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We Three Kings: Phil Lesh, Warren Haynes and John Bell

January 03, 2014

Is it easier or more challenging to get to that place in live shows—those transcendent moments—now versus at the beginning of your career?

HAYNES: It’s easier to do it when you are under less pressure and when there is not as big of an audience. It’s been in the last 10 years that I have actually done that: I have gotten to a point where I have gotten better at losing myself. I have learned a lot about how to go about that from working with all the different people who are great at doing that. And I have often thought about that when you’re on a major show, do you purposefully not go as far out
into uncharted waters as you would on a lower-pressure show? That is probably the case with a lot of us or all of us to a certain extent—it’s like the old
adage that the best shows were the ones that weren’t being recorded. The nights you are recording, you tend to think too much and as soon as the truck rolls out and is no longer recording, you have your best show on the tour.

LESH: It’s always been pretty much the same. You can’t push a button or flip a switch and draw that energy—draw that spirit down. You can’t coerce or seduce the muse. The muse comes to you when the music is ready and what you can do too is open yourself up to that every night. Walk onto the stage and be open: “I’m here if you want me. If you want to talk to me I’m here.” That’s how it’s been since the very beginning.

BELL: It’s probably easier now because we have more control over our musical environment. The equipment is consistent, the PA is consistent and you don’t have to cite the idea of just a crummy house PA or something like that. But then again, you’re always grateful for those moments because you know there’s a difference between everybody playing well and then, taking it one step further, where it’s into a more meditative state. And it’s one of those things where, if you’re trying too hard, you’re going to sabotage that experience. So it’s a situation where you have to be in control of what you’re doing, but you also have to loosen up and lose control and just go with it. You can tell when the moment’s there because you can hear that everybody else is listening and responding—it’s like being in a conversation where you can tell everybody’s on the same page.

From your perspective as an artist, to what degree do you feel that the live experience of concerts has been overly commodified?

HAYNES: Let’s start with all the endorsement and product-placement stuff that is part of it. The names of the venues no longer have their classic names—they have the name of whoever is paying them money for the next year. That’s a real drag, but this is something I could go on and on about. The whole concept of paying $20-$25 to park closer to the venue for VIP parking: I understand it, and I am even guilty because this is my life and my world so if I go to a concert, I want to feel the VIP experience, too. But I think it’s gotten to a point that the average rock-and-roll fan can’t afford to go to a show.

BELL: Well, as always, there are different factions of the industry trying to cash in. But when it comes to the music itself, that’s pretty untouchable if you stand your ground. And we’ve obviously not gone into a commercial type of application of our music. But you know, some bands do, and that’s a personal choice. And there are so many kinds of genres and audience types out there. There’s something for everybody. But yeah, there’s a lot of commercialism out there—everything from glow sticks to advertising on the tickets.

LESH: That’s something that is inevitable. It’s a basic human thing. But I came here to move minds. I came here to transport people out of their daily awareness and into a more communal spirit. So as far as I’m concerned, however it has to happen.

While Jerry Garcia’s passing was a tragic loss to the music community and the Grateful Dead suddenly wasn’t touring, it allowed many bands who followed a similar model to gain much more traction. Was that ultimately a good thing?

Deadheads need other bands to listen to and, for the most part, it’s a dichotomy because Deadheads—especially the hardcore ones—only like
the Dead and very little else. And in some cases, they might find one of the jambands that they wanted to follow, musically speaking, after Jerry’s passing, but there were just as many people that decided to stay home at that point.

BELL: Personally, Jerry was a big influence on me as far as the way he communicated the songs. I was very surprised when I realized that, lyrically, he was working with somebody else because—to my ears and my experience in watching concerts—his interpretation and vocal stylings seemed to come from the heart and the soul. I was amazed that he hadn’t written the lyrics himself. And the way he played guitar was like his guitar was speaking as well. It was embellishing the imagery that was coming through in the song. So when he passed, that was a drag. We’re lucky to have the Grateful Dead as they were, and the remaining folks that are out there now, still plugging away.

HAYNES: It’s hard to convince a hardcore Deadhead that there is other music that’s alluring and equal but in a different way, and that is OK because I have always spoken about the fact that music is a personal thing—what you like is what you like. No one can change the fact that I like something or the fact that I don’t like it, and it should be like that with every music lover.

BELL: There was undeniably a lot of folks that—the Grateful Dead had embraced jug-band music, improvisational stuff and different styles of music—were introduced not only to the Grateful Dead but to other forms of music and in a doorway where that musical exploration was very acceptable. It was a fun way to approach playing together and learning how to play together with your bandmates. And that’s still happening. But there are a lot of different audience types, a lot of different music types, a lot of different ways to use the stage. For us, we groove more on the improvisational, rock-and-roll side.

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