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Published: 2017/11/22
by Mike Greenhaus

Jeff Chimenti Further Explores the Dead Catalog with Red Roses, Green Gold

You were a regular presence at Red Roses’ preview run before heading out on Dead & Company tour and interacted with many fans around the theater. Did the audience’s reaction or input impact your thoughts on the musical or the songs’ impact in any way?

I definitely took feedback from conversations with attendees at the theater and yes, it resulted in some shuffling of cast members on instruments to make sure the songs that became affected by changes had the strongest impact while simultaneously trying not to affect the staging/blocking for those involved in the certain songs and scenes. Thank you, Rachel Klein, for your patience, curtailing and understanding with that process. Laughter.]

With Dead & Company and most of your recent projects, every show is guided by an overarching improvisational spirit, but, with a musical, the major goal is make sure the play is as tight and focused as possible. Talk about how you dealt with that change in your own process.

Ultimately, a main goal was to make sure that the cast/musicians had as much a grasp and understanding of this music [as possible], as it is challenging and not just something you can get by reading it off a score. I’m sure I drove them nuts with my constant reminders to internalize this music, to represent it as best as possible yet be able to put their own voice into it, so to speak. Meaning that even though songs are tightened up to keep things moving, they don’t have to be played exactly note for note each night. [You] just can’t have extended jams in songs per GD tradition—there is some jamming in there, though.

I was impressed how the cast of Red Roses worked their various onstage instruments into the set so they could pick them up at any moment. Can you talk about the process of blocking those scenes?

Honestly, that was essentially the brilliant work and vision of Director Rachel Klein—and Andy Peterson, for that matter. Albeit, as mentioned prior, I had made some changes on instruments for cast in some songs, but I wanted to just work within the parameters set by those two in order not to disrupt the overall flow.

I noticed at least one slight lyrical changes to make the Dead’s songs work with the overall storyline. Are there certain lyrical Easter eggs fans should look out for?

To my knowledge, there is only one lyric change that is in “Friend of the Devil,” and the fans will hear that immediately I’m sure. This was approved by Robert Hunter in order to fit the storyline. If you heard more, it was a case of miswording in performance, being that there are a lot of lyrics to remember, and those were taken note of and were made sure to be corrected. There is also the rarely heard last verse utilized. Aside from that, there is one more nugget unfamiliar to fans which is “Drunkard’s Carol,” a Hunter-penned drinking song or shanty-style song that is a come-together moment for the father/son characters [Jack & Mick Jones] in efforts to solidify the [Jack Jones] scheme to play into the story. I’ll leave it at that.

Between your work with Dead & Company, RatDog, Phil & Friends, Fare Thee Well and other Dead family projects, you have interpreted the Dead’s music in all sorts of ways in recent years. What has the process of arranging the Dead’s music in so many ways taught you most about the group’s body of work?

That it’s a never-ending process in the learning and performing of this music, as the approach and understanding of it always presents something new when in the midst of doing it. If that makes any sense. Laughter.]

When Dead & Company were first coming together, you served as something of a bridge between the three Dead alums and Oteil Burbridge and John Mayer, who were newer converts to the group’s catalog. Did you offer them any advice about getting up to speed on such a deep songbook?

John and Oteil are both amazing and accomplished musicians, obviously, as well as being wonderful human beings. I just tried to be a team player in the process of the starting of Dead & Company and offered any assistance to the learning curve if needed, as the songs/music/arrangements might now be different from the source material they may have been working from on their own.

Next month, you are playing two shows with Steve Kimock in Colorado. Can you talk about how your musical friendship has progressed over the years?

I met Steve roughly 20 years ago but really only started playing with him about 10 years ago. To me, I always felt there was a natural spiritual connection between the two of us. We just get each other without having to do anything other than be in each other’s presence. I treasure and look forward to any chance I have to play with him as he is brilliant at his craft.

Last year, you subbed for Marco Benevento in JRAD for a few shows. What was your takeaway from those gigs?

Being that Joe Russo and the gang are dear friends and all great players, I anticipated nothing other than big fun, and it was. Marco, if you need a sub again, I’m in. [Laughter.]

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