HT’s Chad Berndtson recently chatted with keyboardist Rob Barraco about last week’s Phil Lesh Quintet (The “Q”) performances as well as his main band – Dark Star Orchestra. We’ll be presenting Chad’s interview with Rob in two parts. Today’s post will focus on the past, present and future of The “Q,” while tomorrow will cover the same ground in regards to Dark Star Orchestra.
To answer a burning question right off the top: Yes, there appear to be more Phil Lesh Quintet reunion shows in the works.
So says Rob Barraco, who as a core member of what is arguably the greatest of the post-Garcia Dead bands, is in a good position to know. And for many, that’s a cause for celebration – including for Barraco, who agrees that the Q was a special band with the type of musical chemistry rarely found, even among consummate pros.
[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]
After a nine-year absence, the band revisited that chemistry in late April, with four barn-burning shows at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael. As reunions go, the nights were relatively rust-free – and based on the initial reception, it’s hard to imagine a fuller-blown Q return isn’t in the works in some form.
Hidden Track: Are there going to be more Phil Lesh Quintet performances?
Rob Barraco: Oh yeah. No doubt about it. It’s going to happen.
It was Barraco’s participation in the Q, and also the Dead and several other pre- and post-Q Phil Lesh bands, that helped broaden his reputation. What a resume: a decade-plus tenure in the beloved Zen Tricksters, a range of sit-ins, collaborations and ongoing work on solo material, including the short-lived Dragonflys band, and, most importantly, his role in the ever-more-potent Dark Star Orchestra, which Barraco helped rescue from a near-collapse in 2005 and to which he’s remained committed, seven years on.
Hidden Track caught up with the effusively passionate Barraco, to hear all about the Q, DSO and being a road warrior.
HIDDEN TRACK: I want to get into a lot of the stuff you’ve been doing with Dark Star Orchestra but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the Phil Lesh Quintet reunion from last weekend. How were those shows?
ROB BARRACO: It was pretty magical, man. After nine years, it was like we didn’t miss a beat, not only musically, but just as friends, too. I hadn’t seen Jimmy, in particular, in a while, and as soon as I saw him, it was like yesterday. We all just got right back into character and it was really wonderful. One of the days, it was great, because it was my birthday and Warren and Jimmy took me out for lunch and that just turned into a laugh fest. It was like old times.
Musically, it was pretty deep. There were a couple of rusty spots here and there. We rehearsed for two days and went through I think about 50 tunes, and in typical Phil fashion, he loaded up the sets with tunes we definitely didn’t rehearse and that we hadn’t played together in nine years. But you know what? Boom. It was there. I mean, Mason’s Children was one of those, and we just started singing it. It was like we’d been rehearsing it.
HT: Makes sense: Mason’s is often thought of as one of the Q’s signature songs.
RB: Yeah, we had kind of our take on it. It was a little harder-edged than the Dead’s version of it, and it really worked for us. And Molo — wow — he just has that very infectious groove, that train groove. It was all pretty cool that it all felt right back into place. And with the fans, it was magical, you could tell that everyone was really into it.
[Photo by Adam Kaufman]
HT: Who got the ball rolling to reunite the Q? How did it come together?
RB: Well, I got a phone call from Phil out of the blue one day. He said, in that way he describes things [switches to a flawless Phil Lesh impression]: Rob! I don’t know if you’ve heard. But I bought a venue.
It was last June he called me. They were originally going to purchase a venue in Fairfax [Calif.]. The community there wasn’t into it so they bought the one in San Rafael and it’s just really set up well for the music because it was already a performance place. They have no curfew. So, yeah, Phil called me up and said he really wanted to bring the Q back. I was shocked. He says [in Phil voice] You remember what that was like. Don’t ‘cha? I said, yes I do. He goes, so do I! And I said, OK, Phil, let’s do it. And hey also asked if I’d be interested in doing other projects, and I said yes, as long as I have the time.
HT: You said he called you in June. Wow, so that call to put the Q back together was almost a year ago?
RB: It was, yes. He called me a bunch in the ensuing months just giving me updates and finally when they bought the place, he called me up and informed me and asked if I was still available to do some dates.
HT: Are there going to be more Phil Lesh Quintet performances?
RB: Oh yeah. No doubt about it. It’s going to happen.
HT: When, do you think? And will the band go beyond playing at Terrapin Crossroads?
RB: That remains to be seen. The number one thing is to try to find the time to do it. Everyone’s got a lot of commitments, Jimmy especially. He actually seems to be the most committed right now — you’d think it would be Warren, but I think it is actually Jimmy. If we have the time, and we can all make the commitment, we will do it. Hopefully it’ll happen sooner rather than later.
