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Published: 2009/07/31
by Brian Robbins

Mark Karan: Tempered By The Fire

Though he was already a seasoned pro by then (with a resume that included musical journeys with the likes of Dave Mason, Huey Lewis, and the Rembrandts), Bay Area guitarist Mark Karans career really took a turn for the jam when he was added to the Other Ones roster in 1998. Karan (and fellow unsung guitar hero Steve Kimock) faced the formidable task of filling the Jerry role as the surviving members of the Grateful Dead returned to live performances as a group for the first time since Garcias death in 95.

Lesser hands wouldve cranked up the envelope filters and digital delays and tried to mimic Garcias tone and licks, but Karan and Kimock both handled the situation tastefully, capturing the heart and vibe of the songs while retaining their own voices. Bob Weir was impressed enough by Karans talents to draft him for duty in RatDog in the fall of 98. Karans ability to not only hold his own in a spotlighted solo, but to comfortably nestle into the ensemble jam setting that RatDog is known for made him a natural for the job.

When not out on the RatDog bus, Karan’s other main musical focus for years has been his own band, Jemimah Puddleduck. Featuring Bob Gross (Albert King, Delaney Bramlett) on bass, JT Thomas (Bruce Hornsby) on keys, John Molo (Phil Lesh & Friends) on drums and Karan on guitar and vocals, a Jemimah Puddleduck setlist will routinely include everything from Karan-penned originals to classic R&B and raunchy funk covers with big slathers of jam spread over it all.

Karan faced the challenge of his life in 2007 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. A long siege of treatment kept him from performing live for nearly a year (Kimock stepped in on guitar with RatDog in the interim), but by spring of ’08, Karan was back on the road – and in the studio working on the first solo album of his career. The recently-released Walk Through The Fire is a great representation of what Mark Karan is all about – good vibes; cool groove; smiles; good tears; and, most of all, a lot of heart. We recently had an opportunity to talk with Mark Karan while he was home between ‘Dog and ‘Duck gigs. Although the main focus was his new album, the conversation covered matters far and wide – from old friends (and even older guitars) to whistling and natural grease. And throughout it all, Karan’s wit, humor, graciousness, and just general good vibes reigned supreme. The man has been there and back – but never lost the wob-bop-a-loo-bop in his stride.

I’ll spare the reader the first few minutes of our interview; I’ll only say that most of you folks should be thankful you’re not trying to do this sort of thing with a Downeast Maine accent. (Note to MK: Remember – it’s no’theast, man. Not nor’east.) Eventually, between roars of laughter, we got so we could actually communicate …

BR: Okay – down to business: when did you actually start working on Walk Through the Fire?

MK: That depends on how you want to calculate it: if we’re talking about when I wrote the first song that’s on the album, that would be about … oh … 35 years ago? (laughs) I was about 19 when I wrote “Bait The Hook.” But as far as working on the actual record, that process started about 4 years ago. We were down at JT’s place – he’s got a great little studio in LA – and we tracked, maybe, 6 or 7 songs as a jumping-off point for a Jemimah Puddleduck record.

From there, between my schedule with RatDog, John’s with Phil and Friends – and John Fogerty, too – and JT touring with Bruce Hornsby and whatnot, it was almost impossible to get us all in the same room to work on the record, you know? Then the cancer hit, and when I came out on the back side of that experience, I had a sense that it was time to get on with the album. As much as I love Jemimah Puddleduck, as much as I love the guys in the band, I simply felt like I didn’t have the time or the interest in waiting any longer. I knew I had to go ahead and get working on the record; the Dead were out on their reunion tour, which freed up my time … it was my window of opportunity and I had the enthusiasm of having just come through the cancer treatment and feeling healthy and really ready to do something. I decided to move ahead with the album and shift the focus, make it a Mark Karan record and get it done … I felt like I had something to say. We ended up keeping four of the original full JP tracks and going on from there.

Bob Gross had some health issues and wasn’t available to play bass at that point; and as much as I love Bob, I just had to dive in. That’s how Hutch Hutchinson wound up being called in to do the bass tracks on the remainder of the tunes. We just jumped right in: a couple of sessions up here in the Bay Area, then another 2- or 3-day session down at JT’s place to finish up basic tracks … I did everything else here at my house.

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