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Published: 2007/10/21
by Mike Greenhaus

Rob Barraco Comes Home Again

Rob Barraco may be the best thing to happen to the Grateful Dead family since the days of Jerry: he sings like Garcia, plays like Keith and has proven his knowledge of The Dead’s canon through stints with The Dead, The Other Ones Phil Lesh & Friends and, now, Dark Star Orchestra. Recently, the hard touring keyboardist also turned his attention to his solo work, re-releasing the album When We All Come Home from his short lived Dragonflys band under his own name. While still firmly rooted in the classic-rock sound, When We All Come Home finds Barraco playing around with a number of jazzy textures and placing particular emphasis on a set of lyrics provided by longtime Grateful Dead scribe Robert Hunter. Below, Barraco opens up about his new solo project, time with Dark Star Orchestra and how he finally warmed up to the work of Brent Mydland.

MG- Before releasing this album under your name, you issued When We All Come Home with the Dragonflys in 2005. Why did you decide to re-release this project as a solo album?

RB- It’s a funny thing about that. When I made the CD [in 2005] it really was my first solo CD. But, for whatever reason, at the time I had this you can all it “altruistic” view of things. I wanted to be part of a groupI really didn’t want it to be a solo project. So I put together this really great record and a band with Jimmy Herring, but I couldn’t afford to sustain it. So, after we did a tour, it hit me like, “I should of released this as a solo record.” So, after I amassed some money, I retooled it and re-released it under my own name. It is the same record, but I went all out this time and hired a company in Boston to release it to radio and we are actually in our 4th week of radio promotion and it is actually doing really well!

MG- While When We Come Home has a very “1970s” sound, it doesn’t necessarily sound like a Grateful Dead record. Did you intentionally try to veer away from the “Dead Sound” with this project?

RB- Yes. I really did not want to make a jamband record. If I wanted to make that kind of record, I would have made a live record. [Robert] Hunter wrote such beautiful lyrics for the record that I really wanted to focus on the songs so that the lyrics came across. My influences are so vastI am really coming from a jazz world more than any other. The bands I really looked up to growing up, besides The Dead when I was much younger, were groups likes Steely Dan and, of course, I was a huge John Coltrane freak, as well as all the modern jazz greats. To this day that is the stuff I really listen to.

MG- Can you talk about your collaboration with Robert Hunter? How did you approach your writing process together?

RB- We initially started with three songs. He wanted me to present him with two versions of the songs: one with a melody hummed, with very little orchestration, just me on the piano and maybe a bass track on it and another where I would present him with a very basic version of the track with no humming on it. After a month or so he e-mailed me and said he really felt like the music was speaking to him. So I made an appointment to come and see him at his house when I was out on the west coast, kind of in-between tours with Phil, and I was astounded at how he had really captured the vibe of the music. I really had to do very little editing to make it work. I looked at him and said, “Man…this exactly what I was looking forwould you do the rest and he said “definitely.” So I started sending him stuff and he would start sending stuff back.

MG- In addition to naming your band Drangonflys, on this disc you have an instrumental track titled “Cats and Dragonflies.” What does the dragonfly signify to you?

RB- For years, whenever I was in a moment of crisis or at a crossroads, I would look up and enviably there would be a dragonfly hovering around me. At first I didn’t think much about it but, then, I started looking around and they always were there. Someone I met a few years ago told me that dragonflies were arbiters of change and I really embraced that idea. I also have a really intense passion for cats, so when I wrote that instrumental song it really reminded me of the way cats prowl and the way dragonflies hover over the water.

MG- When We All Come Home’s other key player is Rob Friedman, who produced the album and plays a variety of instruments throughout the project. How did you originally become acquainted with Rob?

RB- Rob and I are friends. We have known each other for going on 30 years now. I was doing a project in New York in the late 1970s and the drummer knew him and called me and said, “I am going into the studio with this guy Rob and we need a keyboardist, are you interested?” So the first time I met him was on a train going into New York City and he really just blew my mind. I never had met someone with so much energy and focushe is just one of the best writers I have ever known and he is a really hard working producer. He works with Dan Zanes a lot and worked with him back in The Del Fuegos days.

