NOVATO, Calif. In a huge rehearsal studio lined with black velvet curtains and piled high with well-worn road cases, former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir sits on a stool, leading the latest incarnation of the Other Ones through the vocal harmonies on the Dead classic "He's Gone" (RealAudio excerpt of rehearsal take).
"The idea is to get a gospel quartet or gospel trio," Weir says of the song's outro, an extended, bluesy vocal jam on which he, pianist Bruce Hornsby and guitarist Mark Karan riff on the line "Oooh, nothing's gonna bring him back." The song has taken on new meaning since iconic Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia died in 1995, leading to the disbanding of the improvisational American rock powerhouse.
Refreshed with a new lineup, the Other Ones are gearing up for this summer's Furthur Festival tour with Ziggy Marley and the Melodymakers, which kicks off Aug. 23 in San Diego and wraps Sept. 24 in Atlanta.
The band's studio complex is laden with the working artifacts of the Dead's long career. A 5-foot-high ball of black gaffer's tape sits on a cart behind Hornsby's grand piano. A picture of Elvis Presley with the caption "I'm dead" clings to an amp cabinet.
The Dead's ubiquitous skull-and-lightning-bolt logo adorns a forklift outside, where a maze of stage set scaffolding and black mesh creates a tentlike lounge area. Various personnel wander in and out of the rehearsal space, occasionally tweaking a rainbow-knobbed, 128-channel mixing console.
Two sound engineers work in a separate studio, remixing old live tapes, and the band's business offices now the hub of the former Grateful Dead members' various side projects, as well as Grateful Dead Records, merchandising and other ongoing pursuits bustle with preparations for the tour.
Founding Drummer Returns
Named for an early Dead tune, the Other Ones first convened to tour in 1998 with Dead alumni Weir, drummer Mickey Hart and bassist Phil Lesh and latter-day sideman Hornsby. Jazz saxophonist Dave Ellis and two guitarists Steve Kimmock (Zero) and Karan (Ratdog) explored different leads on classic Dead tunes, the bulk of the band's repertoire.
Ellis is no longer with the band, and Lesh, at odds with his former bandmates over business and philosophical issues, opted out of this summer's road trip but founding drummer Bill Kreutzmann, lean, clean-shaven and well-rested, has returned to the fold after a five-year respite.
"I miss the sh-- out of playing music, man," Kreutzmann says, sitting in an air-conditioned trailer outside the studio. The drummer has been living in Hawaii and spending more time fishing than playing. The easiest part of joining the Other Ones, he says, was locking in with longtime co-drummer Hart.
"It's automatic," Kreutzmann says.
Hart skips an Aug. 16 rehearsal to attend the Democratic National Convention, but the rest of the band works diligently, if casually, to work out songs from a long list scribbled on three dry-erase boards in the studio, including a few chestnuts long absent from the Dead's repertoire as well as mainstays such as "The Music Never Stopped" (RealAudio excerpt of rehearsal take).
On a stage-height drum riser loaded to the brim with an eclectic collection of toms, timbales, bongos and other, more exotic percussive devices, Kreutzmann, in shorts and a blue Hawaiian shirt, dances behind his drum kit as the Other Ones hash out classics such as "He's Gone," "The Wheel" and "Uncle John's Band," as well as Hornsby's tunes "The Way It Is" and "Valley Road."
"It's nice to get back playing with Billy, and Billy's having a field day playing with [bassist Alphonso Johnson]," Weir says, sitting cross-legged on a road case during a break, his toenails painted different colors. "Alphonso is real good. ... His approach naturally takes stuff to new places."
Johnson, who played in Weir's 1980s side project Bobby and the Midnites, as well as with Santana and Weather Report, checks the sheet music for the changes on "He's Gone," then settles into the pocket with Hornsby's lush, jazzy honky-tonk (RealAudio excerpt of rehearsal take). Weir punctuates the tune with scrunchy, flanged chords.
Old Guard Meets New Breed
With three longtime Dead members and three next-generation players, balanced by Hornsby, the band sounds at times like the Dead. At other times, it's a whole different group, the newer members infusing the music with new colors and flavors.
Karan's guitar twang and Kreutzmann's easy drumming give "Ripple" an ambling country feel. Johnson plucks and slides on a red electric upright bass and Hornsby squeezes soft chords out of the accordion, while Kimmock strums a mandola.
Kimmock's snaking leads, Karan's whammy-bar bends and Hornsby's capable lyrics darken the early Garcia gambler's lament "Loser" (RealAudio excerpt of rehearsal take).
Between songs, the bandmembers joke about adding a Latin rhythm to "Ripple," and pick out little pieces of songs such as Bill Monroe's bluegrass standard "Uncle Pen."
"Wouldn't that just be the sh--, if the first song on the first night, we did [Madonna's] 'Like a Virgin?' " Hornsby quips. "Those Deadheads would be horrified!"
"Like a Virgin" probably won't see the light of day, but Weir says the band is working on a few new songs, with lyrics provided by Robert Hunter. A live CD likely will result, and a studio disc may eventually follow but not before a solid group of new songs has been road-tested.
"As we learn each other's moves and how to sort of coax stuff out of each of the players in the band, it's gonna develop into its own entity," Weir says. "The most fulfilling thing is finding new ways to lock together, new harmonic constructs and stuff like that rhythmic constructs and having them fall together, and having the joy of discovery occur. It's kind of what I live for."