Since the death of lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia in 1995, the academy has begun to acknowledge the Grateful Dead’s place as the centre of an important cultural phenomenon (Weiner 1999; Adams and Sardiello 2000; Merriwether 2007; Tuedio and Spector 2010).
In spite of both the obsessive nature of Dead Heads and the unprecedented quantity of easily–accessed documents of the band’s live performances, however, its formidable musical catalogue has been subjected to surprisingly little musicological analysis. Garcia himself has been the primary focus of most discussions of the group’s unique musical achievements, while the musical imagination of bassist Phil Lesh remains its secret ingredient, a “difference engine” powering variation from the inside.
Sudden shifts in register occur frequently, the bass sometimes intruding into the guitarist’s spheres for prolonged periods, or at moments one would least expect, creating tight, often dissonant, harmonic and rhythmic interplay with the other instruments in the middle register.
While high-register soloing on the bass is hardly uncommon in jazz and funk music, it is an oddity in the folk-rock style with the entire band continuing their parts.[6Although the orbits Lesh implies in his approach to expected cyclical regularity are eccentric, they remain harmonious in unusual ways.
Elsewhere I have demonstrated that the bassist’s idiosyncratic approach to performing popular dance music was integral to both the band’s anarchist ethos and its continually-evolving polyphonic textures and improvised arrangements (“The Eccentric Revolutions of Phil Lesh,” 2010).
Here I will attempt to clarify the paradoxical way in which Lesh’s avoidance of repetition enabled unusual and powerful rhythmic dynamics in the band’s performances, show how his interest in “polymusic” led the group’s forays into experimental soundscapes and compositions, and explain how his desire for difference within standard popular music forms helped give the Grateful Dead’s original compositions in the folk, bluegrass, country, blues and rock genres their unique flavour. As a student, Lesh once conducted a Luciano Berio piece entitled “Differences.” Later, his bass work with the Grateful Dead would exemplify the modernist impulse to “make it new” taken to its unavoidable limit, resulting in post-modernist, de-centered, continuously varying musical structures based on difference that nonetheless managed to act as a kind of center for an ever-growing peripatetic following.It also resulted in idiosyncratic compositions involving irregular rhythmic patterns, asymmetrical forms, non-repeating phrases and unexpected chord and key changes, usually while remaining strangely within the mode of popular song.This essay provides a detailed analysis of Lesh’s approach to accompaniment, his contributions to group compositions, and his own solo compositions, showing how the ever-shifting foundation for the group’s complex improvisations motivated complex polyphonic textures, often beyond the abilities of listeners to fully comprehend, even in the context of ostensibly standard popular forms.As Garcia once remarked, Lesh “plays the bass as though he invented the instrument and nobody ever played it before him” (Jackson 2000: 261).In his autobiography Searching for the Sound (2005), Lesh acknowledges his primary influences to be European art music, experimental American orchestral composers such as Charles Ives, and the harmonic, melodic and timbral experimentation of improvised jazz.“Dark Star,” a two-verse meditation based on a simple mixolydian riff and two-chord progression typical of Garcia’s style, became their most famous such piece, often stretching out for more than twenty minutes, at some points disposing of the original rhythmic, harmonic and melodic patterns altogether. Several other compositions were subjected to this same treatment, in which bridges and codas could be extended, varied and distorted beyond recognition before morphing back into themselves – or into another song entirely.“(That’s It For) The Other One,” a 6/8 composition by rhythm guitarist Bob Weir but typically dominated by Lesh’s relentlessly varying, driving bass, was often used in this way, and usually began and concluded via segue to or from other pieces (including, in the early days, “Dark Star”). “Becoming-other” in the Grateful Dead’s music is manifest not only in the transformations of one composition into another, but also in the ever-changing multiplicity of musical stylings within a single song, with the aim to “get inside” one another’s minds common to audience and musicians alike.And although unable to generate the same kinds of rhythmic dynamics as conventional bass parts, they nonetheless manage to create an unexpectedly high degree of rhythmic interest by producing continuous variation in the music’s rhythmic cycles from the smallest to the largest.The implied minimal divisions of the music’s pulse seem to shift continuously, and with them the optimal dancing subdivisions.Because the bass part is experimenting with melodies and implied harmonies which in conjunction with the rest of the band members’ choices may not result in a desirable effect, it is important that it keep moving and avoid creating a sense of rest on any regular pulse or pitch beyond the absolute minimum required.In this, Lesh’s sense of harmonic freedom motivates a rhythmic freedom.