Rob Barraco: The Delicacy of The Dead (INTERVIEW)

With a music career that includes extensive classical training, a Bachelors Degree in Music from the State University of New York-New Paltz, member of the house band for The Cosby Show, tours with Freddy Jackson, and ten years performing with the Zen Tricksters, Rob Barraco has now solidified himself as a vital element of Phil Lesh and Bob Weir’s post-Dead creations, bringing him even greater respect as a talented pianist and accomplished musician. His musical achievements are numerous and his successes critically acclaimed, though over the past few years, by truly becoming a revered name in the post-Jerry Dead community, Barraco is making music he loves, is professionally proud and genuinely Deadhead happy.

When Barraco first discovered The Grateful Dead, like many, a little taste was not enough. So by the early 1970s, he jumped on tour, and quickly amassed a heavy show tally. While immersing himself in the band’s unique take on improvised rock and jazz, he was studying to refine his own musical talents, and eventually began teaching music theory at the Great Neck Music Center. It was at this point that his personal career began to thrive, and as he tried to pave his own path in music history, his Dead show days began to dwindle. Playing with many gifted musicians along the way, Barraco eventually found himself playing familiar Dead songs as the keyboard player for the Zen Tricksters.

Like most jamband acts, the Zen Tricksters toured heavily and built a solid fan base across the country while remaining under the mainstream radar. Though not everyone was oblivious to their hidden talents. When Phil Lesh began compiling players for his Phil and Friends shows, it wasn’t long before both Barraco and guitarist Jeff Mattson got the coveted invite. Mattson eventually faded off the list, but Barraco’s magic fit perfectly into the reinventive sounds that Lesh was looking to create.

Now, with The Dead breathing a much needed new life into old songs, Barraco is riding that train with the youthful passion he first held over thirty years ago.

With Bonnaroo being the official kick-off of The Dead, opening the show with “Touch of Grey” seemed a fitting choice on a multitude of levels. Was there a great deal of forethought put into that particular choice of opener?

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Well, probably, though I wasn’t privy to it (laughing)…but you can imagine that there was. The idea was…you know, you can see it, it’s pretty obvious.

Then the second set opened with “Box of Rain” > “Black Muddy River” > “Sugar Magnolia” > “Unbroken Chain” and then “Space” preceding “Drums,” which is an exact mirror image of the conclusion of the last Grateful Dead show. Is that just Deadhead statisticians with too much time on their hands, or is there something more to that?

(laughing) I think that was…if I had to take an educated guess, and again I don’t know, but I think that’s a coincidence.

It’s seemed that over the past few years, the post-Grateful Dead incarnations have perhaps thrown “Dark Star” into a set in order to let everyone go home and say they saw a “Dark Star.” Has this band been practicing new potential jam vehicles?

Well, the funny thing about this band is that it seems like any song, on any given night can be a vehicle. I know that when I was doing Phil Lesh and Friends, we started opening up tunes that had never been explored before, that were always self-contained. But we found that when we took a can opener to them, unbelievable things would happen. And that’s starting to happen with this band as well. And it’s different every time you play it. It could happen, it could not happen. So I think anybody can expect that to happen at any time. And of course “Dark Star,” that’s what “Dark Star” is so…

As a Deadhead yourself, your big touring years were between ‘72 and ‘79, and the addition of Joan Osborne, and previously with Susan Tedeschi as well, fits into that time period…

Oh yeah, without a doubt. Donna was a big part of the band…my first Dead show was one of her first shows, and then as the years went on, she took on a greater role. Especially after they took their hiatus in ’74, Phil wasn’t singing that much, so she took over a lot of the vocals he would have done. So there is definitely a voice for a female. And also, the other thing that I see here too is, both Susan and Joan can sing the blues, and that’s something that goes back to the beginning with the Grateful Dead. They had such a heavy blues influence with Pigpen and stuff.

Do you have a personal preference for that particular Dead-era, being that those were the shows you saw?

It was just the time that I was into it. As I grew as a musician, and got into other projects, I grew away from that particular kind of music just because it didn’t fit into what I was doing, without realizing that it really did. In the end, I came back to it because it made so much sense. I went into a really heavy-duty jazz trip for a long time, and of course, what is the Grateful Dead, an improv band (laughs).

Do you see the various styles and influences of all of the Grateful Dead keyboard players coming out in your own style of playing?

Not consciously. There’s probably no way I could avoid it, ’cause it’s so imbedded, but I don’t try, I don’t go and listen to things and parts and stuff unless it’s absolutely necessary.

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You’re in a unique position sharing keys with Jeff [Chimenti]. I know you trade off and on, but how do you go about not stepping on each others toes?

Well that’s a work in progress, and I think we’re addressing it little by little. Some tunes we’ve found that there’s really only room for one keyboard, so cool. And we’re also [switching] off on that particular tune. The next time we do it, maybe I’m gonna play it, and not Jeff. And then of course, the tunes that we do play together, we’re really being conscious of tying to use ebbed flow within the tunes themselves. And I think it’s also a challenge for the way it’s mixed in a stereo field, that they’re placed properly, so that’s a work in progress as well. Finding out where each of these instrument lives on the stage, because they can’t be on top of each other. And [that’s the responsibility] of our soundman, and of course he’s great, and he’s gonna get it. And our new sound system, I think we’re the first people to ever use this particular technology.