The way this project came about was really interesting. After my time with The Dead ended, Warren Haynes contacted Butch Trucks from the Allman Brothers for me because Butch had a record label. Butch said he wanted to sign me and, one day, I got a call out of the clear blue sky from Butch. I’ve known Butch for years through Warren, but never to have him call me on the phone, so I was kind of shocked when he said, “Listen, Warren says I got to sign you, so I want to sign you to a contract.”

So, we got lawyers involved and while they were wrangling this thing out—-which took a lot of time—-I got antsy and decided to put up my own money, go into the studio and start this project. And halfway through the project Butch called me and told me he had lost funding for his label. It ended up being a good thing because now I have complete ownership of the project. I put up all the money myself, including going on the road and now promoting it on radio. It is a real homegrown project.

MG- When We All Come Home also includes “Ride Ride Ride,” which you co-wrote with Phil Lesh. How did that co-composition originate?

RB- Well, the way that worked is that Phil had come up with an idea. It was a little ditty in the studio one day and it actually surfaced a few times on a tour in a jam somewhere and then it was gone. It was a shame to let it languish because it was such a beautiful idea. So, I crafted a tune around it and it really worked with something I was writing at the time. I never even discussed it with him, I just gave him credit because he was never going to use it and otherwise it would have just died. To me it was perfect. The lyrics are also terrific. It is kind of Robert’s post-apocalyptic view of New York City after the whole 9/11 thing. He went through a personal tragedy because of 9/11 and that lyric really reflects that. It was important for me because that song was bubbling around in my head for so long and then Phil came up with that idea and I was like, “these ideas are married to each other.”

MG- Over the past few years you’ve also clocked in a number of tours with Dark Star Orchestra. Do you plan to play with DSO for the foreseeable future?

RB- After Dark Star’s keyboardist died, I got a call from their manager asking if I could fill in for some dates because they were desperate. They had a large touring schedule and they knew that if I came onboard we could just go out on the roadwe didn’t need to rehearse or anything. And after doing for the first tour I really enjoyed it because they play the music with such passionthere is no pretense. All these detractors says “they think they’re the Dead, they think they’re the Dead.” But they are just really good musicians who love playing this music. One thing I really love is that while we have this framework, inside of that framework, there is beautiful improvisation.

So on and off I was doing tours with them and doing Phil’s things. This year I found myself in a position where, obviously, Phil didn’t want to use me to do this tour he is doing and I needed to work and these guys really wanted to work with me. So, I made a commitment on a limited basis to tour with them for at least the rest of the year. We’ll see what happens beyond that, but in the meantime I am going to promote my record. If it keeps generating some interest and if I could get some funding I would hope to take this project on the road.

MG- Would you regroup the Draagonflys band you toured with a few years ago to promote this project?

RB- Rob Friedman definitely, though I am not sure which other players. Probably not Jimmy because he is too busy with Panic, but there are so many musicians I know that I’m sure I could come up with some compatible players.

MG- Looking back slightly, how do you feel your vast knowledge of the Grateful Dead has shaped Dark Star’s sound?

RB- One of the things I brought to the table as far as tunes go is that I pushed them to do some of the material The Dead never really did, like “Unbroken Chair.” The Dead did it in the 1990s, but it was really never that good, so we approached it as they would in the 1970s. Also, we do some of the Pigpen material that they never were doing, which I happen to love. Songs like “Alligator” and “Mr. Charlie.” We do a bunch of these “electives” where we make up a setlist, so I canwe candelve into that material doing those shows. They don’t do any shows from the 1960s normally though.

MG- Do you find it difficult interpreting the work of so many different Grateful Dead keyboardists on the same tour?

