Walk around the lot or past the line before any Phish concert and no longer is it just a sea of long-haired, bearded, dready hippies dancing their way into the show. The band’s multiple-day festivals draw thousands, including college kids, dads, bankers, baristas — the jam scene has exploded into something more than most of the fans would like to admit, and with its rise to fame in the late ’80s, Phish has helped spawn a generation of bands dedicated to long jams and super-extended melodies. Nowadays, you can’t say “jam band” without thinking of Phish. But when you think of the granddaddy of it all, the real pioneers of the scene, what comes to mind, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, is the Grateful Dead. The Dead spearheaded the movement of free love, altered spiritual experiences and psychedelic jams. With this in mind, DeadPhish Orchestra, a quartet of Colorado musicians, has dedicated itself to playing the music of these two iconic bands, creating shows that are “about as much fun as humans are allowed to have.”
“Free beer. Oh, and feeding off the energy of the crowd, too — but mostly the free beer,” joked Brian Adams, the band’s bassist, on what he enjoys most about performing live shows. Adams, along with guitarist Paul Murin, keyboardist Ted Tilton and drummer Chris Sheldon, must be close to drowning in free beer at this point in their careers, with decades’ worth of shows, festivals and bands among the four musicians piled up on their track record.
DeadPhish Orchestra is just one of their newer projects, an idea to create a “seamless web of Grateful Dead and Phish to split open and melt your face,” as their website boasts.
The members of DPO have all been in the Colorado music scene for years, giving them a long history of faces and places they‘ve played. DPO has shared the stage with recognizable names such as Michael Kang (String Cheese Incident), Fareed Haque (Garaj Mahal), Andy Thorn (Leftover Salmon, Drew Emmitt Band), Pete Wall (Particle, Motet) and Bridget Law (Elephant Revival). Sheldon and Adams also play in Great American Taxi, another staple on the Colorado jam scene, and among the group, “we are in so many other bands I’ve lost track at this point,” Adams said. Murin, Sheldon and Adams all played together in a Phish-tribute band called Phix, which toured the country heavily from 2003 to 2007, with the idea for DeadPhish taking off about three years ago.
Playing songs for crowds that can pretty much sing along to a majority of the lyrics and catch any wrong notes could either be a lot of pressure or a lot of fun. Adams said the group attempts to play the composed parts of the songs as accurately as possible, “nail the vocal harmonies and emulate the same instrument tones. But within most of the Dead and Phish songs, there is a lot of room for improvisation in certain sections.
“Both bands use their songs as a launching pad for improvisation, and we have quite a bit of fun weaving back and forth between the two bands in our shows. There are endless possibilities on how to use similar grooves, song keys and even song titles, to get from song to song. For example, ‘My Friend’ to ‘Friend of the Devil’ or ‘Mexican Cousin’ to ‘Mexicali Blues.’ We’ve actually never played ‘Mexican Cousin,’ though, and probably won’t.”
With a seemingly endless catalog of songs between the two bands, it can get complicated when it comes to choosing a playlist for each show. To make the process easier, Tilton put on his geek hat and developed a computer program that makes the set list for them, keeping track of what was played each night, what they played the last time they were in a certain town and significant lyrics related to the town they are playing in. The program won second place for Program of the Year in Popular Science magazine in 2011. Along with his genius mind, the keyboardist is also known for enjoying the occasional yoga pose while he drives. Along with meditating and chanting mantras, the trips can be “funny, exciting, dramatic and terrifying all at once,” Adams said.
Spreading the love
Their show on Saturday, Nov. 16, at Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver was more than just another gig to the members of DeadPhish, as the event was part of The Wake of the Flood Foundation concert series. To date, DeadPhish has been involved in three flood benefit shows, and to Adams, the importance of those benefit shows is beyond describable. The members of DeadPhish all live in and around the Boulder area and were directly affected by the flooding.
Murin and Sheldon both live in the mountains above Jamestown — Murin was trapped at his house without power for days, while Sheldon had been in Denver during the flooding and was not able to go home for some time. Adams was trapped at his home in north Longmont due to road closures and had to cancel a couple of gigs.
“It was a pretty crazy few days, and it was quite surreal watching my friends on the news being airlifted out by National Guard helicopters, watching other friends being interviewed on the Weather Channel and just seeing some of the devastating footage that was captured as it happened,” Adams said. “We had several friends who lost their houses and one friend who lost his life.”
DeadPhish opened the night, followed by The Everyone Orchestra, featuring a collaboration of many well-known musicians, to help raise money for flood victims. One of Adams’ favorite musicians, John Kadlecik, formerly of Dark Star Orchestra and currently a member of Further and Phil and Friends, sat in with DeadPhish for a set. Sunshine Garcia, of Further, also joined in for some vocal harmonies, which was “pretty cool,” as Adams put it.
“We were graciously dedicated to do our part to raise some relief money for the victims of the flood,” Adams said.
Hitting the mountains
The band tries to play Breckenridge (“our favorite town, of course!”) at least twice a ski season, Adams said. The show will kick off at three20south on Friday, Dec. 6 — and fyi, they do take occasional requests.
The band will then head to Steamboat Springs on Saturday, Dec. 7, rounding out the month with a four-day New Year’s run at the recently opened Donkey OT in Denver.
“It will be the official late-night after-party for all the New Year’s run shows going on in the Front Range,” Adams said.
To check out more about the band or listen to its music, go to deadphishorchestra.com.