Traveling So Many Roads with Bob Matthews
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2005, Volume 12, #7
Written by John Metzger
Among fans of the Grateful Dead, Bob Matthews is a legend. Although he played bass in the first incarnation of New Riders of the Purple Sage and recently received a performance credit for his contribution to a cover of Warren Zevon’s Accidentally Like a Martyr, which appeared on Jerry Garcia’s box set All Good Things, he is best-known as one-half of the well-respected recording team known simply as Bob & Betty. Together, the duo recorded countless hours of concert material and produced the classic albums Live/Dead and Workingman’s Dead.
"There was something very productive about the team of Bob & Betty," Matthews reflected. She had an ability to be an extension of me on the stage and to do what it took (and then some) to make the things happen that needed to happen. We were of a mind-set that was similar to what it is like to play in a band with another musician. When Betty is being my counterpart on stage — dealing with the microphones and where they go, interfacing with the band, and addressing the other technical activities that occur simultaneously with regard to the PA and the equipment — she knows how to do it. That’s what we did together, and she took care of that really well. I could always count on her if something needed to be done, regardless of the challenge."
Recently, the team of Matthews and Betty Cantor-Jackson reunited for the first time in nearly 25 years in order to capture a performance by Dark Star Orchestra at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium on May 8, 2004, and this is the subject of Live at the Fillmore — a DVD and CD set that serves as the first foray for Matthews’ new record label ArSeaEm Recording. Said Matthews, "AreSeaEm Recording is an alternative record company that attempts to bridge the gap between the one extreme of signing your soul away to a label in hopes that you can sell enough to make some money and the other extreme of doing it yourself and being restricted to whatever resources for production, marketing, and distribution that you can afford."
Yet, the story as to how ArSeaEm was constructed isn’t quite that simple. After spending the first three years of his retirement stocking a remote recording truck with state-of-the-art technology, Matthews initially had the intention of testing his enterprise with the revived Heart of Gold Band, which is fronted by former Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay. Invited to capture the group’s performance at the Fillmore, Matthews assembled a team that included Cantor-Jackson as well as Don Pearson from Ultra Sound, a company that had provided the Grateful Dead’s sound system during the final 15 years of its touring career. Said Matthews, "I was very disappointed when the Heart of Gold Band’s set lasted for only 25 minutes because the headline act demanded almost three hours of stage time."
The main attraction was Dark Star Orchestra, a group from Chicago that takes the concept of being a cover band to a whole new level. In essence, the ensemble replicates the experience of being at a Grateful Dead concert by selecting a set list from its subject’s past and performing it in its entirety, utilizing the same arrangements for the songs as well as the same stage set-up and equipment. The resemblance, at times, is rather uncanny, though Matthews, who was unfamiliar with the collective, wasn’t convinced of its premise. After the Heart of Gold Band completed its set, he had begun to pack up his gear when both Cantor-Jackson and Pearson asked him why he wasn’t planning to record Dark Star Orchestra’s show. He understandably responded, "Oh, c’mon. They’re a copy band. I recorded the originals. Why would I want to record a copy band?"
"They looked at each other, and they looked at me," he continued. "Then, they insisted, ‘You don’t get it. You should record this band.’ I started to give them the same rap, and then I realized that here were two people that if there was anybody in the world that I could trust as far as "Grateful Dead" music was concerned, they were probably it. With obviously great trepidation on my part, I agreed to record the show, although, at the time, I was only doing it because these two people that I trusted had suggested it, and because my crew needed the experience."
As Dark Star Orchestra began performing the Grateful Dead’s May 5, 1977 concert, Matthews immediately fell into his typical routine, but as he started to record, he glanced at the video monitor and had what he describes as an epiphany. "I couldn’t understand what it was or what was wrong," he said. "I came to realize, however, that it was who I was seeing on the video monitor. My experienced mind was expecting to look up and see the Grateful Dead. When I looked up and saw different people — Dark Star Orchestra — I got it. I realized that these guys are not just a copy band, a cover band, or a tribute band. They are something very unique. They recreate the experience of a Grateful Dead show very, very accurately."
"For awhile, I was describing Dark Star Orchestra as the Grateful Dead except with different bodies," he explained, "but I don’t think that was accurate, nor was it fair. Dark Star Orchestra is an entity unto itself. It is a group of like-minded musicians that has managed to become a band, which is not an easy thing to do."
"It was not just the notes, the music, or the sequence of the songs, but it was the experience," he continued. "A Dark Star Orchestra show feels like you are actually at a Grateful Dead show. The way it feels, the way the people in the audience behave, the kind of personalities they are, and the energy and the essence that radiates from the people on stage is ultimately the same."
