Jeff Chimenti, John Molo and Roosevelt Collier Reflect on the Grateful Dead
Dennis McNally | February 18, 2018
There was a certain charming, funky magic about the Ventura County Fairgrounds, a soulfulness that made even the Grateful Dead’s demanding road crew not grumble too much about the crust of mud once deposited on the stage by the preceding day’s dirt-track race. So it’s the perfect home for the upcoming Skull and Roses shows April 6 through 8 this year, a gathering to celebrate Deadhead-edness and listen to the Golden Gate Wingmen (John Kadlecik, Jeff Chimenti, Jay Lane, Reed Mathis), Stu Allen and Mars Hotel, Melvin Seals and JGB, Moonalice, Cubensis, and a dozen other players of the Dead’s music, with flavors ranging from heavy metal (Shred is Dead) to Bluegrass (Grateful Bluegrass Boys) to Punk (Punk is Dead) and lots more. The promoter understands the Deadhead ethos, and is aiming at community; prices will be moderate, and the it will be a very cool get-together.
Since the key element in the event is enjoying our common heritage as Deadheads, I thought I would talk to the musicians about their relationship to the Dead’s music, which has become its own genre. There will be three more interviews next month about this time; we lead off with Jeff Chimenti, John Molo, and Roosevelt Collier.
Jeff Chimenti came to Deadhead notice with RatDog, and has stayed connected with Bob Weir ever since, playing in Furthur and now Dead & Co.
I started by ear, about the age of four -- just basically growing up as a young Catholic school student and I had to attend church, and I started by mimicking what I heard the organ player do. Then I moved on – my sister was saying “You gotta play Elton John songs” – and I started to pluck out the stuff with two hands, and then a few years later I started classical stuff, formal training. That was about the age of seven.
I went to South San Francisco High School, and I got into the jazz band my freshman year. My parents had looked into it because there was this very good instructor named Mike Galisatus that was the band director at the time, and my parents took me to him over the summer after graduating 8th grade and I went to do an audition for him, basically. At the time, they did not take freshman or sophomores in the jazz band.
Leading into it, I was heavily into ragtime piano at the time, which lent itself to the jazz side, as far as harmonies and all that stuff. So I did my audition and then he put a jazz chord chart in front of me and I was like “What’s this?” (laughter), I couldn’t read it. But I started working on it, learned pretty quickly, and got into the jazz band my freshman year, got to be there all four years, and we had actually a pretty good jazz band, and did well.
We’d be playing in jazz festivals, and we’d hear Berkeley High, and they were like the top there – Dave Ellis, and Kenny Brooks – I’m sorry, Kenny was from El Cerrito. Even Josh Redman was in there, a host of guys. It was kind of nice over the years to meet and play with these guys way past high school, looking back to the days.
I started working gigs in high school – the band director had a good drummer and bass player, and put me in, and he started hiring us for casuals. So I was at it from the age of 13, and the next year was a little more, and a little more, and I started meeting other people, and so by the time I was 18, a dear friend of mine took me to the Jazz Workshop, which had just re-opened – the original one was where all the jazz greats played – he kind of dumped me off there and told me I was on my own – and I got to jam with a lot of people, meet a lot of great players, traveling musicians, got some good word of mouth, and just kept on finding gigs. And my phone got busy.
By the time I was approaching my mid-twenties, I was seemingly first call for acts coming in to Yoshi’s (at that time, the premiere jazz club in the S.F. Bay Area) and other major Bay Area venues, and so forth. Soon after that, I really hooked up with Dave Ellis and I joined his quartet.
Then he got the gig with RatDog, and I jokingly said, ‘If you guys need somebody to jam with, let me know.’ He called me two days later and said, ‘Guess what? They’re looking for a keyboard player.’ Really at that time, I didn’t know any Grateful Dead stuff, hadn’t even heard it. And Bob at the time didn’t even want to play Grateful Dead stuff (this is 1997), he wanted to be blues-based. Little by little things came trickling in, and we started pushing the issue with him, ‘Come on, man, these are great tunes, let’s play some of these things.’
I started writing out charts for myself, and learning as much as I could. I became the replacement for Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s pianist, for whom “Johnny B. Goode” is named), and I had the honor of him saying to Bob about me, ‘This is your guy.’ I got to play with him together, and I felt very blessed that he gave me the thumbs-up. The year before I’d seen television coverage of the second Clinton inaugural, and I remember thinking, ‘Hey, there’s Johnnie Johnson, hey, there’s Dave Ellis, hey there’s Jay Lane…”
Playing with Bobby meant learning his sound and his style of playing, because he’s really got one of the most unique approaches to rhythm playing ever – he’s like an orchestrator in there. So the challenge of what he’s going for, trying to work into that, working together, which became the understanding of how the Grateful Dead worked, how they were six individuals that formed one piece.
Listening to Bobby taught me a lot in that direction. I’m still learning, you know, it’s still a challenge. That’s the beauty of it. All of those guys are still looking for the next thing—it’s inspirational. And we just kept immersing ourselves in the catalogue – I had no idea, my god, the depth and diversity of the repertoire. It was pretty alarming, actually (laughter)!
My first big experience with RatDog was the Furthur Festival of 1997, playing these big amphitheaters, and encountering these huge groups of Deadheads – it was quite a shock. But I got it, early on, and I came to realize that it was like one giant community in a universal sense, people of all facets of life, all ages, all professions, it was really something to behold. They are everywhere, and it’s amazing. And thank god for ‘em.
(I quoted the late, great, G.D. crew chief RamRod, after a 12 hour day in a steamy Washington DC, saying “Well, at least it’s not a real job,” that working for the Dead could be hard, but it was something else, something special.)
I really miss RamRod, he was just a sweet soul. I got to spend a handful of years around him steady, and just seeing the relationship between him and Steve Parish and Robbie Taylor, that side of things, what those guys went through, and what they did for their side of the business, it taught me a lot.
Golden Gate Wingmen started off as a fluke. John K. (Kadlecik) was doing a solo run at Terrapin, and he reached out to Jay Lane and Reed Mathis and myself and said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this gig here, I’m going to do a solo first set, how about an electric second set? We’ll just get together and do a second set for the hell of it.’ The gig happened, and it was a whole lot of fun, and we were like, ‘We need to be doing this some more.’
It’s very periodic, and it’s dependent on people’s schedules and when we can make it happen, and it’s a fun project. It still follows that model – it’s been a while since we did it, so I’m looking forward to this visit to Ventura. It’s a really fun band, it’s just pure innocence at its best, you know what I’m saying?