Better Dead than Red.
Jerry Garcias favorite keyboardist Melvin Seals schools us through an evolution of the blues.
For those of you who missed the bus, The Grateful Dead were the most adventuresome pioneers of American rock and roll of the 20th Century. Their acid-laced antics led to progress in colossal sound systems for arenas, streamlined maneuvers to move a circus around the country and novel ways in how to deal with a loyal deadicated fanbase. At the core of this electrified exodous was lead axeman Jerry Garcia. During the other 100 or so days the Dead weren't thrilling the masses, Jer's sideband, The Jerry Garcia Band (known as JGB) played more intimate venues. Since Garcia's untimely death in 1995, JGB has kept the flame burning.
DNA: This Is DNA.
Melvin: Alright. How's it going?
DNA: Great. Hows it going with you.
Melvin: I can't complain.
DNA: You just got back from Canada with JGB?
Melvin: Yeah, over the weekend. It was pretty good.
DNA: How are those Canadian Deadheads?
Melvin: They treated us real well.
DNA: It's been a while since I saw a show in Canada. I always acted like an American diplomat when I was there. Trying to ward off our image as the retarded cousin. You're coming to Santa Cruz in a couple of weeks. The first shows you did after Jerry's passing were in Santa Cruz.
Melvin: Yes, with John Kahn.
DNA: And that was more of Kahn's band?
Melvin: Yes, Kahn's band. That was his first stab of trying to do something after Jerry. It was definitely his deal.
DNA: And then John passed like nine months later?
Melvin: It's absolutely amazing I know.
DNA: I watch the Discovery Channel, and I've seen a show on wolves, and when mates die the partner often dies not soon after that.
melvin: They was the best of friends and that was the case. I hate to think that someone would give up their life and let-go because a partner, or a friend like that is gone. Ya know, maybe it does exist, because he sure did die.
DNA: But you kept going keeping the music of JGB alive.
Melvin: That's because when we did the dates down there in Santa Cruz, JOhn had a different point of view about what he wanted to do. But what I saw was those fans wanted to see JGB even with Jerry not onstage. When I saw that I thought, "OK, this could live on." And if John Kahn made a mistake the only mistake he would have made is he didn't do the Jerry tunes, he did his own stuff, what he wanted to do. And all night long the fans were screaming out the songs they wanted to hear, which were songs with Jerry.
DNA: Deadheads are not that subtle.
Melvin: So when I saw that I was like, "Oh my god, they still want to hear these songs." And when John Kahn died, I decided to go out and give them what they wanted to hear. So I called everybody and asked if they wanted to try and make it work, and I found an agent, and I was like, let's do this.
DNA: And still going strong. You brought Jackie and Gloria to the band originally?
Melvin: That's right.
DNA: That was always something to see those two ladies up onstage, looking somewhat apprehensive, not quite afraid, but wary, and then somewhere in the midst of the show it all kicked in, and they were smiling along with everyone else. Thank you for that.
Melvin: Jackie and Gloria went out with JGB for two years after John died, and it was a struggle for them. With Jerry everything was high on the hog, we stayed at the Fairmont, ya know five star hotels. But afterwards we didn't make that kind of money and had to stay in Best Westerns and Holiday Inns. They felt it as a downgrade, which it was. What you got to understand is that Jackie and Gloria came straight out of the church and never were in a band. Most people who begin in bands, know that you have to go on the road, sleep on the couch in peoples living rooms, sometimes you don't get a room. They never went through the struggle of trying to make it. They went straight from the church to touring with Jerry. That's why they looked a little scared, because they didn't know what was going on. They would be onstage thinking, "Is this real, what's going on here?" When Jerry died, we were back in the real world of trying to survive. We didn't make Jerry's money, nowhere near the money, not a fifth of the money. And yet, there was the same expense of trying to go on the road. So we couldn't stay in the best hotels, we couldn't fly in Lear jets, or first-class. We would be on a tour bus, or would have to drive ourselves and they just couldn't handle it. Because they never went through those days and understood that this is what it like in the real world.
DNA: You went from working with Elvin Bishop and being in the rock and roll world to working with Jerry, it wasn't straight out of church.
Melvin: Even before Elvin Bishop, I had played with a lot of bands. Buddy Miles, a bunch of people, Broadway shows. I knew that the Jerry world was not realistic, it was like a fairy-tale that would end one day, and don't get comfortable living on that level. I knew better than that. It was great, but I knew that the next thing I would get in, wouldn't be that! And it hasn't been that since. That's where the struggle came in and those were part of that. The salaries couldn't be what they were, because we weren't making that kind of money.
DNA: You performed in Broadway shows in San Francisco?