HT: It’s not a unique opinion that the Q was the best post-Jerry band to feature a surviving member of the Grateful Dead. Having played in a number of Phil & Friends groups and also with the Dead and in other contexts with these guys, what do you think made you five work?
RB: I always liken it to baseball. You remember the year the Yankees got A-Rod and had that enormous payroll, and as it turned out, they couldn’t buy themselves a pennant? The money can’t buy this stuff. They can all be great players, but if you don’t have chemistry…well, it’s like falling in love, too. If you don’t have chemistry, it’s not going to happen.
When we got the Q together originally, the idea was that it was going to be me, Jimmy, Molo, Phil and a revolving guitar player. That’s what Phil wanted, and the first one of those revolving guitar players was going to be Warren. About half hour into the first rehearsal with Warren, you could just tell everyone felt it. That went beyond anything I’ve ever been involved in, feeling that. That kind of chemistry among band members happens once or twice in a lifetime.
In the fall of 2000 we did a first show in Burlington, Vermont, and when the show ended, Jimmy came up to me and said, hey man, we gotta keep Warren. We can’t revolve guitar players — we’re not going to get any better than this!
So Jimmy and I, I remember, went to Phil that night and said, you should think about keeping Warren, and Phil said, yeah, yeah, that was pretty special, huh? We had no idea if it would work out or not. At that time, Warren’s commitments were insane and there was a lot changing for him. But they called his management and worked it out, and the next thing we knew, the Q was born.
In the winter of 2001, we played in San Francisco at the Maritime Hall — four shows at the end of a small West Coast run. I went to Hawaii with my girlfriend at the time right after the shows, and I remember being out there and Phil calling my phone and him saying, listen to me, I want you to know that that was just incredible playing in San Francisco. And he was saying, ‘Do you know that people are calling us the Quintet now?’ ‘They’re calling this the Q?’ Now, to me, the Quintet means the Miles Davis Quintet and thinking about it that way. So I was just blown away by that — how cool was that?
One of the reasons it worked so well is that Phil never made any demands on anybody — we just played. It was here’s the tune, let’s see what we can do with it and it didn’t matter what kind of tune it was and didn’t matter where it went.
You take a tune like Cumberland Blues, which is a country-bluegrass romp. We could turn that into a 15-minute exploration of deep space — and I think some fans were a little appalled by that sometimes [laughs]. But it happened that way. Phil never put any restraints on it, and every tune had its own flavor. A lot of it you have to give credit to Molo. He never played thinking he should be playing like the Dead drummers did. We all utilized all of our rock chops and our jazz chops and it was this huge oleo of musical styles thrown into the pot.
Sometimes it didn’t work. But if you look at the Dead in their heyday, some nights it was incredible magic, and some nights it really wasn’t. That’s what was special, though, and was also special about the Q. That spirit came back. You know, Phil has this system and a pedal onstage where he can talk to the band. During the Q shows last weekend, he barely touched that pedal.
HT: What do you recall about why the Q disbanded?
RB: Well, they were getting the Dead going again, and it got to a point where politics were at work all the time around that. But figure it this way: The fans — a lot of fans, anyway — really wanted to see the four principal surviving members back together again. It was their desire. And when you have that kind of desire from your fanbase, you start to see dollar signs behind that. The Grateful Dead were a touring juggernaut — one of the highest-grossing concert bands of all time. So it was a no-brainer to bring that back.
For good, or for not, it was what it was. Furthur, by the way, makes complete sense, as well. Everyone wants to see Phil and Bobby playing together. I think there are a number of fans out there that are upset the four of them are still not playing together, but the main thing, to a lot of them, is that Phil and Bob resolved whatever issues they had and they play together again. That’s a band now that’s doing amazing in it’s own right.
But why the Q ended, yeah, I don’t know. We were doing great. We had an album [2002’s There and Back Again] that Columbia spent a fortune on. We ended just when we should have been out there exploding it. But who am I to question?
HT: Was there ever another attempt any time over the past nine years to get the Q back together?
RB: Not that I’m aware of. There are people in that organization that I have stayed very close with, and forged some amazing, lifelong friendships with. We stayed in touch, and when I’d talk with them, they’d always go on about how we had to bring the Q back and how that was the band and none of the other bands had that. That’s a subjective matter of opinion, of course. But I never thought we would do it again. I was surprised as anyone else that this came together.
HT: So there will be more shows?
RB: I would bet 90 percent there will be.
Check back tomorrow for the second half of Chad’s interview with Rob Barraco in which the keyboardist explains how he came to work with Dark Star Orchestra and much more.