece, it’s really easy to add a fifth member, and we’re very excited to have Alex in the mix. He’s featured on the EP.
That’s right, you all just released your first EP, Temple Cabin Sessions Volume One. What can you tell me about that?
Aaron Lipp, our multi-instrumentalist–wunderkind of the band–built a beautiful studio in Naples, N.Y., on a piece of land that he owns, it’s called Temple Cabin Studios. It’s just a beautiful wooden space. He’s got a bunch of nice microphones and he’s great at recording. We got booked for a festival called the Green Mountain Bluegrass [& Roots] Festival last summer. Our friend Jill Turpin is the promoter there, and she often hires bands that don’t really exist for a show. So she’ll have a concept for a group of people playing a certain body of material and then she’ll try to hire maybe all of their usual touring bands to come to the same place, and then she’ll hire a special group of musicians to play a certain record or something like that. She asked if I would put together some friends to play some of this Garcia/Grisman material. It was already something that I had been scheming on because Ric Robertson and I had been friends since 14.
That’s the material that appears on the EP. So we’ll probably see live renditions of “Stealin’,” “Friend of the Devil” and “Shady Grove?”
Aaron likes to sing different Garcia/Hunter songs than Ric likes to sing. There are different songs from the Old & In the Way catalog and the Garcia/Grisman catalog that resonated with each of us. There are certain tunes that I really want to sing. And there are certain tunes that Chris English really wanted to sing.
So we’ve been trying to expand our repertoire, and we’re just playing the stuff that turns us on the most, which is a little different than the most iconic, most accessible, most developed parts of the Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia catalog. We’re not really the band that’s going to do like “Help” > “Slip” > “Frank.” We love “Gomorrah.” We love “Peggy-O.” We’re playing a lot of Garcia/Grisman material that maybe those guys never performed live.
We’re playing stuff from Not For Kids Only, which was actually a concept record that was my mother’s idea. She thought it would be a great idea for Jerry to make a kid’s record because, in her view, she saw an entire populace of people who viewed him as their father figure. She thought it would be really meaningful for him to make a record of children’s music so that these folks could raise their kids on this on this music. She was my dad’s publicist in that era, and Entertainment Weekly wrote an article on my dad and Jerry working on this kid’s material. They took a photograph of my dad and Jerry on our porch playing music for a group of kids–my friends and me, including my dear friend Jack Moser, who’s out on the road with us right now, helping us sell merch and capture video. Jack and I were on the cover of Not For Kids Only because my mom just handed Jer this photograph from the Entertainment Weekly article, and he did the sketch for the cover in about 10 minutes.
Since we looped back to Jerry, when did your dad and Garcia first cross paths?
He knew Jerry well before the Grateful Dead existed or even the Warlocks. They met at a bluegrass festival in the early-‘60s. They were both traveling with their tape recorders to hear some first-generation bluegrass masters so that they could capture recordings and go back home and learn from them. That was the primary way they would do it back then because it was really hard to track down albums. So, if you wanted to learn a J.D. Crowe banjo solo, you would basically have to see Jimmy Martin and tape it. My dad had his contingent of passionate, young bluegrass fans from where he grew up in Passaic, N.J. And Jerry grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., and he had an analogous group of friends that he was traveling around with them. And you know, they met up in a parking lot and just jammed.
This was several years pre-Grateful Dead and the first time my dad came out to San Francisco. He was responsible for getting the Grateful Dead their first bit of national publicity. Someone interviewed him from Sing Out magazine when he got to the East Coast from the West Coast and he mentioned that his friend Jerry Garcia had started a band called the Warlocks. That was the first national publicity that the Warlocks got.
When my dad finally moved across the country in the late-‘60s, the Grateful Dead was already established, and he had friends in that band and also in Jefferson Airplane. He also drove across the country with one of the guys from Country Joe and the Fish. In that era, or right before that era, he had a rock-and-roll band with Peter Rowan called Earth Opera. They were signed to Elektra Records, and so were The Doors, Janis Joplin and Jeff Beck. They did a lot of touring with Jeff and The Doors and Janis and they sort of had a psychedelic, abstract string band-influenced rock-n-roll group, and they made two records.
On the topic of the Dead, have you performed with any of Jerry’s past collaborators? I’m almost certain I saw you in photos at Sweetwater Music Hall when Bobby Weir played there back in November.
