The surviving members of The Grateful Dead celebrated the iconic American band’s 50th anniversary with three sold-out “Fare Thee Well” shows at Soldier Field last summer. The events signaled the end of an era, billed as the final performances to feature Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart together.
The four principals may have collectively stepped away, but Deadheads have another reason to gather the tribe. Following a year off, the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration featuring Warren Haynes resumes, including Sunday’s performance at the Ravinia Festival. Haynes is acclaimed for his tenure with the Allman Brothers Band, his jam band Gov’t Mule, and stints with The Dead in the early 2000s. The Chicago Philharmonic will provide orchestration.
Although Haynes has proven himself adept at slotting into disparate musical situations, he cites the symphonic setting as a particularly welcome test of his adaptability. “It’s a different world for me,” he says. “The symphony is reading sheet music, and they have to do it exactly the way it’s written. There’s no flexibility. It’s not what I’m used to, but it’s a challenge I very much enjoy. It’s so powerful in the right moments when it all comes together.”
The Dead were revered for their ability to improvise, making the structured symphonic approach seem antithetical to Garcia’s music. Haynes explains that in addition to being validated by the late guitarist’s personal interest in the format, the Garcia Symphonic Celebration has innovated to allow musical freedom.
“There are three ways we’re able to maintain the spirit of improvisation that was such a big part of Jerry’s music and The Grateful Dead’s music,” says Haynes. “One is by having times when the symphony stops playing. The electric band can improvise, and cue the symphony to come back. Another way is for me to improvise to what the symphony is playing, while what they’re playing is orchestrated. The most unique aspect takes improvisations that the Grateful Dead played live and writes them into the score. So, what the symphony is reading was originally improvised by the Grateful Dead. That takes the music to a unique place that I think people aren’t used to hearing symphonies go.”
Performances with The Dead and bassist Phil Lesh’s band have allowed Haynes to play in the Dead’s original style with the original musicians. Work with the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration provides a unique opportunity to explore certain songs from very different perspective. Ironically, Haynes cites an example where the symphonic arrangement might be more familiar.
“The version the symphony is doing of ‘Terrapin Station’ goes back to the original recorded version [from 1977], which had an orchestra,” says Haynes. “I don’t think the band has played it that way since then.”
New set list additions are promised for this year’s Celebration. Haynes is reluctant to spoil surprises, but he describes one song that earned a secure position. “Toward the end of the last tour, we added an arrangement of ‘Blues for Allah,’” says Haynes. “I’ve always loved that tune, and hearing it played with a symphony was truly incredible. We only did it a handful of times then, so we’ll be bringing that back.”
In addition to playing the Garcia’s music, Haynes will be playing Garcia’s famous “Wolf” guitar. Garcia played the Doug Irwin-designed guitar with the Grateful Dead at various times from 1973 to 1993.
“When I first heard that the possibility existed for me to play that guitar, I was very excited,” says Haynes. “I was thinking I’d play it on three or four songs. Once I plugged it in, I thought, ‘No, I can play this on every song.’ I felt like it put me one step closer to that music.”
Haynes has a busy season with his various projects. Gov’t Mule is preparing new material, releasing a fiery set of early demos called “The Tel-Star Sessions,” touring and co-headlining The Peach Music Festival in August alongside other bands sharing ties to the Allman Brothers. Haynes’ solo band will tour Europe during gaps in the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration schedule, supporting 2015’s “Ashes and Dust” album. He estimates he’ll be juggling “well in the hundreds of songs” this summer, but he wouldn’t have it otherwise. “It’s fun,” Haynes says. “That’s what I like to do.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.