The Other Ones
-new faces, more strange places
By Lee Abraham
"I've got nothing to lose here," says Dave Ellis, saxman for the Other Ones, the latest tie-dyed Phoenix to rise from the smoldering ashes of the Grateful Dead, "There's no pressure on me. The only pressure I feel is that I want to do justice to the music and I hope that people enjoy it."
Ellis has seen the tightly knit "Deadhead" community from very near its most sacred inner circles during an ongoing transition from mourning to rebirth as Deadheads continue to find their way through the "post-Garcia era." A jazzman that admits to never shaking his bones at a Dead show, Ellis joined Bob Weir's band, Ratdog, about a year after Garcia's death, by way of his friendship with Ratdog drummer and former bandmate in the Charlie Hunter Trio, Jay Lane.
At first Ratdog played few Dead tunes and had no lead guitar player. A display of respect for Garcia's "space," as well as an attempt by Weir to forge his own identity, something decidedly "other" than the Dead. The process was slow, at first the Deadhead community met Ratdog with mixed reviews, however as Weir added Ellis to play leads, another show of respect for Garcia by not plugging a guitar into the lead slot, and also playing a wider repertoire of Dead material, including some of Garcia's signature tunes, Ratdog drew larger crowds and more of an overall positive buzz among the Deadheads.
The announcement of "The Other Ones," which in addition to Weir, includes the Dead's Phil Lesh on bass and Mickey Hart on drums, along with Bruce Hornsby on keyboards (who toured with the Dead for over 100 shows), met with an outpouring of enthusiasm from the Deadhead community, but there were also a few questions.
For those outside the Dead's psychedelic sphere of influence, it can be difficult to appreciate just how deep Garcia's spirit permeates the music and ultimately the scene itself. The question of how to incorporate a lead instrument without offending the Deadheads, sort of like a parent getting remarried but not wanting to piss-off the kids, was touchy stuff indeed for the surviving band members.
At first, Stan Franks, a virtuoso jazz guitar player best known for his work in the David Murray Octet was announced as a band member, but then just a few weeks before the Other One's debut in San Francisco in early June, he was dropped from the line-up, "It was too far for him to come (musically) in too short a time," Weir is quoted as saying in the current issue of Rolling Stone.
The solution came judiciously, albeit precariously close to show time, in the form of three new players, two guitars and a sax, brought into the mix with a decided nod toward new directions for the Dead's patented improvisational explorations. John Molo from Hornsby's band, was also added as the 2nd drummer, due to the Dead's Bill Kreutzman choosing not to tour, opting to hang out at home in Hawaii and continue to play with his own band, "Backbone."
Among the new faces, Steve Kimock is the best known within Dead circles, as the lead guitar player for Zero, a legendary Bay area band that has deep roots with the Dead's extended family, including Robert Hunter, the Dead's most prolific lyricist. The other new guitar player is Mark Karan, former lead guitar player for the Rembrandts, a pop outfit best known for the "Friends" TV show theme song.
Both Kimock and Karan are longtime Deadheads, yet have distinctively different playing styles. Each brings a working familiarity with the Dead's material to their roles in the Other Ones, which helps the band as a unit, yet when they solo their individual approaches to the music stretch the bandwidth of sonic possibilities. By adding ~two~ guitarists, neither is under the gun to conjure images of Garcia on stage, and each has more freedom to find new spaces for the guitar's voice.
Ellis on the other hand introduces the less familiar saxophone to the soundscape, an instrument that has found its way onstage with the Dead on only a few occasions, most notably Branford Marsalis' legendary concert performances on the Dead classic "Eyes of the World." Jazz legend Ornette Coleman, as well as David Murray and the "Big Man," Clarence Clemens, have also jammed with the Dead, and although the sax was an infrequent visitor, its contribution provided an invigorating synergy which propelled the jamming to spectacular levels.
As the primary soloist for Ratdog, Ellis had time to grow familiar with the Dead's songbook and listen to tapes of his horn blowin' predecessor's interpretations of the material.
Ellis has evolved into a masterful soloist, with melodic stylings as inventive as a jilted lover looking for a second chance and deep space explorations which evoke the same mind blowing abstractions as Sun Ra's legendary tenor player John Gilmore. In addition to his own work on the tenor, Ellis has developed a deeply woven, rhythmic contribution to the music, putting the unique characteristics of the soprano and baritone saxophones to work whenever he can.
"I hope that the role of the saxophone is a pleasant one and that it fits in," says Ellis, "in some sense I know that I have to sort of "Shoe horn" it in you know, this isn't the Dead and the idea is just sort of that we play the music with the same spirit and hopefully it comes across and touches people in the same way."
"After all," continues Ellis, "with Mickey, Bob and Phil there, that's the core of the band man, that's the rhythm section right there, so no matter what, it's gonna sound like the Dead because that's where this stuff came from. Those guys created that sound and I'm lucky enough to be in a role where I get to dance with it."
So far reviews from the Other One's tour indicate that Ellis isn't the only one dancing. The buzz among Deadheads has been overwhelmingly positive, the band is reported by all accounts to be "trippin' the light fantastic." It's truly an ongoing reunion, for Deadheads and the musicians themselves, Donna Jean Godchaux, the Dead's vocalist from the 70's sat in with the Other Ones at their show on July 3rd in Camden , New Jersey.
There's even a brand new tune, "The Banyon Tree," with lyrics by Robert Hunter. Although the line-up has only been together for a short period, everyone in the band knew things were going to work out once they got a chance to jam onstage in San Francisco.
Mickey Hart has just finished recording a new CD, "Supra Lingua," ("Beyond Language") which is scheduled for release in August, and with his latest recording completed, the Grammy winning drummer is enjoying being on the road with the new, hybrid ensemble. "It’s the continuation of an ongoing conversation," says Hart, "the magic is still there!"
To Hart, the conversation is an ongoing, 30 plus year experience, but for guitarist Mark Karan, who comes to the Other Ones from the Rembrandts, a band that takes a very different approach to its music, it's a brave new world.
"The difference," explains Karan, "is pretty much a very structured, melodically defined, three or four minute song that is pretty much going to appear the same every time its played, versus music that's hung on a framework of a cool song, but then expressed with the same kind of mentality that I think of as jazz music with rock and roll note choices, and even that's not necessarily true! As the Dead matured as a band, a lot of the note choices became more jazz-like also."
"The band has been getting better as we go," says Ellis, who points out that the interactions ~among~ the soloists is also a new feature unique to the Other Ones, "so by the time of the Vegas shows all these things will just keep on improving. We'll still be exploring the music and learning about each others playing and learning to function as a band…that's what makes it fresh right now, it's new!"