The Wheel (and The Lazy Susan) Is Turning For Rob Barraco
You could say that Rob Barraco is living out a dream. From being a fan of the Grateful Dead in his teen years to playing with the ex-members of the Dead as an adult, Barraco gives a well-rounded perspective that combines his days as a fan only to decades of re-interpreting the legendary San Francisco's band's music.
Just as he was making a larger impression on a national scale with the Zen Tricksters, Barraco was chosen by Phil Lesh to perform as one of his Friends. When Lesh stuck with a core group of musicians, Barraco stayed to offer his talents on keyboards and vocals. His good-natured personality and enthusiasm to continue to learn soon led him to using a Hammond B3 for the first time on more Phil Lesh & Friends dates.
With the re-emergence of the Other Ones, the post-Grateful Dead group featuring four of the group’s core members Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart last August at Alpine Valley Music Theatre and now, on a fall tour, Barraco is able to stretch his skills in further directions.
We talked on the phone, before TOO’s Continental Arena performance and discussed his interest in the Dead as a teenager, the influence of Keith Godcheaux, future projects, Robert Hunter and, of course, playing in the band.
JPG: First off from Your perspective, how’s the tour going?
RB: It’s been wonderful. The band is so powerful. It’s like a dragon, man. (slight laugh) It’s a fire-breathing dragon sometimes with wings spread out and just takes off. It’s something else. I never expected it to be this powerful.
I’ve done the Phil Lesh & Friends thing for a couple of years and I love that band very much. When we first started rehearsing with this it was so different from Phil Lesh & Friends and it took me by surprise. I thought it would be similar.
Of course, it’s not anything like it. These guys have a completely different direction. Bob Weir especially. I’ve never worked with anybody who will turn on a dime and just change the entire landscape. It’s like, ‘WHOA! God, you’ve got brass balls, dude.’ But it’s awesome. It sounds wonderful. The vocals are great. Now we have Susan Tedeschi out with us. That’s working out real well. We’ve been tearing the roof off these joints.
JPG: I was going over the set lists for the first four shows…to start the tour off with "St. Stephen" pretty much says something.
RB: That was pretty powerful. We had the first show, it was a good show, but I think we needed to get our confidence up. You have to adjust to that big sound after rehearsing in a small place, it kind of takes you away. You need to reel it in. By the second or third show, by Albany we were just cranking ‘em.
JPG: Although you did the shows at Alpine, there still was an adjustment period?
RB: To put it in perspective it’s like a relationship with a woman. You get to know a woman. The first time you’re together, you’re both on your best behavior. It’s tentative, you don’t really know each other, you don’t want to say the wrong thing, you don’t want to do the wrong thing. Same thing here. Everybody’s just feeling each other out. It takes time.
We only did two shows at Alpine. We got back together and rehearsed for two weeks. We’ve done five shows now. That’s not a lot. Think about how many shows those guys did. But they’re getting reacquainted with each other, too. Being apart all those years you almost forget. Those links, those threads that they carried with them all those years are back. The rest of us, we’re still getting to know these guys.
As Phil said, It’s like putting on an old pair of shoes and realizing you could still run in them.’
The music is sucking us all in each night wherein you’re starting to know where it’s going even though you don’t know where it’s going to end up. You’re getting a feeling to where it’s going. I predicted about the 11th show of this tour it’s just going to swallow the cities up. Last night was just awesome. Boston, Boston geez…
JPG: I know that Zen Tricksters are based out of New York and you’re from Long Island. So whenever you’re in the area with Phil Lesh & Friends or now with the Other Ones, how does it feel to play near home?
RB: Awesome. It’s the most awesome feeling. When I saw the Dead for the first time, which is going back to ’72. I saw them at a theater in New York at the Academy of Music. The thought always crosses your mind, these guys are my idols, how awesome would this be for me to be in a musical situation and play these places. As I got older and went to the Garden and Nassau Coliseum, I always imagined it, but in my wildest imaginations I never imagined I’d be doing it with these guys. It’s like a double whammy. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s just so wonderful to be able to have my kids come. They just get so blown away by it all.
JPG: What has their reaction been?
RB: I have a daughter who’s 18. She’s in college. They both grew up listening to The Grateful Dead even though they’re both into their own things. They’re both musicians. My daughter plays the piano. My son, who’s 14 is an awesome percussionist/drummer. They’re familiar with the music. My son is going to lose his mind when he walks on that stage and sees Mickey and Billy’s percussion set up. It’s like it was with The Dead, that big huge beast back there. He’s just going to be in heaven.
My daughter called me last week and said, Dad, I’m walking to class and I’m hearing people say, "Did you get tickets to the Garden? Did you get tickets to the Garden?" It’s just so unbelievable. You’re famous!’
