Actually, I got my start in music with guitar lessons. I started playing guitar when I was seven, because of the Beatles. I wanted to be John Lennon, and then I played guitar for about five years, four or five years, and then I—I kind of got bored with it, and my dad always wanted an organ in the house, so he convinced my mom and they bought a theater organ and that’s when I took lessons on it and that stuck. And then once I got to college at SUNY New Paltz, I was a classical organ major and I couldn’t stand it. I kept saying to myself, what am I going to do with this? Play in a church? And then I got turned on to jazz piano and I switched to piano and the rest is history. McCoy was my earliest influence and even to this day, when I hear myself play, I hear some McCoy in there. You know?
My first Grateful Dead memory is a friend of mine, the old bass player from the Zen Tricksters, Klyph Black. He and I grew up in the same town and I’ve known him since I’m about eight years old and I was 14 years old and I was sitting in his living room and he was playing an acoustic guitar and he started playing this song and I was like what is that? He goes this is a song by the Grateful Dead man called “Casey Jones.” Unbelievable. And you know how when you’re not aware of something, you’re not aware. When you do become aware of it, it’s everywhere. And all of a sudden I’m like at the record shop near my house and the whole window is festooned with Grateful Dead and they just had released Skull and Roses and there it was, as big as life and so I went in of course and I bought Workingman’s Dead and brought it home because I saw it had “Casey Jones” on it and I listened to that record and that changed my life.
Then I got involved with the Zen Tricksters. A friend of mine, a drummer named Lee Finkelstein, was their drummer. I didn’t even know the Zen Tricksters existed. They used to be known as the Volunteers. I had just gotten off a tour. I was on tour with a guy named Freddie Jackson, an R&B singer, and Lee called me up one day and he said listen what are you doing Saturday night. I said nothing. He said come down to the Right Track Inn and I’m playing with the band called the Zen Tricksters. I said Jeff Mattson? He said yeah, so I said OK. I went, showed up and played a couple of tunes and one thing led to another over the next few days I found myself in the band. That would be 1989. Yeah, I was really intrigued with Jeff’s music; and, likewise, he was intrigued with my music and, of course, we had the Grateful Dead in common, so we were doing kind of like a 50/50 original and Grateful Dead and a couple other things too, and I stuck with the band for 11 years. And the reason I left the band was because Phil Lesh called.
I had given a Zen Trickster CD to my friend J.C. Juanis, who wrote for Relix. Months later we were playing in San Francisco at The Last Day Saloon, and I asked J.C. if he’d ever given that CD to Phil. He said yeah I did. Did you ever hear anything. He goes no. And it turns out that that very night he somehow—the CD got lost in the shuffle. They had moved their office and somebody who worked for Jill Lesh saw it, was a Zen Trickster fan and put it on top of the pile of CDs that Phil was going to listen to and that’s how he heard it and then Phil had Jill call us up and invite us out to play with him.
It was Phil and Friends, with Steve Kimock, Jeff Mattson, John Molo, and a great sax player named Bobby Strickland. We played three nights at the Warfield, and then we he went off to do three shows with the guys from Little Feat in Denver, and then started his national tour with Warren Haynes; and I was the keyboard player for that run. Derek Trucks was the other guitar player. And I enjoyed life with Phil & Friends for several years. Then in 2005 Scott Larned, the keyboard player for DSO, passed away. So they asked me to do a tour with them, because they knew that if they could get me to come on board, they wouldn’t have to rehearse; and they were in no condition to rehearse with anybody. So I agreed to do it and I was in between tours with Phil. I did one tour and I really enjoyed myself. I really dug the concept.
I was kind of trading off tours, and at the end of summer 2006 two things happened. The first was that Phil announced to me that he had to get off the road for a while, because he had prostate cancer. Then DSO asked me to make a commitment. They needed somebody who was going to be fulltime so both happened at about the same time and I I started really thinking about it and I was like, you know, I just had this feeling that somewhere along the line in the next year or two I was going to be on the outside looking in with the Phil thing. And it came to pass because they started Furthur and I would have never been the keyboard player. It was always going to be Jeff [Chimenti]. Which is—Jeff is amazing and well deserving, so I—I could never hold that against anybody. So I made the decision to join DSO and you know they made me equal partner right away and it’s the best move I ever made. In 2009 John announced to us that he was moving on and that’s when we auditioned Jeff Mattson and Stu Allen. And Jeff just turned out to be the better fit.
At Skull and Roses, I’ll be doubling. DSO will close on Friday night, and Reckoning will close Thursday night. How it happened was fun. Rob Eaton called me last year (2021) and asked me if I wanted to be a part of something new that he was putting together just as a side project and it was with Skip, the DSO bass player. And also John Kadlecik, who I hadn’t played with in forever. And we played some shows in Denver last year, electric shows, twice, April and Halloween, and it just sounded so great. So then Skull and Roses booked the opening night, in fact, as a threepiece without keyboards. And all of a sudden Rob called me one day, he goes I have this brilliant idea if you were to play we could do an acoustic thing and we could do this stuff from Reckoning, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life, getting to see all the Radio City shows in 1980. It left a lasting impression in my head, so I was like that’s brilliant, I’m in. So that’s how it came to be. We’ll be working on it on the DSO tour, so we have plenty of time to really hone what it is we’re going to do and if we need to work on anything we’ll work on it then, and John knows everything anyway, so, yeah. And John just sat in with DSO in Jamaica. He was there with Melvin and they were great, what a great time.
I gotta say, playing GD music is better than I even dreamed. It obviously starts with the songs themselves. Hunter’s lyrics to me are timeless beyond. They are everyman lyrics that can speak to any generation at any time. That always appeals to me and I always knew it even from the first time I started to listen to the music. It always hit me. And then even now I listen to these lyrics and I get the same effect. Never gone away musically, really compelling I remember friends used to tell me when I was a teenager how come you’re into that Grateful Dead. It’s so simple music. I was like you guys don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s not simple music. It’s deceptively difficult and that appeals to me as a musician. As far as the structure of the music in live situations, the improvisational part of it is what I live for and even—I never got out of being a Deadhead. There was a long period in my life where I really wasn’t interested anymore. I felt like I had outgrown it and I really got into jazz? I wanted to make that my life, which, of course, I would still be starving to this day.
But that’s the part that intrigues me the most, is to be able to develop on stage every night and play these songs, which some of these songs I have played a thousand times, if not more, and still it’s new. And it’s still new, because you can do anything. There is no rule. You know, you can’t just—you can’t be a crazy man, but there is no real rule. It’s like okay. And that’s what appeals to me and that’s why I’m still doing it.