Celtic Grateful Dead cover band Wake the Dead lead a music-filled weekend of St. Paddy’s Day fun.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
“When Irish eyes are smiling, ’tis like a morn in spring,” someone once said. “With a lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing.”
With a range of thematically appropriate music options spreading across the county this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, smiling eyes, Irish laughter and angelic songs should flourish like a happy patch of shamrock.
More than a decade ago, the Irish spirit enveloped Danny Carnahan in an unexpected way: He was playing his fiddle along with the Grateful Dead cranked up on his living room stereo.
“I found myself playing a hot Irish reel along with ‘China Cat Sunflower’ and I blew my own mind,” he says. “I said, ‘Wow, that totally worked.’ The meditative stuff of the Dead just seemed to work with 17th century Irish music.”
The more Carnahan thought about the unlikely marriage of the two types of music, the more sense it began to make. As he soon learned, Jerry Garcia and his longtime songwriting partner Robert Hunter happened to be tremendously influenced by the traditional music of the British Isles, a phenomenon that grows more apparent as the songs are stripped down. For instance, “Lady of Carlisle,” a ballad by Francis James Child from the 1800s, inspired the Dead’s “Lady with a Fan.”
Before long Carnahan, who plays mandolin, guitar and fiddle, sat down to jam through a little psychedelic Irish with Maureen Brennan (Celtic harp) and Paul Kotapish (guitar, mandolin and jaw harp). Within only a few hours, they realized they had enough material for an album and Wake the Dead, playing the Turf Club on Saturday, was baptized.
“The goal was to pull the songs away from the way the Dead did them and listen to them just as songs,” Carnahan explains. “All of the sudden, a lot of organizational and melodic possibilities presented themselves.”
Their self-titled debut – released on the Dead’s Arista Records label – begins with one of the Dead’s most well known tunes, “Friend of the Devil.” But Wake the Dead’s version incorporates elements of the traditional Irish jig “Banks of Lough Gowna” and the Russ Barenberg jig, “The Reunion,” resulting in layered goodness that delves into unchartered territory but still remains recognizable. Similarly, on Garcia and Hunter’s beautifully crafted “Stella Blue,” Wake the Dead is able keep the melody and prophetic lyrics intact while leaving their own imprint.
“We just let [‘Stella Blue’] roll along,” Carnahan says. “It already had a march feel to it and we paired it up with a regal pipe march that’s a thousand years old.”
The group also breathes Irish life into everything from Jefferson Airplane and the Youngbloods to Buffalo Springfield and Bob Dylan.
After 11 years together and three albums, the now-seven-piece outfit can claim a pioneering niche, and one the trail-blazing Grateful Dead – who glued together a conglomeration of blues, rock, jazz, folk, bluegrass, jugband, gospel and Celtic – could appreciate.
WAKE THE DEAD plays 7pm Saturday, March 17, at the Turf Club, Monterey County Fairgrounds 2004 Fairgrounds Road, Monterey. $20 adults; $15 military/students. 372-5863.