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Scott Metzger: WOLF!, JRAD, nicOLF! and Onward

You guys were also on TV together, right?

Yeah. We were on Showtime. Cameron Crowe had a show called Roadies. We played one of her songs as a duet called “A Little Crazy” and it was just the two of us performing. It was the season finale of Roadies and it was pretty crazy. The episode was us, and Eddie Vedder, and Robyn Hitchcock. It was star-studded, for sure. Big rockstars and us!

I kind of want to shift gears again, and talk about JRAD. Tracing it back, what are your roots with the Dead? Were you a Dead guy from the get-go or did you find them later in life?

Later in life. My good friend Matt Kohut, who was in the band F-Hole, had given me a copy of Live/Dead when I was 18 or 19. And I liked it—I liked the punk rock attitude behind it, musically speaking. And someone else when I was in college gave me a tape of Cornell ‘77 and that was pretty much all that I knew. Which is funny, because I later got called by Phil Lesh to play that [Cornell ‘77] gig. He did a recreation thing, and John Mayer came. That was the first night John Mayer ever played Grateful Dead stuff. Little did I know when I was driving around in college listening to that show that I’d be playing it with the bass player and John Mayer.

When you fully dove into the Dead songbook to play it with JRAD, what were your reference points? Where there certain recordings or shows that you studied?

No, not certain shows but anything that Joe would send. He would send the show list and I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the tunes, so I would go and find a studio version of each tune and then I’d find a Grateful Dead version, and then I would also check out a Further version, because the arrangements would change a lot over the years.

You play the same song for 40 years, it’s gonna change. So I needed to know which arrangements were the most current. Those Further tapes really helped with that.

That’s fascinating that you were listening to Further versions—seeing where Joe fit into the puzzle…

I wanted to know how Joe was drumming on these songs. It would help to get the arrangement together by watching the Further thing, so then I could be like, “Well here’s what Joe’s doing, here’s how Joe is approaching this tune.”

I think that at this point, we’re like 200 songs deep on the book…I’ve been a working musician for 20 years, practically, and I’ve never worked so hard in my life than for JRAD. To sit there and be able to watch Joe—and I’ve been playing for Joe for so long that I know his body language and stuff—that’s really helpful. The power of the internet.

I think all that hard work obviously paid off. From your perspective, what was it like bringing this project to those big rooms like Red Rocks? Did you ever see it kind of going in this direction, kind of launching into the stratosphere?

For the second part of that question, absolutely not. None of us did. This band was gonna be a one-off. It’s the ultimate example in my life of, “Things work when you don’t try and plan them out too well.” I don’t know if I’m wording that too well, but this band is a series of happy accidents in a way, but also five guys that have been playing together in different configurations for 15 years. So the chemistry was there and we’re all really hard working guys, we’re all very grateful guys, we understand what a great opportunity this is and also what a big responsibility it is, too. There’s a lot of people out there that this music is really, really sacred to. And for them to be trusting us with that is a big deal.

In terms of how did it feel going to the bigger rooms, I don’t really know how to answer that. It’s a different energy for sure. You kind of have to play a little differently in the bigger rooms but, for me, I’m just up there. I feel like that I’ve gotta roll to fill and it’s important for me. I think at the end of the day it comes down to the quality. And if you start to let the bigness or success of something overshadow the reason, I think that it starts to backtrack. Honestly, it kind of sounds weird, but I didn’t really think too much about it in terms of playing the bigger rooms.

I want to pick up on something you said about the music being sacred to a lot of people. Obviously, the Dead community is entirely unique and I’ve heard you say before that people not only want this music but they need this music. I was wondering if you can follow up on that idea.

The sense of community that’s going on within the Grateful Dead thing is totally unique. And it’s so strong that people’s entire lives revolve around the scene, and the band and the music. I think that what the band represents to those people is this sort of adventurous spirit. When the original Dead came up in the 60’s, the country was really fucked. There was a lot of tension in the air and things were not cool, necessarily. And the band offered—Look, this is all my dime-store psychology, I don’t know for sure. But what I see when I look back on it is that they offered an alternative.

When I listen to those old tapes of the Dead playing, they were really taking real chances up there. And some nights they stuck the landing and sometimes they didn’t. I think that what we’re doing on stage is similar in spirit, even if it’s different in execution.

You shared the stage with Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in the past. Are there any lessons you learned from those guys that you keep in mind as you kind of carry the flame?

I haven’t played with Bob that much, so, I’m still sort of cracking that code.

The songs you guys played together at LOCKN’ were amazing.

It was fun, it was really fun. I’ve heard it through the grapevine that Bob sort of thinks we play everything too fast.

That’s my favorite part about you guys. The “One More Saturday Night” from LOCKN’ is rocking!

Well, I don’t know if you heard, but right before we did it Joe leaned over and was like, “We’re gonna have to do it quicker than you’re comfortable with.” ‘Cause we were running out of time, and we just like that style.

But with Phil, I’ve learned so much from Phil being on stage with him for so many hours over the years and, my god, the guy’s gonna be 78-years-old and I did gigs with him this year and we’d be up there for three and a half hours.

On the last song of the encore, he’s still hitting the notes with just as much intention as he did with the first song of the night. And that, to me, is integrity through the roof. Not resting on your laurels. And that guy’s still so excited about music. He’s genuinely emotionally involved, and I think that just goes to show that if you don’t forget why you started doing something in the first place, and you get a little lucky, things work out for you and you stay the course. I mean, you can have a career for 50 years if you want it. That gives me a lot of hope.

As far as future plans for JRAD go, are you guys trying to tour more?

I don’t really know, exactly. I think that our minds are pretty much blown already as to how far this thing has come. We’ll just see how it keeps coming at us, and take it from there.

I wanted to ask a quick question about your other band RANA. Are there any 2018 plans for that project?

Not as of at the moment. RANA has played I think once every 18 months for the last three years or so. So, we might be coming up on 18 again. So, who knows? You never know.

Speaking of the number 18, you’re playing Freaks Ball 18 later this January at Brooklyn Bowl. You’re gonna play in Hola! with Joe Russo, sharing the bill with Circles Around the Sun. What can we expect from that?

I think this will be my sixteenth time playing Freaks Ball. I’m beyond grateful that they just keep having me, that I keep getting invited back, and the support that that community has given over the years, is literally astounding. I feel so lucky to have the Freaks behind us. It’s a big deal and it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Hola! is—Avi [Bortnick], Andy [Hess], and Joe have all played together a lot. We’re all New York City guys and it’s kind of more groove-based music. We might have some new material. I think it’s like our fourth gig, but people seem to enjoy it. So we’ll keep that going.

I’ll be looking forward to it. Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you want brought up in the piece?

I appreciate you asking. I will say, in terms of the Freaks Ball, I think Neal Casal [of Circles Around the Sun] is one of the best guitar players around. And I’m so excited to be on a bill and just watch him play guitar. That guy is such a class act on and off the instrument. He’s what I like to call a “grown-up musician” for sure. So I’m very psyched to share the bill with him.

Well, you’re a busy guy and you’re doing a lot of awesome stuff.

Yeah. I feel really lucky to be as busy as I am, frankly. So I’m gonna take advantage of it.

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