Playing with the Dead

by Graham Wiggins on Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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On February 23, 1993 I played didgeridoo with the Grateful Dead at the Mardi Gras show at the Oakland Coliseum in California. This was more than a great opportunity to play with a famous band- the Dead had been my favorite band since high school and one of my biggest musical influences. I collected cassettes of their live shows and even tried to transcribe a version of Dark Star orchestrated for my high school band hoping to turn the older generation on to the genius in their music. The transcription turned out to be way too hard, but I think most people figured out how important the Dead are to American music! I got the opportunity to play with the Dead mainly because Mickey Hart was releasing his solo albums on Rykodisc, which was also my label with my first band Outback and later with Dr. Didg. He heard my music through people at Ryko, and later suggested that I come to his ranch in Novato CA to lay down some tracks for some recording projects he was working on (bits of my didgeridoo ended up on “Mystery Box” and “Supralingua”). The session was set for a couple of days after their Mardi Gras run, so Mickey suggested I come a couple of days early and sit in with the band.

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It was all arranged at the last minute, so I ended up almost being “snuck in” by Mickey, as they didn’t have a chance to arrange an All Access laminated backstage pass for me. There are various levels of access, and my pass was the lowest. I still have the pass, though, which has a cool rendering of “Grateful Dead” in letters that read the same upside down. I arrived at the backstage entrance of the coliseum feeling cool, like “I’m with the band”, but when I strolled up to the guard there he looked at his list and set “stand aside” and called through on his walkie talkie. Eventually Mickey’s assistant came out and ushered me in.

The backstage area was very clinical, harsh fluorescent lighting and cinder block walls in a big hallway curving around the arc of the stadium behind the stage, with equally cold and clinical rooms off of it. You could picture basketball players trooping through here on their way to the game on some other night in the year. I was brought into Mickey’s “outer” dressing room and was introduced. We talked about how it would go down. The band would do “Playing in the Band”, which would evolve into the drum solo section. Then Mickey would bring the groove down to a stop and let me set up a new groove that I was comfortable with, and then they would join back in. We also had Sikuru joining us as a guest, an awesome African percussionist who has played some fantastic stuff on Mickey’s “Planet Drum” albums.

Before the show Mickey arranged for the Dead’s famous head roadie Ramrod to come and talk to me about my technical requirements. Naturally enough I was nervous about the gig, unlike my own Dr. Didg shows which I always felt very confident about. I wanted to play my best, so I had been practicing hard for a couple of weeks, and I was also worried that I would get out on stage and find that I couldn’t hear myself, or couldn’t hear the other players, or that my sound through the PA would be poor. I have had all these problems sitting in with other bands and even with my own band working with the house sound engineer at random clubs across America. So here I am, talking to Ramrod, and I lay it out for him. I’m going to need a good quality condenser mic on a low stand which holds it about 4 inches off the floor. I’m going to need a piece of wood about 1 by 2 feet which I will rest the didgeridoo on, with a lump of duct tape to push the didg against so I have a fixed distance to the mic. The mic should be pointed downwards to pick up the reflection of the didg sound coming off the board and should be about 10 inches away. My signal should have a limiter on it so that the “toots” and “pops” I play don’t come out way louder than the main drone, and the EQ should not be too bass heavy, but if anything should push slightly around 1 kHz. The whole time Ramrod is listening to me with total focus, and when I finish my explanation he says “Right, done!”. And that is exactly how it was done when I got out on stage later. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Dead crew were 100% professional on on-the-ball, but I have dealt with so many big ego sound guys in crappy little clubs who would say “Yeah, yeah, I had a didg in here last week, I know how to do this” and then make a complete mess of it. So it was a real treat to have someone of Ramrod’s caliber taking the approach that as a didgeridoo player I probably know the best way to mic it up and taking everything I said seriously.

