Danny Carnahan & Wake the Dead
Says longtime Deadhead, musician and Rex supporter Carnahan: “We’re all part of a big, mostly happy musical family here in the Bay Area, and the more we look after one another, the better, both for local musicians and for the astonishing music scene that’s unique to the Bay Area.”
In 1974, they were shooting The Grateful Dead Movie at the Winterland Ballroom, and Danny Carnahan was there. “I still watch the crowd-panning shot at one point and can see my then-wife on my friend Tony’s shoulders, waving at Jerry,” he says.
In 1992, he “screwed up [his] courage and sat down with [Garcia]” backstage at Shoreline. “I’d been paying him royalties on my CD version of ‘Loser’ for three years, and he laughed at the lunch money I’d sent him, so that helped break the ice– “He was sparkling and delightful,” Carnahan recalls.
Later, in 1995, he would play a set as a member of The Valentines with Bob Weir, Vince Welnick, Prairie Prince, Bobby Vega, Henry Kaiser and Robin Petrie at the Fillmore. “It was my first time playing the Fillmore, and an added perk was that Robin and I got to play an opening set,” he recalls. “I remember looking out at the sea of smiling tie-dye from a new angle. I’d been one of the bopping masses more times than I could count since 1969, and now they were dancing to me. Unbelievable.”
Recently this musician, producer, professor and author has been very busy. Carnahan is the front man for Wake the Dead, a Grateful Dead cover band with a Celtic twist. They’re working on their third studio album, which will include an original song amongst their Dead covers. This is a big step for the band, says Carnahan: “‘Down the Days’ is the first original song we’ve put on a CD.” (Discography)
He is also working on a pair of solo CDs. The first is “contemporary singer/songwriter stuff with widely varied band lineups,” from “horns to accordion to screaming slide guitar. The other is focused on Celtic stuff, my songs, a couple of songs by underrated Dublin songwriter Mick Fitzgerald, and the rest cool stuff I collected in my travels to Ireland over the years.”
One of Danny’s most fruitful pairings over the years was with Robin Petrie. This duo released five albums together, Two for the Road, Continental Drift, No Regrets, Journeys of the Heart, and Cut and Run, that featured Carnahan on guitar and Petrie on hammered dulcimer for a variety of traditional Irish tunes. Their passion for Irish tunes was ignited by their honeymoon to Ireland: “We honeymooned in Ireland in 1978, a trip that really changed both our lives, as it dumped two unwitting, utterly green Californians into the eye of the Irish Celtic Revival,” Carnahan recalls. “Within a month, without really knowing how, we’d been to a private party with The Chieftains, spent smoky pub evenings with Kevin Burke, Micheal O’Domhnaill, Paul Brady, Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, Davy Spillane, and more, and become totally wild for the Irish trad scene.” Robin picked up the hammered dulcimer and in 1984, Carnahan started a new duo with Robin.
Over the next several years, they returned to Ireland many times while on tour. Carnahan acknowledges, “Robin and I were incredibly lucky to be dumped into the deep end of the tune pool in Ireland, soaking up the hippest tunes that were raging in the pubs over there, long before they became standards in the U.S.” They took their quirky repertoire on the road for extensive tours throughout Europe, North America, and New Zealand. “On our four-month UK tour in 1986 we played 50 clubs in 70 days. Damn near killed us, from Inverness to Belfast to London,” Carnahan recalls. Carnahan and Petrie duo’s magical connection resulted in wonderful interpretations of traditional Irish tunes. The two stayed together until 1996, and both still contribute significantly to the Bay Area music scene.
As a producer, Carnahan has a philosophy of being “a more or less transparent producer,” with communication as the cornerstone of his sessions. “I like to be utterly clear about what the client is trying to accomplish, and then accomplishing it. That means an incredibly detailed understanding of where we’re going with the sound and the emotional content, so we all agree we’ve gotten there in the end,” he explains. His current project as a producer is with Holly Tannen, who’s working on an album inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. As a professor of studio production at Diablo Valley College, he emphasizes the lesson “that being a good producer is about 1/3 knowing what the studio equipment is capable of, 1/3 organization, and 1/3 communication.”
