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Published: 2016/01/11
by Mike Greenhaus

God Street Wine: New Year, New Shows, New Songs

God Street Wine were one of the shining stars of the third-generation jamband scene. During a remarkable stretch in the 1990s, the New York-bred group opened for the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers Band, toured as part of H.O.R.D.E. and grew into one of Wetlands’ most inspired house bands. Equally parts Deadhead rock and Steely Dan jazz, they have produced some of their scene’s finest studio albums and earned a reputation as both thought-provoking songwriters and inspired instrumentalists. Founding members Aaron Maxwell (guitar), Dan Pifer (bass), Jon Bevo (keyboards), Tom Osander (drums) and Lo Faber (guitar) stayed together into the late 1990s when Bevo and Osander left the group and were replaced by multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby, percussionist Aubrey Dayle and keyboardist Peter Levin (who later went on to play with the Blind Boys of Alabama and currently tours in Gregg Allman’s band). The group finally parted ways in late 1999 after a series of marathon shows at Wetlands that featured GSW’s former members, Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and John Popper.

The members of God Street Wine spent the Aughts focusing on other endeavors. Osander moved to Ireland and worked closely with singer/songwriters Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan while Maxwell performed with the Django Reinhardt-influenced Metropolitan Hot Club. Faber initially formed a solo project, wrote two musicals, went back to school where he earned a Ph.D in early 19th-century American History from Princeton and now serves as professor at New Orleans’ Loyola University.

God Street Wine played a few one-off reunion shows—at the closing of Wetlands in 2001 and two memorials for an old taper in New Jersey in 2009—and formally came together on a limited basis in 2010 for a few National Multiple Sclerosis Society benefits in New York. The band has subsequently performed a few times during the past six years—usually for special shows—and will regroup for a pair of dates with longtime friends Strangefolk and Assembly of Dust next week. On Friday, January 15 the three bands will share the stage at Port Chester, NY’s Capitol Theatre and on Saturday, January 16 they will offer an equally collaborative night at Boston’s Paradise Club. In advance of these gigs, GSW released their first brand new song in years, “Oh Wonderful One,” on our sister site Relix.com and the group has a few new tunes up their sleeves. Faber and Maxwell recently spoke with us about their new material, recent reunion shows and plans beyond January.

God Street Wine have reunited periodically since 2010, but the band has been relatively quiet for the past year or so. What was the impetus to come together with those shows with Strangefolk and Assembly of Dust?

LF: We don’t play very often these days, so we knew that these Capitol Theatre plays were going to be something special. All the times we’ve gotten together in the last few years have been something special: We did the MS benefit shows, we did Jam Cruise, we went out to Bob Weir’s place and did a kind of live studio recreation of our [1994] album $1.99 Romances. We went out to Phil Lesh’s place and played with Phil and Friends, and we did our 25th anniversary show as well and released a box set and a bunch of unreleased music.

The Strangefolk thing came about because they’re really our contemporaries from the ’90s. They spanned the same period as us. The original incarnations of both bands kind of broke up at around the same time in 2000. They started playing occasionally around the same time that we did. [Some of the members of AOD and Strangefolk] started jamming a bunch up in New York—not me, because I’m down here in New Orleans, but with Jon and Aaron. They did a bunch of shows around the New York area with some combination of the two bands. So we just figured the logical next step was to really bring the whole cast of both bands together and do some shows.

AM: There’s been a handful of times over the last few years where God Street Wine has played for benefits or just to get together. We’ve always enjoyed it and we’ve always done it just to have fun. We didn’t have all the baggage that we carried a while ago. That was our guiding factor—if we can get together and have fun playing music, let’s continue doing it.

We’ve had some other opportunities with Jam Cruise and playing with Phil Lesh. There were amazing opportunities that rose out of getting back together. That’s what we’d been doing, and then at a certain point, I think Dan and Reid Genauer met at some music tech company and there was a connection there. I sat in with Assembly of Dust when Adam was out one time and they needed a guitar player, then we got to talking about doing some shows with a couple of the other guys and Assembly of Dust and call it Assembly of Wine. I think we did a Gathering of the Vibes together, and we did Garcia’s. Getting together and collaborating was just a lot of fun. Reid sang some God Street Wine songs and a few Assembly of Dust songs and Strangefolk songs, and it was just a natural fit. Then I think Jon had the idea—what if we combined and did a show with God Street Wine, Assembly of Dust and Strangefolk? Then it got booked.

Peter Shapiro has always been really good to us, so anytime we can play at one of his venues it’s always exciting. We’ve only done these reunion shows in New York or the surrounding areas, so it’s going to be fun to do one in Boston as well.

Had there been talk of doing other GSW shows in the past few years?