JPG: So they’ve outgrown that phase where anything your parent does, it embarrasses them.
RB: (laughs) Oh yeah, now I’m cool.
JPG: By the way, when you mentioned about going to Nassau Coliseum shows, were you at the "Go to Nassau" show? The live set that the Dead put out recently?
RB: Uh, probably. I’m not positive of the date, what was it 1980? More than likely I was. You know it’s funny, as I grew into an older teenager and in my early 20s, I was inundated with school and playing. The more I started playing, the less shows I could see. So after ’77… I saw the bulk of my shows between ’72 and ’78. After that, I saw very few shows ‘cause I was always working. I wanted to go. Catch a show occasionally.
As the Grateful Dead, as the band advanced, it was strange because you need to see a series of shows in order to catch a real gem. Back in the 70’s almost every show was. I remember seeing a whole slew of shows in ’77 in the spring. One of the most awesome runs they ever had. I saw about six shows in a row, and every show was just, they were all different. Different energies, different songs, different jamming, but they were all great. I skipped out of school. I said, ‘You know what? I need to do this.’ That was the last time I ever went out touring. After that, I’d catch a show here and there. Never more than maybe two in a row.
JPG: When you went back to school did you go for a music degree?
RB: Yeah. Music Ed degree. I did it for my parents. I didn’t do it for myself. I had no desire to ever really be a teacher even though I did teach privately for 10 years in a music school. I always knew I was going to be a performer. State University of New York in New Paltz. It’s a great party school.
JPG: I saw you a couple times with the Zen Tricksters, back then you were playing Grateful Dead tunes interspersed with your originals. It’s cool to see your ascendancy from being a fan to someone who is in a band that throws in a few Dead tunes in with the originals then to Phil and Friends and now this.
RB: It’s pretty magical. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the universe for my good fortune. Look I could still be on the road in a van with a trailer. That’s what put me here, you know? I hate to say, ‘I paid my dues.’ I never expect anything in life. Some people expect things. I did this, I should get this.’
Okay, you’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to be at the right place at the right time. But, ultimately, it’s not about those things. You’re trying to be true to your art, to the music. I would still be doing the van and trailer thing if I wasn’t doing this. I’d have to play. That’s why I need to probably start my own band next year because the amount of time I’m getting to play has diminished greatly. Phil & Friends, I think the most shows we did in a year maybe about 70 or so. For me, that’s not enough. I need to do 125. With the Tricksters we were doing 200. When you get a steady diet of that. It’s like an addiction. I need it and I have to have it.
JPG: You get in a groove.
RB: It’s nice having the time off because you can get creative and write. Another goal of mine in my life was to find a really good lyricist to work with. I don’t fancy myself a great lyricist but I write a lot of music. I’m writing with Robert Hunter now. You couldn’t ask for a better lyricist. We just finished writing six songs together and we’re going to work on more stuff.
JPG: Well I agree with a statment of yours I read that Robert Hunter and Bob Dylan are the greatest lyricists of the 20th Century. The depth of Hunter’s words…whether it’s gaining wisdom with the advance of years, but I noticed more and more things within the framework of his songs as I got older.
RB: I’m sure there are plenty of people who want to write with him. I just got lucky. I approached him when we played the Greek last year and I said, ‘I’ve got a bunch of songs and I’d really love to give em to you.’ And he was real receptive. What a wonderful guy! Warm and hanging out with him is awesome because he’s a great storyteller. One of the things I love about his lyrics and what you just said, to play upon that theme, as you get older your experiences change and the lyrics change to fit your new knowledge. It’s so multi-level.
We wrote this one song and he said to me, This song’s got three levels to it.’ And he’s explaining it to me. I’m like, ‘Damn. This is deep.’ (laughs)
JPG: Speaking of working together, as far as I have known your work, you’ve been the sole keyboard player. Now with the Other Ones, you’re working with somebody else, how have you been able to adapt in that situation?
RB: It’s very interesting. Jeff [Chimenti] is a really talented guy and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Instantly, the first time we sat down and started playing together, it just clicked. We’re able to play around each other. Obviously, we’re playing different instruments at the same time. For me it’s a thrill to be able to play piano and hear the organ. I grew up with that. Everything had that — r&b, gospel. We’ll switch off. There’s specific tunes he wants to play piano on, fine, I’ll play clavinet. We have electric piano up there. We have synthesizers. He has this whole barrage of keyboards. We just take turns and go around it. It’s worked. We haven’t had any hitches at all.
When they first told me I would be playing with another keyboard player, I kind of looked at it as This was going to be weird. I’d never did it in my life.’ except maybe somebody who’d sat in, Page McConnell sat in with Phil and Friends once and that was cool.