RB- I have to wear a lot of hats in this band, it is quite a challenge. The biggest challenge is doing the Brent-era material because he has a vocal range far beyond what I am capable of. But, what it has helped me do, is to develop a larger range. I had checked out of the Dead scene before Brent was even in the band. I saw some shows here and there, but I wasn’t enamored with Brent’s keyboard playing. A lot of it was where I was as a musicianI was way into the jazz thing. But Brent’s singing is phenomenalhe is one of the best white blues singers I have ever heard. He is in that pantheon with Gregg Allman and he wrote some beautiful, beautiful songs. “We Can Run” is a tremendous piece of music. The message is incredible, the melody is incredible and he sings with a lot of passion. I am really enjoying playing those songs.

I also like playing his songs because I get to play on some instruments I never get to play. Brent was using this modified Fender Rhodes in his early years and I got a hold of one of those. I had one of those years ago and I am kicking myself for selling it. They also got a hold of this instrument Brent had after that which has one of the most distinctive soundsa Yamaha GS1. He used it from ’82 through late ’86 and after that he started using a digital. The technology had got to the point where he could create better piano sounds with the digital. They actually own Brent’s GS1they bought it off his widow. I go through it and can hear all these sounds I heard from that era. When they do “Stranger” there is that sound. It is shaped just like a pianoit is really neat.

MG- Of all the Grateful Dead’s keyboardists, I’ve always felt your style is most akin to Keith Godchaux’s. Would you agree?

RB- My biggest influence was always Keith Godchaux. You know Keith was a jazz pianist before he joined The Dead. I talked to Donna about this extensively because I was really interested and, before he played in The Dead, he was playing in jazz trios and stuff. The stuff they were doing in ’72, especially the really long jams, you can hear the jazz influence coming through. In a lot of ways it really shaped that era for them. It set them up to start playing those Miles Davis jams in ’73 or ’74. The Dead being the eclectic players they were always made it sound like them, but it always reminded me of that Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis sound. I really attribute a lot of that to Keith’s playing.

MG- I’ve always felt you can trace The Dead’s stylistic evolution through its keyboardists.

RB- You really can. Pigpen was into the blues man—-it was really apparent—-and in a lot of ways when Brent came along they really reverted to the blues and R&B because that is where he was coming from. I think the Keith-era ran itself out after a while. Obviously, drugs ravished Keith’s life and he was no longer really contributing very much to the band and it seemed evitable that he was going to be gone. But those early years with himwowthat is some of the best music on the planet.

I saw most of my Dead shows in that era. I saw my first show in ’72 and a bunch of shows in ’73 and ’74 and a ton of shows in ’76 and, man, I don’t think I ever walked away from one of those shows disappointed. It was very rare they were off.

MG- Besides Tom Constanten who you’ve played with on several occasions, did you ever have an opportunity to talk with any of the Grateful Dead’s other keyboardists?

RB- The only keyboard player I ever talked to in that band was Tom Constanten. I played with him at a Rex Foundation benefit and he sat-in with the Zen Tricksters when I played in that band back in the day. Talk about an educated cat. Not only musically, but just universally. He is a great guy to talk to and a beautiful human being. He is willing to talk about any subject. We kind of skirted on the Grateful Dead, but we talked a lot about underlying theories of music and classical music. His approach to phrasing and what he does to prepare is very interesting. He doesn’t run circles around you like many musicians do. I never met Vince, Keith died well before I had any capacity to meet him and Brent as well.

MG- Finally, how do you feel your time with Phil Lesh influenced When We all Come Home’s sound?

RB- When he wrote the setlist, Phil approached each night with a message or thread or theme throughout it. I want to do the same thing with this record. That approach really made sense to me and really shaped this record. There is a consistency throughout.

Senior Editor Mike Greenhaus first saw Rob Barraco play at a Rainbow Foundation benefit at Wetlands while college. For a look at Rob’s former band the Zen Tricksters, please pickup a copy of Mike’s article the September/October issue of Relix.

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