Is it nice to Wake the Dead?...Yep

In the sixties, my Irish Mom and Dad always played the Clancy Brothers, the Chieftains, or the Irish Rovers on a hi-fi record cabinet similar to the one pictured here. In the seventies I used it to play Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Black Sabbath (only when my parents went out!).

It was during this time that I fell in love with a band called the Grateful Dead.

Yes, I even went to Watkins Glen (with my new 600,000 best friends!) to witness the concert of a lifetime...the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and the Band.

Fast forward to 2019, and let me introduce you to "Wake the Dead." I have found a band that is a fusion of my Celtic memories and the memories I (wish I could) remember from my early seventies. Listening to Wake the Dead brings back the gifts of my Irish roots, and melds it with the peace, hope, and fun that the tunes from the Grateful Dead always brought to the stage.

Before going forward with this article, please listen this video from Wake the Dead. While you can close your eyes to enjoy this, I strongly suggest that you watch this group of professionals as they hit every note perfectly. Honestly? This was the first time I have every started to applause a PC monitor.

I was thankful to be able to contact Danny Carnahan, one of the co-founders. Danny sent me this write-up about the inception and history of this band. Enjoy!


In 1999, multi-instrumentalists Danny Carnahan and Paul Kotapish and Celtic harper Maureen Brennan realized they all shared a peculiar secret. All three had known each other for over twenty years, rattling around in the San Francisco Bay Area acoustic music scene and playing the occasional gig together. But each had discovered that their twin loves of Celtic traditional tunes and the Grateful Dead seemed to magically mesh in wonderfully unexpected ways. Of course, Danny and Paul and Maureen had each shrugged off the notion as an odd thought that nobody else could ever appreciate.

Danny was talking with Maureen's ex-husband Michael Harmon at a music party one night in 1999 and found himself describing his discovery that a rocking Irish reel, “Christmas Eve,” sat perfectly on top of the twin guitar riff that kicks off “China Cat Sunflower”. He'd found the pairing totally by accident while playing his fiddle in the living room along with the Dead cranked up on the stereo. Michael smiled in surprise and said, “You know, I just had this same conversation with Kotapish over there. You guys should talk.”

Danny and Paul and Maureen started comparing notes at the party. Paul ran down a list of half a dozen Dead songs that he'd woven jigs and reels together. Danny's list was nearly identical. Maureen's Celtic Dead repertoire leaned toward the slower numbers that lent themselves to the harp. Maureen played lots of weddings and private parties, often off in a corner where only a few guests were really paying attention. For years she'd amused herself by playing gorgeous 17th-century Irish classical pieces and dropping quotes from “Dark Star” or “St. Stephen” into the middle. Mostly no one caught on, but there was always one hippie in the family who'd spin around and smile in recognition.

The three decided that there was more here than met the eye and got together around Danny's kitchen table a few days later to play and see what happened. What happened amazed them all. As they were playing mandolin, octave mandolin, guitar, and harp together, the songs and tunes gushed out, one after another, connecting up in natural, organic ways that seemed so perfect it was as if the songs had been written with the Celtic tunes in mind. After a couple of hours, they had more than a CD's worth of material and big grins on their faces. Maureen's uniquely rocking approach to the harp gave the instant arrangements a feel that none of them had ever heard before, and they knew they had to commit the idea to tape. Even better, they said, “Let's use this as an excuse to put together a band with all the musicians we've always wanted to play with.”

The first phone call went to Joe Craven, the multi-instrumentalist who'd been touring solos and with the David Grisman Quintet for years. Joe had toured with Jerry Garcia's acoustic band and knew Danny and Paul and Maureen through years of duty at festivals and music camps. He said yes immediately, agreeing to let Paul handle the mandolin and instead to take over the percussion department with his dizzying palette of hand and mouth sounds.

