Multi-instrumentalist, session ace and educator Marc Muller (right) leads the latest edition of the DEAD ON LIVE project back to the Basie, for a Black Friday recreation of some vintage Grateful Dead releases from the early 1970s. Photos by Brian Stratton
No matter who you are, where you live, or who you associate with — chances are you’ve got at least one person like that in your world.
Call it a lifestyle choice, a fad or a fashion; reject it as something immoral and unnatural, but someone close to you — your niece or nephew, your letter carrier, the church elder, that soulmate you thought you knew so well — is a Deadhead, or something very much like it.
Unlike the Grateful Dead themselves — who just kind of improvised their way into one of the most enviable careers ever constructed of happy/sad accidents — the fans, whether musicians themselves or laymen, are a detail-intensive bunch for sure. Contrary to the get-a-bath stereotype, they’re the folks who make the trains run on time; the entrepeneurs and visionaries, the doctors and district managers, and almost certainly the IT techs who make sense of that often inscrutable machinery we’re all plugged into these days.
Here on and around the Upper Wet Side, we’ve got access to any number of Grateful Dead tributes and tributaries working the regional circuit — from projects like Dead Bank (a frequent Grateful Thursdays presence at Jamian’s Food and Drink in Red Bank) and Mark Diomede‘s venerable Juggling Suns, to Splintered Sunlight and Dark Star Orchestra, the well-traveled ensemble that dedicates each of its gigs to a specific recreation of a particular set from the Dead’s historical soundboard canon.
If there exists an even more elevated plane of obsession, however, it’s the exclusive purview of Marc Muller — master multi-instrumentalist, sought-after session ace, adjunct professor at Monmouth University and the man whose Rock the Basie band-camp program has become a firmly rooted feature of the Count Basie Theatre schedule.
On the evening of Black Friday — a night where everyone from Santa to the Grinch is expected to be present and accounted for on the streets, stages and station stops of Red Bank — the 10-year veteran of Shania Twain‘s band returns to the Basie boards (in the company of special guest Nicole Atkins) with the latest edition of a project about which he says, “I don’t know if ANYONE has done this to the extent that I have.”
A flexibly floating lineup composed of Muller and an awesome Rolodex of talented friends, the entity known as Dead On is “deadicated” to the comprehensive transcription — and note-for-note reproduction — of the Grateful Dead’s body of officially released recordings. As maestro Muller puts it, that means “every Phil Lesh note, every drum, banjo or mandolin part…even the mistakes.”
“We look at it like a symphony,” the Shark River Hills resident continues. “It’s like what The Fab Faux does with The Beatles, only we upped the game…we’re not doing songs, but extended jams.”
The Dead On Live project made its world premiere in October 2010 at the Basie, with a 40th anniversary concert keyed to the releases of the game-changing 1970 albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty — a pair of platters that shifted the Frisco band’s focus away from psychedelia, and toward an expansive American music that fused rock, bluegrass, blues, folk and especially country into an organic sound that would secure them a worldwide fanbase of unparalleled devotion.
For the November 25 event, Muller and company have been rehearsing a show that concentrates on two landmark live albums — the 1971 two-disc set informally known as Skull and Roses, and the triple-album juggernaut Europe ’72. Consistent with band chronology, also promised in the 8pm set are selections from the debut solo releases by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir.
“To me the general public imprint of these songs are the records,” says Muller, whose 1995-2004 tenure with Twain was an experience in which “we’d try to be perfect, chase that perfection, every night.”
“You could listen to ‘I Know You Rider’ in 1972 and it’ll sound totally different from how it was done in ’74, ’75,” he says of the traditional tune popularized by the Dead. “The heroin kicked in then, I suppose.”
With Muller as musical director, the Black Friday concert will be performed by a baker’s-dozen ensemble boasting members who are headliners in their own right (Colorado based Scott Rednor and our own Carl Gentry), in addition to Blood Sweat & Tears veteran Steve Jankowski, who leads a Dead On Live Horns section on songs like “Mexicali Rose.”
Muller’s fellow Neptune native Atkins — nationally known recording artist and star of American Express commercials — is expected to lend a vocal assist on “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” in addition to taking lead on “Looks Like Rain.”
“I ‘cast’ each project in this series; the first show used guys from the Glen Burtnik Beatle shows, and I’ve called on people from bands like Zen Tricksters and Dark Star” says Muller, whose past projects have incorporated members of such august bodies as Steely Dan, Dixie Dregs, Bela Fleck’s Flecktones and the Late Show with David Letterman band.
“These guys had to literally un-learn everything they’d been doing for 15 years,” he says of the meticulously notated approach to what were originally impromptu jams. “But the result is that we’ve got seasoned Dead coverband guys who are grinning ear to ear.”
“It’s crazyland,” laughs Muller, whose own indie solo CD found unexpected success as a staple soundtrack to The Weather Channel’s “Local on the 8s” forecasts. “You just have to find the right insane people who are great musicians.”
Tickets for Friday’s show are priced between $19.50 and $45, and can be reserved right here. The Dead On Live ensemble performs an encore of the Workingman’s Dead/ American Beauty program at Monmouth University on April 13, 2012 — and rumored to be in the works for the future is a further exploration of the canon that encompasses the Dead albums Wake of the Flood and Mars Hotel, plus the Garcia side project Old & in the Way.