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Published: 2012/03/22
by Mike Greenhaus

The National and Bob Weir: Building A Bridge

The rehearsal space guitarist Josh Kaufman shares with his psychedelic-leaning indie-pop band Yellowbirds is located in the basement of a nondescript building in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s DUMBO neighborhood. Crammed with instruments, recording equipment and other musician flair, the space is barely big enough to comfortably fit a few grown men—even with hipster waistlines—but this Thursday afternoon Kaufman has packed a small entourage into the space to prepare for the Bridge Session, an indie-rock Grateful Dead activism summit produced by HeadCount. In any other setting Kaufman’s guests would unquestionably be described as an indie rock super group: event organizers and National rhythm section Scott and Bryan Devendorf, National keyboardist and noted session man Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett, The Walkmen’s Walt Martin and Taka Taka drummer Conrad Doucette. Trumpeter Kyle Resnick— whose credits include the American Symphony but who is best known to web denizens for his years on the road with The National—stopped by a little earlier to practice, and Kaufman’s closest collaborator, Yellowbirds/Apollo Sunshine guitarist Sam Cohen, has been around. National guitarist Aaron Dessner will also join his band mates during their final rehearsals to contribute what the Devendorfs affectionately calls “guitar and other noise.” Then the entire cast will head out to Marin County to perform with Bob Weir at his new TRI studios.

The last time I saw The National in a room even close to this size was in early 2005 in the back room of the white walled, uber-hipster bar Supreme Trading during the release party for their breakthrough album Alligator —and at the time their music felt worlds away from the Grateful Dead. Even as the lines between indie and jam started to cross during the jam scene’s lean post-Phish, pre-reunion boom period, The National seemed to owe more to Pavement, the downtown avant-garde and contemporary classical music than the Dead or any sort of groove-band. But, unbeknownst to most, The National’s earliest precursor project—a high school band featuring Bryan Devendorf and twin guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner—actually covered a variety of Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers and improvisational music has been part of their collective experience ever since.

Perhaps their true coming out party was at the final Langerado festival in 2008 when The National played at the same time as Phil Lesh & Friends. National frontman Matt Berninger, the band’s only non-jam fan, called out Scott Devendorf from the stage saying, “Scott wishes he was out with Phil Lesh right now.” The elder Devendorf simply smiled and moved on the next song. A little earlier that day, Berninger recounted a time when Devendorf “dragged” him to a Phish show at Noblesville, Ind.’s Deer Creek. It was Berninger’s first “festival” experience and he jokes that he was so miserable he hid in the car the whole weekend. But for the rest of The National, the Grateful Dead were a major part of their early musical education.

“I learned to play guitar at camp in North Carolina when I was little and a lot of the counselors were old hippies and those were the songs they taught us,” Aaron Dessner once told me. “My brother and I eventually became the soloists on the guitar, and it was basically ‘Eyes of the World’ into ‘Franklin’s Tower.’ I’ve seen Phish and always loved The Allman Brothers.”
“You’d be surprised at how many bands are influenced by the Grateful Dead. We were joking with our friends in Grizzly Bear about starting a Dead cover band with them because they’re kind of obsessed with that music,” Bryce Dessner echoed in a separate interview. “Certainly some of the longer form improvisational stuff we’ve done over the years is influenced by the Grateful Dead.”

Those roots were finally exposed early last year when Scott Devendorf spilled the news that he was hoping to curate an indie-rock Grateful Dead tribute album for a charity closely associated with the Dessner brothers and few months later Bryan Devendorf recorded some songs for Trey Anastasio’s upcoming solo album. That collaboration led to Anastasio sitting in with The National at New York’s Beacon Theatre in December and now the Devendorf brothers have assembled a small army to back Weir at his TRI Studios.

As they work their way through the latter day Grateful Dead classic “Standing on the Moon,” the Devendorf brothers’ understanding of the music is immediately apparent. Not only is the band working from sheet music and source tapes to nail the songs’ classic arrangements but they’ve kept up with the catalog’s evolution through their own personal tape collections and more recent trips to see bands like Furthur and The Dead. Scott Devendorf’s also quick to remind me that it will be Phil Lesh’s birthday in two days before the conversation shifts to one of the Dead’s most recent archival live albums. Despite backing many of the same venues Furthur will play this spring, it is clear that the Devendorf and Dessner brothers have a deep reverence for this type of music and approach the process of reworking these songs with the same “record collector” mentality the New York Times Magazine mentioned in a recent interview. To make things even trippier, they also plan to play a few of their own songs with Weir. Below, Scott and Bryan Devendorf give Relix a hint at what to expect this Saturday.

You have both cited the Grateful Dead as an early influence. When did you initially get in the Grateful Dead’s music?

BD: We got into it in high school [in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s], really—a lot of kids were listening to it. It was actually kinda a cool thing to do. It was out of a social pressure that I started listening to the band, and I really liked it. I started getting tapes, and we saw a couple of shows together at Buckeye Lake. I went to school in Cleveland so the first time I saw them was in Cleveland at the Richfield Coliseum. I think it was the songwriting that was attractive at first.

SD: We grew up in Ohio so the first time I went to that and then to Buckeye Lake. The songwriting was loose but obviously they were very talented songwriters.

Do you have a favorite memory of seeing the Grateful Dead live, together or separately?

BD: I would say we have separate memories of seeing them. For me, it was the spring of 1995 when I saw them at the Spectrum in Philly. They played a well known version “Visions of Johanna” that was suddenly beautiful, stunning. It was really nice.

SD: I think it was the one that ended up on the [‘90s Dead compilation] Fallout From the Phil Zone. My memory was actually going with you to Richfield the first time because I’d never been so close near the music—I’d never been to a show. And going to the show was insane. Especially at the time it had gotten to a fever pitch. It was kinda crazy.

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