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Published: 2012/01/21
by Mike Greenhaus

Bill Kreutzmann: Fulfilling Jerry Garcia’s Promise

Shifting to 7 Walkers, in past interviews you have mentioned that you enjoy playing in the band because it gives you an opportunity to play something besides just classic Grateful Dead songs but 7 Walkers does play a number of Dead chestnuts. How do you approach choosing what Dead originals the band covers?

Bill: Papa chooses them. He will come up and say, “Bill how do you feel about doing this song.” And when he does, that means he feels good about singing it. He usually only picks songs that he feels comfortable singing. Papa does a great job doing Jerry. He is really believable. When we do Grateful Dead songs it doesn’t sound like the Grateful Dead but it is still acceptable, and I think people really like it. Hell, I am the drummer, and I am playing with these great bass players so I am as happy as can be. Papa used to sing “Sugaree” before George joined us and, once George sang the song, he owned it and Papa wouldn’t sing it anymore.

*George, how familiar were you with the Grateful Dead’s songbook before you joined 7 Walkers and what have you learned from dipping into their repertoire? *

George: I think, if anything, I am learning songs from a group that, musically, I had never heard, and the couple songs that I had heard we don’t even play yet, though I played “Not Fade Away” with Russell Batiste. But I wasn’t aware of the total musical history of the Grateful Dead.

I played with Mickey [Hart] at one point a year or two ago so I learned some pieces of music from him. But what I enjoy about this band is not trying to re-produce the Grateful Dead music. I am being allowed to approach the songs how they feel for me. With Mickey, I wasn’t allowed that—he was a stickler for the songs being like the Grateful Dead played them. Though he knew from the start I wasn’t going to play like the bass player did—I am a pocket player. But I have been stretching because of the way Bill plays. If I don’t stretch then I am out there by myself. So I better jump in and have some fun with him ‘cause he is having fun. Bass and drums have to be a single unit, that is how I feel about music. Even drummers I don’t like, I’ve gotten in their pocket. Everyone else in the band can go wherever else they want.

How did you and George first meet?

Bill: It was through 7 Walkers. We played the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, a nice room they have there, and I was really intimidated to meet him, actually. It is a funny story: I always loved The Meters and how funky those cats are. Reed Mathis, the bass player we had, couldn’t make it to a big show so Papa said, “I asked George Porter to sub.” I was like, “Really?” I was intimidated, man [Laughter]. But he was such a sweetheart, in addition to being a great player. I came to the soundcheck rehearsal a tiny bit late and who is setting up my drums but George! He is stage managing! I was blown away: here is this monster cat setting up for me. He and I have become good friends, and I love his wife. They brought us over to their house during JazzFest. Bass and drums need to be best friends.

George: As I remember, I was playing a gig with [Papa Mali] at Tipitina’s. As he was tuning a guitar or changing a string, he looked at me kind of weird so I sort of eased over to his side of the stage and he said, “Are you available to play a gig on such and such date.” I said I have to check my calendar but I will call you back tomorrow—shoot me an email. The next morning I got an email and that was that. We had a soundcheck rehearsal and played out first show. Then Bill turned around and said, “He should be in the band.”

Billy: He thought I was kidding but I just kept on him.

In certain ways the Grateful Dead and The Meters had similar career arcs that laid the groundwork for the modern jamband scene but 7 Walkers is the first time members of those two bands have been part of an entirely new project.

Bill: That is really an interesting thing you have observed there because Deadheads have always liked New Orleans music and the Grateful Dead…The Meters, The Neville Brothers and all that music. Dirty Dozen Brass Band opened for the Grateful Dead for one or two shows and The Neville Brothers played with us out on the West Coast, and it was always packed: Now we have the real thing: a little bit of Grateful Dead, a little bit of New Orleans. We call it swampadelic. We coined that name, it is gonna become a genre [Laughter]. It’s just really fun.

The other thing that is so important for me right now is that I am at a point in my life where I said, “I only want to play with musicians that are really fun to be with onstage and love the music for the music sake, not for trying to get this or that and any sort of gain—just for entertaining people and playing the best music.” I don’t have to play now but to not do this…I’d be crazy. Most people are younger than me, but I don’t care. I still have the best time playing with people. I don’t worry about aging: music isn’t like football or baseball where you got to be young.

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