JPG: But let’s face it. You’ve worked on your own for a long time. It could be a blow to your ego…
RB: Yeah, I mean, you can’t help it. But you know what? The bottom line is if it works, then you can overlook it. It really has worked. Plus, he’s the salt of the earth. Hanging with him is wonderful. Plus, he’s a great musician.
We both have a lot to learn from each other. That’s what really makes all of this worthwhile. You’re constantly learning. You’re playing with people, they’re on different levels and there’s always something to learn. I like playing with [guitarist] Jimmy Herring the last couple of years. God, what the two of us have learned off of each other is just invaluable.
JPG: Watching you and Jeff at the Terrapin Station shows, it was almost like musical chairs, with the two of you moving from one keyboard to the other. I don’t know how tight that spot was where the keyboard set up was, but…
RB: Well, it’s cool now. We were on a riser for those shows. We’re on the ground now. We have a little more room cause I told Robbie Taylor, our stage manager, I want you to build us a lazy susan so that we could just push it and just move around in a circle. We can get it so we can go kind of fast and just keep playing different keyboards around the circle.’
JPG: That would be a great idea, just spinnin’ around.
RB: If we get dizzy you know what, that might be good too.
JPG: All these atonal things would come out. Back to Terrapin, did you approach things as a peer, as a musician as well as a fan.
RB: I think I’ve moved well beyond the fan. After playing with Phil just for a little while, it becomes part of your life. That’s how you view it. Your perspective as a fan is lost at that point.
It’s funny cause I have a lot of knowledge about the Grateful Dead. They’ve joked about it for years now. Rob did we do it like this or did we do it like this?’ Depends on what year you’re talking about guys.’ It’s a big joke. Rob, the Grateful Dead historian.
I don’t view it from the fan aspect at all. I can’t. When we get onstage, as soon as the first note happens, I’m sucked in just trying to be in the moment is difficult enough.
JPG: Other than fall tour hinging on how well the fans behaved themselves at Terrapin, was there the sense, not just the importance of it all, for the band to catch the wave and ride it, but were you also able to sense the atmosphere of 35,000 people and what they brought to you?
RB: Oh yeah, in the biggest possible way. First of all those guys, I think the last couple years they’ve had a rough go of it through business and whatever. I think they wanted to do it for themselves cause I felt like they owed it to themselves. Even if this is the last thing we ever do, we got to let this go out on a positive note. So, let’s do these shows.’
Again, like I was talking about before with new relationships you’re always on your best behavior, everybody was being very respectful of each other. It was a wonderful scene. I’m backstage and there’s like love in the air. Then you add these 35,000 people who are just so ecstatic to see it. You could feel it, man. I had tears in my eyes. That first song started and tears going down, I can’t believe this is happening. This is so awesome.’
JPG: Especially Sunday. Sunday just seemed to peak immediately and stayed there.
RB: We got the kinks out of the sound and also got the confidence that Hey, we can do this. Good.’ So, that show rocked.
JPG: I mentioned this to Mickey Hart when I interviewed him, it was just so wild to see the band take a bow and then take it even higher with the group hug and jumping up and down.
RB: It was all genuine. Mickey was screaming We got a great band. We’ve got a great band.’ So everybody’s jumping up and down.
We do like a football huddle before we go up onstage now. Go team!’ kind of thing. It’s really cool. What a wonderful bunch of guys. Everyone of them.
JPG: Absolutely, I guess the last thing is, as far as the future goes you talked about some solo work, some solo touring, but what would you like to see whether it be Phil & Friends or The Other Ones do as far as future?
RB: I’d like to see both of them do something. I don’t know what Phil’s plan is. He said to me, looked me in the eye and said, Hey Phil and Friends is not over.’ But I think that Phil is probably going to want to experiment, do something maybe a little different. He’s being closed lipped, but I’m sure The Other Ones are going to do more playing. I don’t know this for sure, of course. It could change on a daily basis. I bet we tour next summer.
My hope is that Phil & Friends will do something even if it’s a small little run in the spring. That would be awesome. In the meantime, I’d like to do a two week run here, a two week run there with, maybe, different groups of musicians. That’s what I’m toying around with now. I’ve talked with a whole bunch of people. I know Jimmy Herring and I talked a lot about playing together. We really want to do something. And I’m thinking when he’s done, he’s got some commitments, but in May he’s going to be free. So I figure maybe we can get together and rehearse in April and go out in May. John Molo is just chomping at the bit to do something.
I’ve thought about maybe asking Warren Haynes if he wanted to do a little something. There’s so many guys. Plus, I know so many musicians from growing up that I’ve always kept in the back of my head, God that guy would be awesome to do this with or that with.’ I’d like to do an acoustic thing with a cello player. This is all running through my head every day now. By the end of this tour, I think I’m going to get it together and start making some phone calls and see who is interested.