This wasn’t the first time that Matthews had felt such a life-altering revelation. "The term that I’ve come up with more recently is ‘serendipitous coincidence,’" he stated. "That’s how all the major occurrences from my perspective of being involved with the Grateful Dead (and now Dark Star Orchestra) have transpired. All of it is just ‘of the moment.’"
In fact, Matthews’ relationship to the Grateful Dead predates its existence. He was a high-school pal of Bob Weir and a banjo student of Jerry Garcia, and it was he who essentially introduced the two future collaborators to one another on a fateful New Year’s Eve in 1963. Less than three years later, the Grateful Dead, along with Matthews, had established a communal residence in San Francisco. Said Matthews, "My home was a corner of Bob Weir’s room at 710 Ashbury. During the day, his room was a living room."
It was within this world that Matthews’ fascination with recording began. "There was a guy named Gene Estribou, who was a well-to-do hippie," Matthews explained. "He had a gorgeous, 4-story, Victorian home on Buena Vista Park, and he had converted the top floor into a recording studio. I remember being there and hanging out and watching the process occur. Gazing at the tape reels go around and the red lights flickering...I became obsessed, and I knew it was what I wanted to do."
Matthews then stated his case to Weir, contending that "the translation from the live experience to the recorded medium wasn’t going to happen accurately until the person who oversaw it came from within the band, from within the family."
Although the Grateful Dead didn’t necessarily see a need for a either an audio archivist or a sound crew at such an early juncture, Weir gave Matthews the encouragement he needed. According to Matthews, Weir told him, "If you think that, if that’s your vision, then the only reason that doesn’t happen is because you don’t pursue it, and you don’t believe it enough. So, it’s up to you."
It was there and then that Matthews’ fate was sealed, and his unique style of recording quickly became established. Where most engineers tend to mix and equalize concert performances on-site as the material is being performed, his approach is radically different. Said Matthews, "A truck is not acoustically well-prepared, and there are so many other variables going on at a show that you shouldn’t be dealing with technical, artistic decisions. You should just be documenting it — getting it down, making sure that there is enough level and that the microphones are placed in the correct positions. That’s it. There’s nothing else. There’s no pre-amp. There’s no equalization. It’s just a matter of accurately documenting what the microphone captures. That’s how Live/Dead, Skull & Roses, and Europe ’72 were recorded."
It’s also the manner in which the performance by Dark Star Orchestra at the Fillmore was captured, though it wasn’t until he reviewed the tapes and reflected upon the experience that he realized what direction his new company should take. Said Matthews, "I realized that just hearing a recreation of the audio isn’t enough. After all, it didn’t cut through my initial reticence to accept them, and it took two people that I knew and respected to get me to listen. Other Deadheads had to be the same way. It was with this realization that my idea evolved to include a DVD because I came to believe that naysaying Deadheads would continue to be naysaying Deadheads until they either were at a show or saw AND heard a reproduction."
"I spent three years putting together this remote truck because this is the love of my life, and I’ve always wanted to get back to it. But I didn’t have this particular goal in mind until [I saw] Dark Star Orchestra. It was then that I realized what was I working towards," he stated.
Matthews then proffered a proposal to Dark Star Orchestra’s management, and a contractual arrangement was formulated. "It was at that point that I realized that what I was proposing was to be a record company. I was proposing to take the raw recording and go through the whole post-production process and to negotiate a contract with the band for the manufacturing and distribution of the final product."
Offering a royalty rate that is approximately one-third higher than that of the typical recording contract and eliminating the usual array of charge-backs for packaging, publicity, and recording, Matthews has established a label that truly is artist-friendly. In fact, he is so confident in the Live at the Fillmore product that he has produced, that he is taking a rather extraordinary stance in providing a money-back guarantee. Said Matthews, "Listen to it for two weeks, and if it doesn't do it for you, send it back to me. I'll return your money."
As for what lies ahead, Matthews currently is focused upon making certain that Live at the Fillmore is a success, though he’d certainly be interested in talking with the Heart of Gold Band, Bob Weir, and Pete Sears about working together down the road. He also has additional footage of Dark Star Orchestra, which was recorded last summer at Colorado’s State Bridge Park that he feels is equally worthy of release. "I believe in this very much. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it," he concluded. "Live at the Fillmore stands on its own artistically and aesthetically, and I’m very proud of it. It would be nice if it were economically successful, but whatever happens is fine. It’s art, and it’s good art. I stand behind what I’ve done."
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box