Melvin: I did a show called Evolution of the Blues for six years. John Hendricks on Broadway Theatre for six years. That's where Elvin Bishop saw me. And from Elvin I went on to Jerry. In theatre, the show is the same every night. Yes, there are levels to the performance, but essentially it's the same every night and matinee. How do you as an artist reconcile that kind of work. Did you enjoy it? Same cues, same songs, every night. You might get to try a little something here and there, but Broadway is about doing the same thing at the same high level, every night. Financially it was steady money. Stable. I had to join the musicians union. But quickly got bored of playing the same thing every night.
DNA: But then you had five more years to go. . .
Melvin: Right, right, right. I got saw by a lot of folks doing that show. Elvin is the one who took me to another level, but a lot of celeberties came to visit when they came to town. Redd Foxx. Bill Cosby, ya know, and they all came backstage, and I had a chance to meet a lot of people. Then Oscar Brown Jr. came through and I was able to do some work with him! It was a good thing.
DNA: This event coming up is an Obama Rally. Have you in the past endorsed candidates?
Melvin: This is a first and even though I am backing him, this is a concert. I was hired to do a performance. We're hired entertainers. Regardless that we are involved in the rally we are performers in the rally. That is how I am looking at this one.
DNA: But you personally are backing Obama?
Melvin: I think so, yes. I don't like for things to be written, I just do my little thing and thats what it is. Sometimes entertainers will stand out and say things, but I believe as individuals, we should all do what we want to do.
DNA: Coming for a church background, what is it that is so special at JGB shows?
Melvin: First off, when I can see a bit of unity and a bit of joy in the world and I'm a part of putting smiles on peoples faces, whether they are smiling or crying tears of joy, I feel special. People come to our shows to relive the moment, if they can, of what they liked. When I hear an oldie but goodie of something that was on the radio when I was in High School, I immediately go back to who I was then. And I like those moments. And if those artists come to town, if the are still alive, thats who I go see, but thats because what I want to relive. So at JGB, people all wear theeir tye-dyes and gather and dance and listen to theor favorite songs and savor the moment. Even though Jerry is not onstage, we try to make so that if you close your eyes, it sounds like he's there. And for a few moments, drop the world, come have some fun and great times, then pick up your burden and leave and go back outside. We were part of seeing people laugh, smile and have a great time and we were a a part of that. And that is what is important to me. I think that more laughter is needed in the world, more happiness. And that is kinda what we bring.
DNA: Thats why I dedicated my life to stand-up comedy. If you don't like my jokes blame Jerry.
Melvin: There ya go, there ya go.
DNA: How do you like working with Stu Allen?
Melvin: There's only two guys in all my travels and meeting people that got Jerry down. Stu is one of them and the other is the guy from Dark Star Orchestra (John Kadlecik) The guy from DSO is number one, he really has the tone down. Stu doesn't have the tone down, but he has the licks. Kadlecik has the tone, the licks, ya know, but Stu sounds more like Jerry with his vocals. John don't really sound like him. But as far as playing, John is a carbon copy of Jerry Garcia and then comes Stu. I found Stu back east, playing in a band called Jones Band. He wasn't as good as he is now. But he was smatr enough to hook up with Melvin Seals and the guys from JGB and arise to the occasion and he has. Hes holding his own quite well.
DNA: What are your tours like for JGB?
Melvin: I don't do tours like for six weeks or a month anymore. We go out every weekend, three days here, two days there. Four days sometimes, every now and then a week. But pretty much every Friday, Saturday Sunday, sometimes Thursday, those kinds of things.
DNA: Are you in the studio doing work?
Melvin: I'm working on a number of projects in the studio, and another solo album of my own.
DNA: Can you give me any release dates or titles?
Melvin: Oh no, I'm nowhere near that. Just working in stuff...
DNA: Are you ever in touch with the other members of the Dead? Are you ever invited to play with them or join events?
Melvin: Not really, and if I had to give a reason, it's that those guys never really liked the Jerry Garcia Band. It's no secret. They didn't like us because towards the latter five years, we rained on their parade, you might say. A lot of folks was saying that they didn't like them as much, and were liking us better, and they knew this. We were doing venues that they were doing and they didn't like that. Madison Square Garden and Nassau Colesium were being filled by JGB. So they didn't like the members of our band and tried a number of ways to get Jerry to drop the band. So long story and I'll make it short, we were the band they didn't like. And they probably even today don't like the fact that it's still going, probably because of me, so they don't touch me. They got every keyboardist in the world....
How can you not like Melvin?!!
Melvin: ...they go all the way around me, but they don't touch me.
DNA: And thats a long way to go around!
Melvin: It is what it is.