To answer what I’ve learned about the Grateful Dead’s music and the playing of it in these past seven years in Dead & Company, well, we need a lot longer than we have, and I’m not done yet. You know, I’ve said for the last seven years that I realize that the average Dead head knows way more about this music than I do. Like I know the mechanics of how to play it, I know the philosophy behind it. And I also played in the Allman Brothers band, so I replaced someone who, like, “wrote the Bible” so to speak and now I have to do it in my voice, you know.

So I know the whole approach thing and philosophically that all works out any way. I know Phil wouldn’t want me to try to copy what he did. But I’m still learning so much about the music. Fortunately, I know a lot of experts and insiders, and also my friends that are fans from a very young age. They are continually cluing me in about stuff that I don’t know.

And I love it, because it’s like anything you study, if you study Roman history, Greek history, Egyptian history, anything, American history, you know, it’s just layered. There is more onion all the time. 

And fortunately, this band is so incredibly documented that when people say something like, “11/9/72 what a show!” I can just put a date in YouTube and bam, I’m right there, I can hear exactly what they’re talking about.

I love talking to people, like I was just on the road with Steve Kimock, and he would just be talking about stuff and, you know, you will learn something really heavy and crucial in passing. It’s the same with fans.

We just did a benefit down here and I was really proud, because the age of the Dead Heads that came out to support this little benefit without lots of huge, big names were people like Jerry’s age and Bob’s age and Bill’s age. And I was like, wow, these are legit Dead Heads, and it made me feel so good.

I feel that, as with everything worthwhile, the right approach is to be a perpetual student. Like a scientist that has got the Nobel prize, but he is always looking out over the horizon for the next mountaintop. Any really great teacher is probably a great student and learns from their students.  That’s why I like talking to fans, you know, especially the older ones. But there are some younger ones too that know much more than I do.

But even apart from Dead & Company, I want to explore the music even more deeply, which is why I’m working on an album of Hunter-Garcia ballads. I have been planning to do it for a while, since the pandemic, when I started doing the streams when we couldn’t play with anyone. And I didn’t want to play bass and sing on every song and we have a piano, so I played piano and sang. I have never really done that before.

So it’s a way for me to finally dig in and learn the piano. And practice more of my singing. And it’s super cathartic working on these ballads after my brother died and then later on after my dad passed away, it’s really been a blessing. We go into the studio the first week of December.

I was glad to get off the road and have this time between now and then to just be up late at night with the piano, working, because when I play it, something crazy happens, my fingers always do something wrong, and then I love it. I’m like, “Oh, my God, what is that?” And then it takes me down this whole other lane. It’s literally like riding a serendipity train, because I’m not an accomplished keyboard player so I’m gonna mess it up for sure. And then I always love it. So now I’m just playing through all these tunes digging in, and then my hands do something weird and now I have a whole new thing.

So, it’s my take on these tunes. It’s not going to be like straight covering it. It’s what I hear in my head, when I’m on stage with the Dead. It’s the voicings the way my brother (Kofi, a keyboard player with Tedeschi Trucks, who passed in 2019) would voice stuff. And that’s where all the serendipity comes in. Because I’m trying to find his voicings and then there is some alteration of that that is like, whoa…

I kind of feel like, Jerry and Hunter would like it. I think about them a lot while I am doing it. Like when something happens and I’m like, “Oh, man, I hope you guys dig that because that’s giving me chills right now,.” You know, it’s such a crazy process.

Some of it will just be piano and voice. But I don’t know until we get there because I demoed some stuff that was just me and the piano and then I put bass and drums on it, and my wife had been hearing it with just the piano. And she was like, yeah, that stuff kind of gets in the way of this naked, beautiful, vulnerable thing that you were doing. So I took it off again, and I was like, “You’re right.”

So I’m going to leave myself the option to do both. I have Steve Kimock and Johnny Kimock coming. And they are going to be there for half of it. Jason Crosby is going to be doing keyboards on all of it. I had called Chimenti and Melvin, but they’re both on the road during that time. I’ve got a 10day period in December and that’s it.