Yes, that was actually the first time I ever met Bobby. It was a real honor to get to play some music with him. My girlfriend Rachel met [his manager] down in San Diego and sort of turned him on to our contingent music. He happened to be looking for a sub for a Bobby gig and he hired me. It was a real honor to get to play some music with Bobby. I had never actually met Jay [Lane]. So that was a treat, too!
You had mentioned your parents weren’t necessarily Deadheads. How did you start listening to the Dead’s music?
Basically, in middle school, I was starved for any non-acoustic music. I’ve always loved all the music that my dad has exposed me to, but I sort of started pilfering his record collection and looking specifically for stuff that had any electric instruments on it. My dad has a pretty broad taste in music, but he really doesn’t put much emphasis on the genres. He primarily listens to older acoustic music, but there are some outliers in there. He had a small rock-and-roll section in his CD library, which included, The Beatles, a couple of Jeff Beck records, and some James Brown. A couple of The Stones records and Elton John. Then he had this section that I discovered was just stuff that he had played on.
I had no concept who Jerry was or that he had been idolized by fans until I started kindergarten, in September after the August that Jerry passed.I do vividly remember the day that Jerry died. I was watching Gumby in the living room, sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, and I heard, like, an anguished scream coming from my parent’s bedroom. I heard my dad cry for the first time. It was simultaneously the first time I remembered dealing with death or loss. I just remember thinking, “Wow, it’s such a tragedy when somebody passes over.” And when they pass they just cover it on the news. I just thought that that was the norm.
Because you had only known him as a family friend?
I just thought, “Well, Uncle Jerry died, and when people die, it’s on the news because it’s a tragic happening.” Then, when I started kindergarten, a lot of elementary teachers–they were all really nice, mellow, you know, fun-loving sort of hippie folks. Basically, all of the teachers in my kindergarten were Deadheads who immediately started consoling me when I got to school. Like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” It was interesting. I’m sure they were just trying to do the right thing. But, it definitely gave me this awareness that people put Jerry on a pedestal, and they might put my dad on some sort of pedestal as well.
Perhaps the silver lining is that the music is still being performed, and Jerry’s legacy and the music he made with your father are still meaningful to the masses.
I think it’s really important to consider the song and that it means something different to everyone. We’re trying to do it justice in our own way. I’m encouraging everybody to just sound like themselves at all times. It’s really interesting to watch this happen because we’re playing all of this material that we have been loving individually for our entire lives. None of us have ever really been in any sort of Grateful Dead-adjacent project. I wouldn’t call this a tribute project but it is a tribute to the material.
We are finding ourselves stretching out more than we normally would in other contexts. We’re naturally just in the spirit of things, playing more transitions and not stopping between songs. We’re learning a lot from the music. We’re just kind of keeping our ears open and [trying to] approach everything with integrity. We’re not necessarily, going to play everybody’s requests. But we really do appreciate what people want to hear. It’s really encouraging to be out there, playing “Jenny Jenkins” on a condenser microphone in a crowded bar for a bunch of folks, who have never seen anybody sing “Jenny Jenkins.” They’ve just been listening to Not For Kids Only for the last 25-30 years. It’s a treat, to get to see people sing along with this stuff. It’s a bit like church for all of us.
I love that. What’s next after your Pacific Northwest Tour dates?
We’re going to Colorado in February for about two weeks. We’re playing in a few ski towns like Paonia, Crested Butte and Buena Vista. We’re also playing in Boulder, Colo, and in a town right next to Colorado Springs called Manitou Springs. Then our last show in Colorado is at Ophelia’s in Denver. We have those dates in Colorado in February and then we’re basically, two weeks on two weeks off from here on out, for the foreseeable future. We’re going to play at a new venue in East Nashville that has a lot of promise to be a really cool place. It’s called Riverside Revival. And it’s a nice sized room, it’s right around 400 people and, it’s going to be the first time we’re playing in Nashville. We have so many dear musician friends there, it should be a really special night–we’re sharing the bill with our great friend Logan Ledger.
I think lots of people are really going to dig this project.
I think there are going to be folks in every market across the country who are going to be really enthusiastic about this material and the way we’re putting it across because there’s no bullshit in our whole contingent. We really love each other, we really love the music and we really hope that comes across.