Grateful For Irish

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

They say that everyone is Irish on St.Patrick’s Day, and this year “everyone” includes the Grateful Dead.  Or to be more specific, the music of the Grateful Dead, as interpreted by Bay Area band Wake the Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute band with a twist – they play the songs Irish-style, interspersed with jigs and reels.  Wake the Dead is one half of a Celtic double-bill this coming Wednesday at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. 

Wake the Dead began life in 2000 as a kind of in-joke between three musicians, Danny Carnahan, Paul Kotapish and Maureen Brennan.  As well as being experienced Celtic musicians, all three were diehard Deadheads and in conversation it came out that each of them had, for fun, inserted Grateful Dead songs into their sets of traditional Celtic tunes.  Occasionally there would be a Grateful Dead fan in the audience who would recognize the songs, which added to the fun.  The three were all struck by how seamlessly the music blended together.  “I realized that China Cat’s guitar riff dovetailed with the Christmas Eve reel I was playing,” recalled Carnahan.  “It blew my mind how perfectly it fit.”

They realized that they might be on to something, and so began to play together around the kitchen table, putting together a set of songs that eventually grew so large that, once again just for fun, they decided to record it.  They assembled a group of musicians, and the result was “Wake the Dead,” nine tracks of traditional Irish music blended with classic Dead numbers such as “Sugaree” and “Friend of the Devil.”  The next step in the band’s story came about purely by chance, according to Carnahan.  “On a whim, we trotted a copy of the final mixes over to the Grateful Dead office.  48 hours later, Peter McQuaid, the president of the label called, saying ‘This is fantastic, we want to put this out.’”

There was only one problem – the band didn’t exist!  The seven musicians on the CD had played together for the first time at the recording sessions.  This turned out not to be an issue, however, as all had had so much fun making the CD that the offer to form a band was too much to resist, and soon the band was rehearsing to play live.  Since then, Wake the Dead has played to sell-out houses around the Bay Area including San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium.

The other half of Wednesday’s double-bill is Santa Cruz quartet Molly’s Revenge. Founder Pete Haworth has always had a passion for Irish music, and growing up in the UK got to hear a lot of it being played at pub sessions.  When he moved to California, he attended the sessions hosted by the Celtic Society of Monterey Bay, and it was out of these sessions that the band grew.  Molly’s Revenge plays traditional music from Ireland, Scotland and England as well as some original compositions.  The band is renowned for its high energy performances, which showcase the playing of piper David Brewer.

Both Wake the Dead and Molly’s revenge have large local followings, so you are advised to buy your ticket ahead of time.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, March 11, 2004

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