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Published: 1999/01/15
by Dean Budnick

Gans Goes Solo

B- You have an upcoming east coast tour but what are your plans after that?

G- I’m looking at touring every two weeks out of every two months or so because I’m an old married guy. It’s not like being twenty years old out on the road. Plus I have my responsibilities with the Grateful Dead Hour. I’m building my reputation and getting people to come out and listen to my stuff. I’m not out there with a “this is the famous Deadhead and he’s doing a Dead cover” solo act. I do have a bunch of Dead tunes in my repertoire but I am not presenting myself explicitly to the Dead audience, although I try to make sure that those people know that they’ll probably like what they hear.

B- What can people expect when they come out and see you?

G- My repertoire is about fifty percent originals. Some of the songs I have written are directly related to the Dead Head touring experience and that’s something that’s really important to me. I felt that as an electric guitar player I was way back in a field that was dominated by terrific musicians and so that wasn’t where my future lay. I decided to go back to my real strengths which are songwriting and singing. So I’ve decided to strip it down to the bare essentials, me and my songs. I’ve developed a presentation that I’m happy with.

Along with my originals there’s a very seventies-centric repertoire. I have a couple of Jackson Browne songs, a Randy Newman song, John Prine, a few Bob Dylan songs, one Los Lobos tune, even an Elton John song or two. Lately I’ve been comfortable enough on stage that I’ll ask for requests. People will call out things, such as some of tunes that the Dead did in their acoustic sets, and I know a lot of them. Another thing I do that I’m very proud of and borrows from the Dead experience is I’ll string songs together as a sort of a one-man-jam. I’ll link songs together, putting the songs together in different ways or, for example, I’ll use “Wharf Rat” as a framing device. I’ll also do even longer extended instrumentals out of songs like “Cassady” now that I’m becoming more confident and assertive. I bought a new guitar in November that’s really helping things along.

B- I’m curious, what sort of reaction have you received to your song “Monica Lewinsky?”

G- That’s been a real show-stopper. There was one show in my September tour that took place in a sports bar. The back half of the room was watching a Cubs game while the front half was up with me. But when I did ‘Monica,” I got everybody’s attention. So sometimes it would be the song I could use to grab everybody and then if I was doing a good job I could keep them until the end of the set. I have a few other songs like that, aggressively funny songs. My natural inclination is towards balladry so I like to do the funny, upbeat tunes to balance that out.

B- Do you think you carry any particular responsibilities or stigma as perhaps the world’s most famous Deadhead?

G- It’s a double bind. I sometimes felt I should look outside the Grateful Dead for my audience, because Deadheads are predisposed to thinking “hey he’s a radio guy, why does he have a guitar, who does he think he is.” But then, outside in the real world people say, “oh he’s a Dead Head, I bet his music sucks.”

Grateful Dead taught me a lot. Many of the things I love best about music I learned from the Grateful Dead, about keeping it real and being honest. There are a lot of jam bands out there that are taking pieces of what the Grateful Dead did but they’re not taking it all. I may not be the kind of guitar player who blows people’s minds like a Steve Kimock, but I deliver a ballad with a lot of tenderness and truth.

When I look at the repertoire that I have and think about how I’m presenting myself, in many ways it really goes back to before I ever heard of the Grateful Dead. But then again I am one of Jerry’s kids. My entire adult existence has been spent listening to that music and making it part of my life. It would be ridiculous of me to pretend that it’s not. It would be foolish of me to ignore some of the best songs that I have heard in my life.

B- In terms of your association with the Dead, I’m sure a lot of people would love to know, what criteria do you use in deciding what to play on the Dead Hour, week to week?

G- I try to keep the context moving. skipping around from era to era, genre to genre. I have my favorites. I’m sort of a “Dark Star” geek but I’m also an “Other One” geek. And I get requests every day. People will mail me and say, “could you play so and so, it was my first show.” I’ll write back and say “well what about it makes it good?” And if they can come back and explain that to me, then I’ll go listen to it.

I also have a relationship with Dick and the vault. He’s got great material. He goes through stuff and suggests things for release and at any given moment there are piles of stuff that he thinks are really good. If some of those aren’t going to be used for whatever reason, then he’ll give some to me. And I have my own favorites. I like unusual combinations. If you want to know what my playlist will be ahead of time you can look at my web page. But if you want to be surprised, I almost never tell you at the beginning of the show what’s going to be on it. I like to play interesting combinations: “Scarlet” not into “Fire” but into “Bucket” or “Help On The Way” into “Fire.” I try to come up with what people on the Grateful Dead Hour mailing list want to hear and I also try to come up with things that nobody’s ever heard before. Every once in a while Dick will give me something that’s not in circulation and I’ll listen to it and it’s mind-blowing. I like to put that stuff on when I can because every once in a while you want to blow the minds of the hard-core.

B- Is there any particular show or version of a song that you’ve been dying to play but for any particular reason you haven’t been able to get it on the air?

G- I think the outstanding example would be the Ornette Coleman jam from February of ninety-three. I’ve never been able to get Ornette’s permission. He’s very picky about letting his stuff be heard and I’m very respectful. Most people who sit in with the Dead don’t mind but I understand. It’s too bad because I have a wonderful interview with Jerry, Phil and Gary Lambert talking about Ornette. I always thought it would be great to turn on the younger Deadhead audience to Ornette and I would have played some stuff from one of his records but I couldn’t get permission to do it.

I also can’t play any of the Dylan and the Dead stuff because Dylan doesn’t want his stuff to be broadcast. Mostly whatever else I can get my hands on is okay to play.

B- What about the current wave of jam bands? I know you’ve played with a number of them, who are some of your favorites?

G- I like moe. quite a bit. I have to admit though that sometimes when I play with them, and I’ve jammed on stage with them many times, those guys are so huge that I feel lost. At the Gathering of the Vibes I went on stage with Strangefolk who had done me the honor of learning one of my songs, that was a thrill. They’re really great guys and the thing I like about them is their song orientation; they’re not necessarily so much into the big heavy jam. I’ve really formed a friendship with Gibb Droll as well. He’s a talented player and a very intense guy. Another band I really love from having seen them a couple of times is Donna The Buffalo. Then from sort of the Dead-cover corner, you have the Zen Tricksters. I have played with them before and that’s like getting a ride on a Harley, they are so powerful. I’ve seen the Disco Biscuits a couple of times and I really liked them. I’m anxious to see what happens with the Ominous Seapods, although on some level I’m secretly happy about it because I would love to work with Max Verna. I’d love to do some touring with him where we would each do our solo acts. I’d love to do some writing with him as well because I think that he may be the single most brilliant musician of that generation. Also, Puddle Junction from Chico – they’re a very good hippie band.

I have to say though, Dean, that I have sort of stepped away from the jam bands now that I have started focusing on my solo acoustic touring. I find that I’m a little bit less interested in twenty minute jams and a bit more interested in songs. You had an essay on songwriting and what was lacking in the jam band scene which I thought was right on the mark. There are very few bands out there that have the ability to make me cry the way that a Hunter-Garcia composition can make me cry.

B-Is that your ultimate goal as a song writer?

G- Sure, in part. Although I also have songs that make people laugh, and I have a few songs that make people dance. The trick is to appeal to all of those things. The thing that the Dead had that very few other acts have ever had is versatility. They appeal to the brain, they appeal to the solar plexus, they appeal to the butt and they also appeal to the heart.

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