Paying tribute to the Grateful Dead in symphony


When Blair Jackson first heard that the Georgia-based composer Lee Johnson had written a suite for symphony orchestra based on 10 songs by the Grateful Dead, he was unimpressed.

“There is a long and ignoble tradition of butchering rock songs by rearranging them in lame and unimaginative ‘classical’ settings. If you’ve ever heard some of the patently mediocre symphonic tributes to bands such as Pink Floyd, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, you know exactly what I’m talking about,” fumed the biographer of the Grateful Dead’s frontman, Jerry Garcia, in a fan-site article.

But upon hearing the Russian National Orchestra’s recording of the piece on CD in 2007, Jackson’s cynicism faded. Calling Johnson’s Dead Symphony no. 6 “a work of great passion, depth, subtlety and imagination,” the writer praised the composer for using such Dead favorites as “Mountains of the Moon,” “Stella Blue” and “Sugar Magnolia” as jumping-off points for an original musical riff on the band’s sound rather than slavishly arranging the famous tunes in the classical idiom.


On Sunday, classical music lovers and Deadheads will unite when conductor Marin Alsop leads the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra in the fourth live performance of Dead Symphony no. 6, the cornerstone of a concert commemorating the 14th anniversary of Garcia’s death. The 12-movement work, which features improvisation and in-jokes such as a reference to the Dead’s favorite warm-up song, the Italian ditty “Funiculi, Funicula,” will be performed alongside Australian composer Matthew Hindson’s techno music-inspired Rave-Elation (Schindowski Mix). The concert will be followed by a discussion with Johnson, longtime Dead publicist and biographer Dennis McNally and David Gans, host of the nationally syndicated “Grateful Dead Hour” radio show.

Over four decades, the Dead garnered a vast global following for its unorthodox approach to music. The group wove rock, folk, blues, reggae, gospel, bluegrass, psychedelic rock, jazz and country elements together and laced its concerts -- which it freely allowed fans to record -- with spiraling improvisations. Owing to its popularity, range and experimentalism, the Dead has spawned a thriving cover industry, with tribute albums existing in myriad genres including jazz (“Dark Star,” “Swingin’ ”), a cappella (“Might as Well . . . The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead”) and reggae (“Fire on the Mountain: Reggae Celebrates the Grateful Dead”).

Until Atlanta producer Mike Adams commissioned Johnson to turn the Dead’s music into a piece for classical orchestra in 1995, no composer had published a symphonic homage to the band.

“I figured if it was going to be a real symphony I had to do something creative. So I really studied,” says Johnson, who knew little about the Dead when he received Adams’ commission but was determined to avoid a Muzak-like approach. “I bought every CD that existed and carried them around in a shopping bag. That was my ‘graduate studies’ time you might say.”

The Dead Symphony has been performed live three times before. The inclusion of this populist orchestral work on the Cabrillo Festival’s otherwise heady roster of compositions (including music by Osvaldo Golijov, Ingram Marshall and Enrico Chapela) is significant. (Info at

With the exception of the band’s hometown of San Francisco, no other city can claim as close an allegiance to the Dead as the hippie seaside city of Santa Cruz, home of the Cabrillo Festival. “The spirit of the area is in keeping with the band’s philosophy and it is a newly created work in keeping with our commitment to new music,” says Cabrillo music director Alsop.

Santa Cruz’s connection with the Dead runs even deeper. The band’s Rex Foundation helped to fund the preservation of composer Lou Harrison’s archives at UC Santa Cruz. Last year, the university announced the acquisition of the Dead’s own archives -- a sprawling collection of memorabilia featuring correspondence, photographs, fliers, posters, televised interviews, stage backdrops and concert props. The university, which offers well-attended Grateful Dead courses taught by music professor Fred Lieberman (who has also collaborated on two books with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart) as well as a weekly campus radio show dedicated to the band’s music, will house the collection in a purpose-built room of its new library. Also, Garcia’s family vacationed in the Santa Cruz Mountains for years.

Despite the links between the band and Santa Cruz, and positive responses from some of the group’s most prominent supporters, Johnson’s Symphony may prove contentious in Deadhead circles.

“The Dead and their audiences were known for being open-minded and trying new things,” says Gans. “But there is a certain kind of dogma in the Dead world. The fans are fiercely protective of the music as they understand it and can be hostile to other interpretations.”

McNally trusts that concert audiences -- festival subscribers and Deadheads alike -- will leave their preconceptions behind. “People tend to forget how finely composed the songs are. There’s an underlying beauty to their structure and content that makes them malleable to be recast while still maintaining their own integrity. Hearing a song like ‘Mountains of the Moon’ adapted for full symphony gives you a heightened impression of that fact.”