When we first saw the marquee bill for this year’s gig, Dave Watts and the Motet tribbing-up the Dead, the first thing that hit us was — wait, Watts is covering one of the unfunkiest bands in pop music lore, daring to navigate the meanderings of post-psychedelic, shamanistic jug-band Americana, garnished with guitar solos lofted to the rafters by the colliding aromas of patchouli and Humboldt leaf.
Sure, it aligns with Watts’ self-confessed ’70s zeitgeist obsession (the Grateful Dead being, basically, a product of the ’70s, and, no, we’re not going to argue about that), and technically speaking, a little of the Dead’s DNA courses through every post-groove era band out there these days. But what kind of offering does a guy irretrievably invested in edgy, propulsive, afro-beat club offer up at this altar?
Watts admits it took a little while to get to this point; he didn’t arrive as an acolyte.
“I’ve always kind of avoided this one,” Watts told us last week. “They’re just not one of my favorite bands; in fact, I barely knew the music. Never been to a Dead show, never been into the rhythm section, only really knew a couple of songs … the country stuff, stuff like ‘Truckin’,’ that sort of thing.
“But one of the things I realized after we started doing some of these really popular acts like Michael Jackson and Talking Heads is that it’s really fun to play music where everyone knows every word. That is huge to people. … People want to sing along. Get into it. So I went and listened to the recordings, like Furthur, and some of the old Dead recordings, and you could hear it. The minute they start, they play that first note, everyone knew every word.”
Watts admits this one was a challenge, since unlike last year’s Earth Wind & Fire shows, he and the group didn’t really have an instrumental roadmap. That they weren’t going to really cover the Dead was a given, so instead he set out to re-imagine the music completely, switching up time signatures, charting out a brass section, coaxing his soul-trained vocalists, including the astonishing Jans Ingber, to give the lyrics a new voice.
“So,” Watts explains, “it was ‘OK, the music can be great, but we’re going to make it sound like the way we want it to sound like.’ Handed out sheets of paper to everyone — ‘This one is your song. This one is yours. Go do your homework.’ But it’s really coming together, I’m excited about it.”
The billing for this gig resonates gently from producer Michael Gaiman’s series of “Jazz Is Dead” tours from the late ’90s and early ’00s, showcasing Dead music as fusion instrumentals in the hands of Jimmy Herring, Billy Cobham and T Lavitz. The once-guarded orthodoxy of the Dead canon was, even by then, not immune to re-interpretation, but the JID tours, staged at the Fox Theatre several times during their run, capably melded the high-energy chops of master fusion players with the crafty instrumental hooks that the Dead incorporated into their gig but often submerged in their deliberately circumspect live delivery.
Watts admits he took a cue from those JID tours. “I gotta say, that was really my impetus to bring it back around,” Watts says. “I was like, OK, if I have something to call this, I could do it. If it was just ‘The Motet Plays The Grateful Dead,’ psssht, forget it. Sounds terrible to me. But actually being specific, like ‘This is not going to be like you’ve ever heard the Grateful Dead before,’ made it palatable to me. This is something I can work with.
“I tell you, sometimes you have to give yourself a little window or a little theme to get into it.”
Watts is eager to embrace this project and promises a little whiplash, even if the afterglow of last year’s Earth, Wind & Fire gigs still hasn’t worn off.
“Oh, man, that was one of the happiest musical moments of my life. Couldn’t get enough of it. We did it again [after the Halloween runs] in Denver in January, and we did it again in Portland. I would do that show once a month if I could.”
On the Bill
The Motet plays the Boulder Theater on Monday, Oct. 31. Doors at 8 p.m. Tickets are sold out. The Motet also plays Friday, Oct. 28, at the Aggie Theater; Saturday, Oct. 29, at the Ogden Theatre; and Sunday, Oct. 30 at the Bluebird Theater. For information on all these shows, visit www.themotet.net.