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Grateful Dead's Bob Weir took the stage with the National Symphony Orchestra


When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, it closed out a 30-year run of the Grateful Dead. Bob Weir began the band with Jerry Garcia in 1965, and now he's found another way yet to explore the band's legacy. Earlier this month, that project took center stage at the Kennedy Center. Felix Contreras is NPR Music's resident Deadhead and has this report.


FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: On paper, it seemed like the most unlikely combination of musical forces. On one side, you have the Grateful Dead, a band that never played their songs the same way twice during their entire 30-year span. Every night was different. Improvisation was the rule. On the other side, you have the 80-piece National Symphony Orchestra, another type of band whose very existence is defined by notes written on paper with little to no improvisation. And yet, the musical mash-up exceeded expectations and blew a whole bunch of minds.


CONTRERAS: OK, so here's the backstory. About a dozen years ago, Weir was approached to do a benefit for his local symphony in the Bay Area's Marin County. Weir kept that idea and those arrangements in his back pocket, and now he's bringing them back out again.

BOB WEIR: The songs that we've written over the years - they have a depth to them that merits this kind of attention, I think.


CONTRERAS: The Grateful Dead catalog has over 450 songs and are filled with the musical DNA of this country - bluegrass, folk, country and Western, jazz, Black and white gospel music, blues and, of course, rock 'n' roll. The process of reconfiguring that music included getting to what Weir calls the heart of each song.

WEIR: When we tackle a tune, it has to be stripped to just its barest bones and then reassembled. Each one of them is different. You know, you go to the rhythm section for this song. You go to the vocal for this song. You go to just the story for this song.


CONTRERAS: His collaborator was Stanford music professor Giancarlo Aquilanti, the arranger from 12 years ago who knew nothing about the Grateful Dead.

GIANCARLO AQUILANTI: I knew of them, but I really didn't know much about their music or their styles and their history.

CONTRERAS: He says meeting the songs on their own terms meant using every classical composing technique at his disposal - because the gig wasn't just putting some strings behind some rock 'n' roll songs. It was writing for an orchestra with a rock 'n' roll band embedded within the strings and oboes. And he says he wanted to create a space for improvisation between the band and the orchestra.


WEIR: (Singing) Playing, playing in the band. Daybreak, daybreak on the land.

AQUILANTI: I had to go into the technical aspect of the music. Why these improvisations? They go on for so long, and they're still working. Why these chord progressions? Either they're a simple one or complicated ones. Why they're still working? Why that they are so different from what I'm used to? How can I translate all their colors into the color of the orchestra?


WEIR: (Singing) Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words.

CONTRERAS: The Grateful Dead famously considered their audience as another member of the band. The give and take of emotions was palpable, initially rolling over San Francisco's hippie dance halls back in the 1960s, then eventually massive stadiums in the 1990s. Bassist Don Was was part of the Wolf Brothers ensemble on stage with the orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and he says the audience was a mix of tie-dye and tux, and the unexplainable connection between the band and the audience was still there, only different.

BOB WAS: There are always two or three moments every night when that happens. They're always different, and you never know when it's coming. But when it happens, it's the greatest feeling in the world. Add 80 more people in an orchestra. When that clicks, it's a huge rush.


CONTRERAS: That was a new experience for arranger Giancarlo Aquilanti.

AQUILANTI: I had two different reaction. One is say, why don't they sit down and they listen what we're doing here? And then at the same time, it would be disrespectful to the audience to pretend that they sit down. That's how they enjoy the music, and that's how they should continue to enjoy the music. It was so different, but there was so much energy that translated also into the way we played the music.

CONTRERAS: Bob Weir says this is how he wants to spend the rest of his musical life, and he explains why with hippie metaphysics.

WEIR: These songs are visitors, that they're living critters and they're visitors from another world, another dimension or whatever you want to call it, that come through the artists to visit this world, have a look around, tell their stories. I don't know exactly how that works, but I do know that it's real.


WEIR: (Singing) ...When I can hear it beat out loud. Nothing shaking on shakedown street.

CONTRERAS: So the long, strange trip continues. Felix Contreras, NPR News.


WEIR: (Singing) Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart. You just got to poke around. Nothing shaking on shakedown street. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.