LF: In the summer of 2014, we got together for one quick show at Garcia’s. There was no rehearsal, it was just in and out, but we did do that one. It’s just really a matter of all of our schedules and our other lives, especially for me and Tom—me being down here in New Orleans and Tom being in Berlin—it’s hard to get us all together. The other three guys are all up in the New York area. We haven’t really talked about other things. It’s just that time flies. We all have a great time when we play, and we’d love to play whenever the opportunity presents itself and whenever there’s a cool reason to do it, like the Strangefolk thing or the collaborations with Bobby and Phil. That was a once in a lifetime experience—of course we were going to get together for that. But I don’t think our lives really permit it—and I don’t think the audience is really there for a full-time reunion of God Street Wine. Of course, we’ll never know.

Can you elaborate a little more about the experience of playing with Bob and Phil and how those collaborations came to be? How were they different, on a musical level?

LF: They are really both great to play with. I grew up playing along with the album American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, which I found in my mom’s records. My mom was a bluegrass musician, and both of those records were bluegrass records. I grew up playing bluegrass, and both of those records kind of fit into that world. I think Garcia actually played banjo on a couple of the tunes in Workingman’s Dead. Even the rock tunes that were all electric on those albums had a bluegrassy feel. Now that I’ve rounded out my musical history, I know that it was 1970 and there was a real turn towards that country, folky sound in rock. It wasn’t just the Dead albums, it was Crosby, Stills and Nash and it was Dylan and John Wesley Harding. A whole bunch of artists were going in that real organic, Americana direction. That was a big impact on me growing up. When I got older, I got into a lot of other things—funk and jazz, James Brown and Steely Dan—but the Grateful Dead stuff was always still there. It was very natural to play those kinds of tunes. It felt fantastic.

Bob and Phil both really like to rehearse—which I do, too. That’s my favorite part of the process—working with the band and figuring out what we’re going to do. We don’t script everything, as you know, we improv a lot, but we do talk a lot. It’s a very conscious process. There are bands like Aquarium Rescue Unit, those guys with Oteil and Jimmy. They all went on to play with other bands. They’re all such great players that they never rehearse, they can just wing it and jam and magical things will happen. But God Street wasn’t like that; we spent a lot of time thinking about the process. Not scripting it so much, but working on what things we could do that would work live. I think the Dead were much the same, and Bobby and Phil definitely take that approach with their post-Dead projects. I think Phish is a little bit like that, too—or a lot like that, from what I’ve heard. I’ve never been to a Phish rehearsal but I’ve certainly heard that they spend a lot of time working on the improvisational aspect through the music. So that was very fun for me to do. That was great, the opportunity to play with Bobby and Phil.

For the first time in a long time, you’re going into these shows with some new God Street Wine songs. Why does it feel right now to introduce this new material? Do you plan to do more in the future?

LF: I’m so excited about this. The magic of the internet has changed the music world in so many ways, good and bad. One thing that it’s allowed us to do is to record without all being in the same place. Everybody in the world can have a studio in their laptop—the quality of a studio that used to cost $100,000 to build in a house somewhere, you can have it on your laptop for $300. We all have that, and the last two months we started passing tracks around and overdubbing up some new material.

It’s really just for us. To be honest with you, our audience would be perfectly happy just to hear us play our old material. That’s totally understandable. We’re very aware of the danger of trying to shove new material down peoples’ throats. You go to see a band that’s been around for forty years and the new song is the letdown, the song that nobody knows. It’s really a cool thing to be writing some new music, and it gives us the feeling that we’re not just on a nostalgia trip, we’re actually working on something that’s real and growing and organic and new.

We have about five tracks that we’ve been working on, and one of them [“Oh Wonderful One”] is finished. We’re going to release it in a few days and we’re going to play it at the Capitol Theatre show, hopefully with some of the Strangefolk guys joining us. We’ll have to wait for soundcheck to see if that’s actually going to work.

AM: God Street Wine has never done anything the easy way. When we came back together, we could have just played all of the easiest songs. Instead we got together and learned seventy or so of our songs—some of them completely obscure. It’s a way of challenging ourselves, but it’s also that we still have something musical to say. It keeps it fresh for us to try new things.

It’s been interesting with this new material and passing it around it to each other. We’ve been putting it in Pro Tools and laying them down apart and handing it to the next guy, to see what we come up with. It’s just an interesting process. Not having the baggage of the road and trying to “make it” frees you up to just be creative and see where it goes. Especially with Lo, he’s always thinking about the next thing. He gets restless when things get too comfortable.

Who was the songwriter on those songs? Were they group collaborations?

LF: The songwriter on “Oh Wonderful One” was Jon Bevo, our keyboardist. The songwriter on the rest is me. That’s usually how it’s been with us; Jon and I are the main writers. I think writing together would be tough, with the long distance. We’ve never really written much as a group.

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