During the build up to the show there were various times I needed to go up onto the stage itself to finalize the arrangements. Since my pass didn’t actually allow me access to the stage, I was introduced to the stage manager by Mickey’s wife and he was told that I would be joining the band later. Every time I went up to the stage there was this awesome transition from the harsh, fluorescent lighting in the halls backstage to the dark purple lighting at the back of the stage. I would push through these heavy velvet curtains and enter what seemed a sacred space, dripping with expectation and potential. You could hear the murmur of the crowd filtering in and feel that incredible excitement everyone shared about seeing another incredible Grateful Dead show. It really felt like the stage was some kind of shrine, hallowed ground. Around the back edge of the stage “inner” dressing rooms had been constructed for all the band members, rigged out of scaffolding with black drapes to make a series of “tents”, and all the huge rolling flight cases the equipment came in were used to wall off the different sections. Every time I passed the stage manager coming in he would say “You’re only going to stand in MICKEY’s area, OK?”. They did not want any random people wandering around or invading the privacy of the other band members. Once you came up the stairs up to the stage there was a little area to your left for the roadies to hang out, followed by Mickey’s area, and then Jerry’s area past that. At various times I could see Jerry hanging out there, just 20 feet away from me, especially when Ornette Coleman was playing his opening set, but I knew that it would not be cool for me to step past the divider and say “hi”.

There was a panic that swept through the backstage area not long before set time. I was heading up towards the stage from the hallway area again, and the stage manager said “I don’t think you want to go up there now”. I asked what was up, and he said that Jerry’s guitar had broken. People were rushing around and there was a tangible sense of tension in the air. I had seen the show the night before as a regular audience member, and I remember Jerry having a lot of trouble with his guitar, with the sound dropping out for substantial parts of different songs. Someone told me on the Mardi Gras night that the guitar had broken in half. So they found a substitute, and in the end he sounded much better than the night before.

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Finally it my time to play started to draw near. They started up on Playing in the Band, and Mickey’s wife said “Oh! This is Mickey’s song!”. I said “Oh yeah, this is the song that’s going to lead into the drum solo”, and she said “No, this is Mickey’s song, he WROTE it.” I hadn’t really realized before then that the song originated with Mickey’s solo album “Rolling Thunder” where it was called “The Main Ten” (because the time signature features a rhythm that repeats every ten beats). Weir and Barlow added to it later to make it Playing in the Band.

At this time, the Dead were using in-ear monitors, something they were very early adopters of (courtesy of Mickey’s huge enthusiasm for the concept). In the old days each band member would have a monitor speaker or two, usually a “wedge” on the floor in front of them, which would play to them the sounds they needed to hear to make the music happen, whether needing to hear yourself singing or to hear the other band members so you could keep it all in synch. You can’t hear well from the main PA speakers which are slung way up over your head, where the sound bounces around the hall before coming back to you. The problem with the monitor speakers is, they have to be pretty loud to overcome the general clatter of reflected sound from the PA and the drums and everything, so the sound level on stage gets pretty high, and ultimately is damaging to your hearing. On top of that, when you have a mic on stage picking up someone’s voice or an acoustic instrument, it also picks up the sound of all those monitors blaring away. With the in-ear system you have a high quality earphone which plugs your ear, blocking out all the reverberating sound of the hall and delivering to your ears the sweetest hi-fi mix of exactly the things you need to hear. On top of that you can now mic up an acoustic instrument like a hand drum (or a didgeridoo!) and get a clean sound in the main PA. Mickey was hugely enthusiastic about this technology. The first time I ever met him I was doing a soundcheck at Berkley Freight and Salvage in Berkley CA and he stopped by to see me. I saw him and his assistant come in and walk up to the stage. I stopped the band and got up to greet Mickey, and he leaned over the stage from the floor, looking down at the shitty beat-up old stage monitor, and the very first thing he said to me was “Fucking Stone-Age, man….”. He then began to extol the virtues of the in-ear monitor system. He enthused about how he could stand in a stadium with a rock PA and play an Egyptian hand drum in front of a mic with no feedback. Soon after that I got my own earphones and it transformed my music, especially as we needed to hear the loops on the Dr. Didg band and stay absolutely tight with them. Unfortunately, on the night I played with the Dead, I didn’t have in-ear monitors, as the ones they were using were custom molded to fit each person’s ear, but they gave me regular old fashioned headphones instead.

