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Wake the Dead

Yet another Grateful Dead tribute band surfaces for a concert this year, the 50th anniversary of the legendary rock band.

Wake the Dead performs its acoustic renditions of Dead music fused with traditional Celtic instrumentation at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. Tickets are $20 in advance and available online at www.gaiaconcerts.com or at Music Coop, 268 E. Main St. Tickets will be $22 at the door.

"There's a whole lot of fusion going on in it," says Ashland ethno-folk musician Kevin Carr, who plays fiddle and uilleann pipes with the San Francisco ensemble. "We use Dead tunes as sort of a skeleton — pardon the pun — for the sets and then flesh the songs out with Celtic and other traditions of music."

Such as finishing Jerry Garcia's perfectly penned gem "Deal" with a Quebecois fiddle tune, playing a medley of "China Cat" and "Bertha" woven together with a handful of Irish reels and jigs or “Sugaree” played in waltz time and bracketed by an ancient harp tune.

Wake the Dead was the brainchild of three Bay Area musicians, Carr says.

"Paul Kotapish, Danny Carnahan and Maureen Brennan would juxtapose Celtic, bluegrass and jazz with Dead music during their shows," he says. "It was such a hit that they decided to play it full time."

Mandolin player Kotapish is the Garcia-like front man of Wake the Dead. He comes from a stint with Open House featuring well-known Irish fiddler Kevin Burke. Carnahan plays octave mandolin and fiddle. He performed with Chris Caswell as Irish and folk duo Caswell Carnahan, then later as a duo with his wife, Robin Petrie. Irish harpist Maureen Brennan also is one of the band's founders.

They are joined by Carr, guitarist and vocalist Sylvia Herold and upright bassist Cindy Browne, a jazz and bluegrass musician who is a professor of music at Cal State's Las Positas College.

The ensemble recorded an eponymous, full-length album in 1999 on the same label as the Dead's — Arista Records.

Percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven was featured on the debut album, then moved on and was replaced by Brian Rice, a first-call percussionist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Craven is a freestyle folk, world and roots multi-instrumentalist, singer and award-winning educator. He is director of RiverTunes Music Camp and a co-director of the Wintergrass Youth Academy. The stringed instruments he plays include fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, balalaika, as well as a world of percussion. He has a talent for turning anything — a pickle jar, a jawbone, a credit card or roasting pan — into a stringed or percussive instrument.

Craven played for many years as violinist and percussionist for the David Grisman Quintet, and he's played with such notables as Garcia, Stephane Grappelli, Alison Brown, Rob Ickes and David Lindley. He performs solo and in various versions of his own projects, most notably the Joe Craven Trio.

After Wake the Dead's first album was released, Carr and the other musicians had to become a band, he says.

"The seven of us hadn't been in the same room together before recording the first studio album," he says. "As it turned out, we all really like each other and enjoy playing together."

Since then, Wake the Dead has recorded two other full-length albums, "Buckdancer's Choice" in 2002 and "Blue Light Cheap Hotel" in 2007.

Live, the band plays a seamless romp that flows from rock grooves to Irish reels and from haunting airs to melodies familiar to all deadheads. It's more than enough to keep the tie-dye swirling.

"The sources for Grateful Dead's music were endless and inexhaustible," Carr says. "They drew from endless pools of country, folk, bluegrass, blues, rock and more. As professional ethno-folk and jazz musicians, our band draws from the same sources to re-imagine the Dead's lyrics and melodies."

Wake the Dead melds Celtic and other ethno-folk traditions with Grateful Dead music. Photo courtesy of Gaia Project