And we’re actually doing videos for everything too at that session, so I need them there in the studio for the videos, because this is all going to YouTube as well as vinyl. And then on the other half I’m going to have Tom Guarna and Pete Lavezzoli, who also play in Oteil and Friends.

And then the far out thing is that we are going to be doing the recording in Iceland in December. Everyone knows how much I hate the cold, but the aurora borealis is going to be really kicking. So I’m hoping for a Kofi, my dad, Colonel Bruce sighting, maybe a quick UFO sighting and definitely aurora borealis. I mean it’s going to be a great atmosphere for doing all these ballads. You know, almost no day light and tons of aurora borealis. I’m excited about it, man, it’s going to be fun.

The ones I have done for sure already are “Believe It Or Not.” I just finished, “So Many Roads” today, man, I am excited about that one. “Morning Dew,” “Stella Blue,” “High Time”, “Standing on the Moon.” And “China Doll.” Oh man, I’ve got and arrangement of “Days Between” that I really want to do and same with “To Lay Me Down.” If I can get to them, “If I Have the World to Give,” “Brokedown Palace”, um, and, man, it’s real far off, but I just love “Mission in the Rain.” I’m not sure it’s a ballad, but that one, every time I sing it, I feel like something opens up inside, something just goes whoop. So I’m going to try get that one too.

I can only fit 8 on vinyl if I’m lucky. So, if I get more than that, then we will release those digitally, and we will release those on YouTube. But I’m probably gonna have to going to have to do a volume two because there are just too many—i mean eight ballads? I want to do more like twenty. I mean, I haven’t even hit “Gomorrah” and the Jerry Band ballads.

Since it’s still pretty far off, I’m not absolutely sure which Friends will be in the band at Skull and Roses. I’m assuming it’ll be the band that we just had (October 2022), which is a completely new thing. We have only done two gigs together, which were last weekend. But it was Melvin Seals, Steve Kimock, his son Johnny and then Duane Betts, Dicky Betts’ son on guitar, Lamar Williams, Junior, son of Lamar Williams Senior, the bass player for the Allman Brothers who replaced Barry Oakley, on lead vocals, and myself.

What we are able to do is like, I am singing the Dead stuff and Lamar, who really is one of the only people I have ever heard cover Gregg Allman that does it right. First of all, I think you have to be black, we figured that out. Haha! That helps. I mean, his middle name is LeNoir: the black.

But it was really cool because we were able to really authentically mash up Jerry Band, Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers. You know it’s hard when you are living in your dad’s shadow. You know Lamar sings and his dad’s a bass player. So that’s not as hard. But Dicky and Duane are both guitar players. And I try to tell them, “Hey, think about Ravi Coltrane. You know, no big shoes to fill! Haha! You just have to do it in your own voice.

But like I told Duane, on the other side of that coin he’s the only one that gets that close to sounding like Dickey, because how could he help it? So when we are playing “Jessica” or something, I just go, “Oh, man!” My head rushes because it’s that same thing, like DNAwise like down to the molecular level my body recognizes and it’s like, “Oh!”.

The crowds were really going crazy, man, we were like mixing up the ABB Dead and original stuff and Jerry Band. So I’m thinking that is probably going to be the band that is at Skull & Roses. We had a great response from it this last run.

Dennis: You have dived in deep into two of the deepest pools of music in American history.
Oteil: Blindly.
Dennis: God knows, I don’t think you knew what you were getting into.
Oteil: Well, fortunately I dosed a lot at 18 and 19. Haha! So I was used to blindly diving off cliffs. Like I knew philosophically how to do it. But you know you still gotta actually do it. And the reception was so warm. Man, the Dead family has been so amazing. It’s really amazing. And I know I don’t have to really describe it, because I’m talking to Dead Heads right now. But for someone that’s coming in that wasn’t immersed in it, it’s like all of a sudden having this huge, huge, really kind family. Like huge!

I mean, you get that with many bands, you get the with the whole jam band scene. It’s like you know, Phish, Widespread, Blues Traveler, Aquarium Rescue Unit, you know, then it all and then we ended up kind of going back, I guess, not up, but back all the way to Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, I get it. But this it’s a whole different thing.