So, the jam coming out of Playing in the Band starts winding down, Jerry, Bobby, Phil and Vince leave the stage, and it’s time for me to join the drummers. Ramrod runs out and puts the little wooden board down on the Persian rug that Jerry was standing on and sets up the mic, I sit down on Jerry’s rug, put on the headphones, and get ready to play. Just as we discussed, Mickey brings the groove to a halt, and I play a long sweeping note on my didg, “eeeaaaaooooow”, and a roar goes up through the crowd. Then I start into my riff, pretty close to what I play on the Dr. Didg tune Street Music, and Mickey, Bill Kreutzman and Sikuru join in. We get a groove going, and after a minute or two I think to myself “this needs to go somewhere…” so I stop playing my circular breathing riff and launch into some highly syncopated high toots, and immediately the other three guys respond and take the energy up a notch and I feel this thrill and think to myself “Holy SHIT, I’m leading the band!!”, and then I drop back to my regular riff and listen really hard to everything else that is going on trying to make sure I am in synch with everyone. I tried to comprehend the hugeness of the situation I was in, looking out at the crowd, but all I could see were the first 50 rows of people, and then blackness, with a series of tiny exit lights way in the distance around the back of the hall. I think the place holds about 20,000 people.

Through the whole thing I am hearing a beautiful clear mix in my headphones, I can hear myself, I can hear all the other drums, we are all jamming away together. What I didn’t know is that this is not what was going through the PA. They were taking what I was playing and bringing it up and down in the mix, creating a sound painting from all the musicians on stage. I was not aware of it at the time, but people who were there told me that at certain points they started firing up this third bank of speakers hoisted up at the rear of the coliseum, behind most of the audience, and they were taking my didg sound and panning it from the left speakers, to the right speakers, to the BACK speakers, and back to the left, so that it seemed like the didgeridoo was flying in circles around the top of the coliseum. Apparently it was very impressive, but it doesn’t come out clearly in any of the audience tapes I have heard of the show. The jam went on for ages, and towards the end my lips were turning to chopped meat as I was playing hard and rhythmic the whole time. Then it went all spacey as Mickey started triggering synth sounds from a drum pad, and I started making the spaciest slowly pulsating didg sounds I could think of. Then Jerry came out and stood right next to me, facing backwards looking at his equipment and tuning his guitar. I thought to myself “Oh YEAH, I’m going to jam with JERRY!” but then a voice came in my headphones which said “Right. Time to get out of there” and I had to leave. Phil and Bobby came back out and it evolved into a space jam as Mickey and Bill left the drums and took a breather. Then Ornette Coleman joined them. I think he was Jerry’s special guest that night and Jerry was pretty pumped to have him opening and then playing together with the band.

After the show was over I was buzzing and hoping to hang with the band, but almost as soon as the last note of the last song had finished all the band members headed straight out to their cars or limos and took off to beat the rush out of the parking lot. So I had met Mickey, Bill and Vince, but never got to hang with the rest of the band, which was a little disappointing. The backstage scene was very stratified, with multiple layers of access, like an onion, and you couldn’t just walk into Jerry’s dressing room and say “Hi!”. At first this seemed odd to me, but I started to understand that it is a natural way for things to evolve which allowed the band members to maintain some sanity in all those years on the road. There were a LOT of people with backstage access, friends of the band and crew, press, people building the floats for the Mardi Gras parade, managers, assistants, you name it, and you have to believe most of them would have loved to sit down and have a joint with Jerry. And Jerry just needed to chill with his close friends and get his head together for the gig, so he had to be protected from that. I’m sad I never got to talk to him, but I feel so blessed to have shared the stage with him, even for a few seconds. I also heard a nice story from Mickey. Some months before the concert Jerry was in the hospital after one of his collapses. I had sent Mickey a tape of some didg riffs I was playing in case it was useful in planning the recording session with him. One of the riffs was my attempt to play “The Other One” on the didgeridoo, and I mentioned that in the notes on the tape. Mickey told me that he visited Jerry in the hospital and told him he was planning to do a session with a guy who plays “The Other One” on the didgeridoo, and that Jerry thought that sounded cool. That means a lot to me.

The day after the gig I was free for a day before the recording session, and figured I’d go out on the street in San Francisco and play my didg and see if I could sell some tapes. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous! There was such an intense panhandling scene in San Fran then that people were really reluctant to stop and listen, being worried that there would be some big hustle coming. Almost nobody stopped, but one guy came up to me and said he had been a press photographer at the gig the night before and had photos of me on stage. I gave him my contact details but never heard back from him. If you are out there, I’d love to see those photos!!