Interview: Warren Haynes brings orchestral approach to Jerry Garcia’s music

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Warren Haynes keeps things locked and loose in the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration. He will be accompanied by the Richmond Symphony on Wednesday at the Pavilion. Photo credit: Anna Webber Warren Haynes keeps things locked and loose in the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration. He will be accompanied by the Richmond Symphony on Wednesday at the Pavilion. Photo credit: Anna Webber

Warren Haynes is one of the hardest working guys in rock. In addition to fronting the heavy-edged experimental jammers Gov’t Mule and his own soulful solo band, the guitar hero also holds a longstanding place in the Allman Brothers Band (the legendary band is calling it quits at the end of the year). Haynes also stays active with former members of the Grateful Dead, previously performing in the spinoff The Dead and still regularly joining bassist Phil Lesh in his rotating Friends project.

Following the spirit of these collaborations, Haynes has recently been bringing select cities the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration. The performances, honoring the late Dead guitarist, feature original Garcia songs interpreted by Haynes and a dynamic rhythm section with the powerful backing of a full orchestra. At the shows, fan favorites like “Scarlet Begonias” and “Shakedown Street” maintain fluid rock energy while being infused with classical refinement. It’s a new approach to Garcia’s pioneering jam sounds which have been evolving for five decades—even beyond his untimely 1995 death.

On August 6, Haynes will bring the show to Charlottesville with help from the Richmond Symphony.

C-VILLE Weekly: What sparked the idea to present the music of Jerry Garcia with different symphonies?

Warren Haynes: I wish I could take credit for it. The people who manage Jerry Garcia’s estate called me a couple years ago, and their idea at the time was to have a series of shows with Jerry Garcia’s music being interpreted by a symphony with special guest artists. They asked if I was interested in being the first one. 

The biggest task was choosing the material, because there’s such a vast catalog. My main mission was to choose the songs I felt a symphony could elevate to another level, as opposed to just choosing my favorite songs. 

You’ve played the Dead catalog in many different incarnations. How is this different?

It’s completely unique—combining the catalog of Jerry Garcia with a symphony. It creates a whole new experience that I don’t think anyone can envision without actually hearing it. It shines a different light on the songs and shows how historically valid these compositions are—exposing their depth in a new way. All the fans of this music [that have seen the show], including myself, have been pleasantly surprised with the final results. 

In Charlottesville you’re playing with the Richmond Symphony. Since you play with a different group in each of the select cities where this is performed, how much preparation is required? 

It’s the exception rather than the rule that a symphony works with rock or pop music. I’d never played with a symphony until we started this. It’s a whole different world. Sometimes we rehearse the day before the show, but more often than not we just rehearse the day of the show, starting early in the morning. Most of the adjustment period was in the very beginning, when the arrangements were tweaked. The musicians [in the symphonies] are just so good at what they do; it comes across great.

With a symphony is there any room for some of the Grateful Dead’s patented improvisation? 

It was very important to me that we include the spirit of improvisation in the overall picture. Since the symphony is reading sheet music and it doesn’t vary, we came up with solutions. There are times when the symphony will stop playing and the electric band will continue improvising, before the symphony comes back in on cue. There are also times when the symphony is reading orchestrated music but what I’m playing on top of it is improvised. That helped me get comfortable with the concept of being locked into a program. We’re still able to keep it nice and loose. 

What keeps you wanting to explore the Dead catalog in different ways? 

I feel connected to the music on so many different levels. I didn’t become a fan as early as some people. I saw the band once in ’79, when I was 19, but then didn’t see them again until ‘89. The thing that really clinched the deal for me was the amazing amount of great songs in their catalog. It’s just one after another. As important as their version of improvisation is, equally or maybe even more important in the long run, historically speaking, is the depth of their compositions.

You’ll be back in the area next month to play one of the Allman Brothers Band’s final shows at the Lockn’ Music Festival. With that band winding down, what else can we expect from you in the near future? 

The Allman Brothers winding down is very bittersweet for all of us, but it’s something we’re all in agreement on. We’ve been talking about picking the right time and place to stop touring for at least three years now, and everyone decided to move on, together. The future for me will be a lot of different projects. Gov’t Mule will remain a big focus. All of the different projects that I do allow me to express myself in completely different ways. I really enjoy being able to show different sides of my musical personality.

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