Aside from music, he has written three novels about two characters, Sweeney and Rose, and “their misadventures over about a two-year period of death and disaster and Irish music.” Now he’s working on something completely different: “For now I’m hacking away at another novel, this one a weird, paranoid, futuristic medical thriller that I’m probably not qualified to write – but screw it, it’s fun,” Carnahan admits. As if all that wasn’t enough, he is writing all new songs for a new band called Camogie – the Irish word for girl’s field hockey – which may be ready as early as the end of the year.
Carnahan found his inspiration in Celtic music on a 1968 trip with his family to visit relatives in western Wales. There, his cousins turned him on to Irish music that was being broadcast from a ship in the Irish Sea. He “fell madly in love” and came back with “a stack of records and never looked back.” In his work with Wake the Dead, blending the Grateful Dead’s sound with more traditional Celtic music, Carnahan finds many types of inspiration: “There are melodic overlaps, thematic links, mutations, cultural reimaginings, and random gifts from the cosmos – all sort of present themselves differently.”
As an example of melodic overlapping, Carnahan believed “the guitar groove at the end of ‘Scarlet Begonias’ (RealAudio excerpt) just begged for a sizzling reel to be laid over it.” After some hunting, he found the perfect fit in a 1903 sourcebook titled O’Neill’s Music of Ireland. Thematically, he has found a great emotional connection between a 17th century harp song called “Brigid Cruise” and the Dead’s ‘Black Muddy River’ (RealAudio excerpt). With the help of their mandolin player, Wake the Dead mutated “Bertha” into 7/4 time, “an instant juggernaut for us.” One day when he was messing around with his bandmates, it became clear that they could morph “Sugaree” from a shuffle into a waltz and connect it with the Celtic tune ‘Lord Inchiquin’ (RealAudio excerpt). Ever since Wake the Dead reimagined this song as a waltz, Carnahan says he’s had “a hard time hearing it any other way now.”
When it comes to “random gifts from the cosmos,” Carnahan found luck with “the ‘China Cat’ opening riff combining with the Irish reel ‘Bank of Ireland’ (RealAudio excerpt). I was listening to the Dead alone in my living room one day, cranked good and loud and playing along on my fiddle, when I discovered I was playing ‘Bank of Ireland’ right over that famous double guitar lick. This dropped out of the clear blue sky and was actually the weird pairing that precipitated the forming of the band.”
As to the relationship between the music of the Grateful Dead and traditional Celtic music, Carnahan has much to say. “[Robert] Hunter was and is steeped in the British Isles ballad tradition, as was Garcia. Both loved the rambling ballads, both for the plots and characters and for the way the music served the stories, coiling and pulsing.” “After all,” he continues, “what we call American mountain music and old-time music are essentially English and Scottish musical traditions with an American accent, and that’s part of what morphed into the Dead.” Of Hunter’s “Lady with a Fan,” for example, he says, “It’s really his take on the old northern English ballad ‘Lady of Carlisle,’ sort of seen from off to one side.”
Carnahan has taken more than just structural and thematic inspiration from the Grateful Dead, he says. They’ve changed him as an artist. “I’m a much more adventurous musician than I might have been without the Dead being there to show me some of the possibilities and laugh at the fear factor of performing,” he says.
Carnahan says he’d “love to be a comparative cultures or music history student in about 2050. The Grateful Dead’s historical impact will be profound, largely for their total commitment to being in the moment for every song, and fearlessly letting the music lead into new and dangerous directions.” He adds, “I’m delighted how many jam bands have taken this idea and run with it.” Carnahan has been trying to get Wake the Dead involved in the jam band scene and on the festival circuit.
When manning a booth for the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse – the premier venue for acoustic and traditional music in Berkeley – in 1990 at a Grateful Dead benefit concert for the Rex Foundation, Carnahan had what he recalls as a “delightful” conversation with Mountain Girl. Since then he, and Wake the Dead, have been supporting the Rex Foundation whenever they get the chance.