Ed. Note: The new sound system, MILO, debuted in Virginia Beach 6.17.03

It seems like the band is in great spirits, and thankfully everyone looks to be in good health. Did you feel a revitalization after the Terrapin shows?

Without a doubt. Oh yeah, and as we spend more time together, the camaraderie has gone up a notch. We spent close to a month rehearsing [before this tour], and in that months time, we really, really got it together.

You mentioned in the Bonnaroo press conference that you feel these players are your peers now, but Rob Baracco, the Deadhead, you must get a kick out of sitting around listening to all the war stories…

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Oh, are you kidding…pretty much with any of those guys from back in those days. Like when I got to meet [Ken] Kesey and listen to him tell stories, I mean god, talk about warriors. So it’s a thrill being able to talk to your heroes and commune with them this way, and to share a stage with probably some of the best and most unique musicians you can find. Jimmy Herring and Jeff Chimenti not withstanding. They’re also amazing. And Joan, she’s awesome.

Although this is not The Grateful Dead, you are currently writing the next chapter in this band’s huge legacy. Is that a bit overwhelming to you at times?

No…my whole life, for almost forty years now has been about playing music. As a little kid I started playing and I haven’t stopped. Whether I’m doing this, or I’m doing something else, I’m gonna play music. So this is about playing music. Music is first. And I’ve had to live with what you just said for the last four years. When I started playing with Phil, it was overwhelming those first few shows, but you have to come to grips with it, because you can’t allow those things to seep in when you’re on stage. When you’re on stage, you have to be open to the moment. That’s the only way to do this music. There’s no other way. It’s not like playing in some band that rehearses for three months, gets a set together, and they go out every night and play the same set note for note. You’ve got to be on the creative edge, always at the edge of your seat. And for me, that’s the way I’ve lived most of my adult life, playing on the edge like that. It’s a thrill, but like I said, this is now part of my life.

And it is really cool when I think about, that someday when it’s all said and done, that I’m gonna be part of this legacy. It’s unbelievable, but it’s not overwhelming, it’s beautiful. Most people, when they sit back and they dream about what they really want to do in their lives, I’d probably say a good portion of people don’t ever really get to that place, and I have, and it feels good.

And going along with that, the Phil and Friends line-up has been more or less a constant flux, but you’ve remained. I think that’s a true testament to what you have brought to this music.

Yeah, I feel really great about that. And I do feel good about the fact that now, the last couple of years, it’s been a pretty constant line-up, and it’s gonna stay that way. The next tour that we do is gonna be the same line-up. I think the only difference is I think the first two shows we do in September (The Warfield), Warren [Haynes] wasn’t available, so we’re gonna do them without him. But in the tour that we’re planning for the fall, he’ll definitely be a part of it. And I don’t know exactly what the [dates for the rest of the tour are], but I know it’s coming.

There are obviously many differences between playing with Phil and Friends, and The Dead, so how has it been for you changing gears with both bands?

Phil’s a big advocate of the, you’re first among equals, and he doesn’t really want to have designated solos. He wants, what I call, you create this double helix effect that keeps rising into the sky and twisting around each other. And the thing with the Dead, is that it’s more structured than that, because you have a lead guitar player, and a rhythm guitar player, and it’s more delicate. It’s almost so delicate that you know, if you placed it the wrong way, it would fall apart. And in Phil and Friends, there’s this beautiful cacophony going on that swirls around all the time, so it’s not as delicate. It’s also the nature of the players too. The way Warren plays, he’s got a harder edge than Bob [Weir] does. And Jimmy’s the most interesting one in the whole thing, because when he’s doing Phil, he’s gotta play a certain way, but when he’s in this role, he’s the lead guitar player of the band.

Well I thought he did a hell of a job the second set of Bonnaroo.

Oh, he kicked ass! That was the best I’ve heard him play since I’ve been playing with him. As far as playing in this particular genre. Yeah, he really stepped up to the plate and hit a lot of home runs.

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You also played bass on a recent Ratdog tour. Any chance that’ll happen again?

Well, I think what ended up happening was, they needed to fill in for those dates because, they didn’t really have anybody yet. And I was there, I know the repertoire, and I’m a huge fan of the bass. I love playin’ it, but it’s not something that I practice everyday or anything (laughs). And I live on the East coast, so it’s harder…

Ed. Note: at this point, there is a bunch of commotion and laughter in the background

(laughing) Phil’s busting me. Anyway, yeah, so I still live on Long Island, and I think for Bobby’s deal, they wanted somebody, they all live local, Marin and stuff, and they wanted someone they could just call up on the spur of the moment and rehearse when they want to. And for me it’s a big deal, ‘cause they gotta fly me out, put me up, get me a car…it’s too crazy. So it doesn’t make any sense. And plus, what happens in the end is, when Phil calls for a tour, what does Ratdog do? Because, and I told them right from the beginning, my first priority was, you know, Phil, so…

After all this band, and it’s fanbase have been through over the years, the phrase, ‘they are the Dead, I’m just Grateful,’ seems to really hit home this tour.

Oh god, yeah. What a legacy to have. To have this music, and it’s still going. It must be so great to be a young kid right now, and be able to go and do this. I mean, sure, Jerry’s not here but look, life goes on. With everything it’s a constant state of flux. And these kids are really getting a taste, and they’re getting a good taste, ‘cause this band’s good.

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