Sylvia Herold Photo WTD Website

Danny had always wanted to sing with Sylvia Herold, the golden-throated singer with the hot jazz trio Cats & Jammers. There was some discussion about whether or not to ask her since Sylvia was known to have absolutely no interest in the Dead. But Danny was determined to lure her in and made a date to play her some songs to see if she was interested in joining a new band. He trotted over to her house with his guitar and sang six or eight Dead songs, and Sylvia's reaction was, “What beautiful folk songs. Why haven't I ever heard them before?” She was hooked.

Cindy Browne was the unanimous choice for bass. Cindy had performed in bands with all three instigators and with Sylvia, bringing jazz and classical sensibility into the mix. She, too, had to ramp up on the Dead repertoire from square one, as she'd spent her youth learning, well, jazz and classical music. But Cindy is as fast a study as there is and quickly she not only knew the core repertoire but had found amusing ways to stretch the songs in new directions.

Kevin Carr completed the band concept. Wake the Dead needed an Irish uilleann (pronounced ILL-un and meaning “elbow”) piper for that raw, gritty Irish sound on the fast tunes and the chordal wash on the dreamy numbers. Kevin had toured coast to coast for nearly twenty years with Paul in The Hillbillies From Mars, a popular, whacked out contra dance band. And since Kevin was as hot a fiddler as a piper, he was indeed the perfect choice.

In 1999 the band started recording in a North Berkeley studio, two or three musicians at a time, and finishing within about a month. It was still totally a studio concept since at no time were all band members in the studio at the same time. In fact, the band had no clear idea of what to do with the CD once it was done.

The final mixes delighted everybody, and in early 2000 Danny dropped a couple of copies off at the Grateful Dead offices in San Rafael, just for fun, saying something like, “Here's this weird thing we recorded... no idea what to do with it but thought you might be amused.”

Other than Joe Craven, Danny was the only band member with any direct relationship with the Dead. Danny and former Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten were old baseball buddies and had worked together with Henry Kaiser on the 1995 Garcia tribute album “Eternity Blue.” Also, Danny had recorded a version of “Loser” in 1989 and had co-written a song with Robert Hunter in 1994 (“Laughing in the Dark”) that appeared on his last album with Robin Petrie, “Cut and Run.”

Two days later Danny got a call from Peter McQuaid, then the CEO of Grateful Dead Records, saying, “We love it. We want to put it out on Arista/Grateful Dead Records. Would you like to double-bill with The Persuasions and open for Ratdog at the Fillmore? And you do plan to tour, don't you?”

Photo from WTD Website

“Sure, no problem,” said Danny, neglecting to tell McQuaid that never had all seven members of Wake the Dead all been in a room together, let alone practiced the songs for live performance. Needless to say, they scrambled and rehearsed, and by the time they debuted in their first two San Francisco shows at Bimbo's and the Fillmore Auditorium, they'd found their signature sound. The debut CD, “Wake the Dead,” sold 20,000 copies, and the band started a lively performance schedule that so far has taken them as far afield as McCall, Idaho and the Oregon Country Fair in Eugene, Oregon. In 2001, Wake the Dead acquired a second percussionist, Brian Rice, first subbing for Joe Craven when Joe was out touring with Grisman, then joining in Micky-and-Billy-style double drum melées, then taking over when Joe left to launch his own band. Brian adds a Latin tang to the arrangements, as among the many side projects he plays and records with Mike Marshall's Brazilian band Choro Famoso.

A second CD, “Buckdancer's Choice,” was released on Redwing/Ryko in 2002, including their live-in-the-studio rendition of “Playing in the Band.” “Playing” has become the band's most adventurous jamming shell, often stretching to more than 30 minutes and including songs like “Mr. Charlie,” “Boll Weevil,” and “Dire Wolf.” The third CD, "Blue Light Cheap Hotel" was released in 2007, recorded live in the studio to capture the ineffable energy that the band generates on stage. "Deal" was released in 2016, expanding beyond the limits of the Dead song canon. The CD heralds the arc of the band's development, today encompassing all of the Summer of Love and happily weaving Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Youngbloods, and even the Beatles into their sets, each being given a unique Wake the Dead twist. #Irish Bars #Grateful Dead @Celtic

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