Having played with Grateful Dead members now for thirteen years, Jeff Chimenti has been the wizard behind the keys for some incredible recent performance. Immediately after anchoring the organs at Fare Thee Well for the band’s 50th anniversary, Chimenti got the call to join Dead & Company as well, the band featuring newcomers Oteil Burbridge and John Mayer.
Read on for Kendall Deflin’s exclusive with Jeff Chimenti below:
L4LM: You’ve been accepted by Dead fans worldwide for a while now, having played with several reincarnations of the original Grateful Dead band, (and without previously even being a fan of the music itself). How did you find yourself here?
Jeff Chimenti: It all started for me by having the opportunity to join with Bob Weir‘s band RatDog in 1997 through Dave Ellis and Jay Lane, as the legendary Johnnie Johnson (who sadly passed some years back) was playing piano in RatDog at that time and being he was getting up in age, extensive touring was becoming a challenge. I was honored with being able to sit next to him and play during some rehearsals and a few different shows and was blessed with him granting me his approval to Bob to carry on in his place! The world was a better place with him in it and he is sorely missed by many. Thank you Johnnie!
L4LM: To have played the “Fare Thee Well” shows, and now Dead & Company tour, is pretty huge – especially being the only non-original GD member to be called for both jobs. Can you tell us about your experience in finding out you were the man for the gigs?
JC: It was a great honor getting the call on both! Being I’ve been around for nearly 20 years with the guys and in many configurations, I would hope that they like what I have contributed prior, and currently contribute. Haha! And it was also a blast to get to play with Bruce and Trey on the 50th shows…
L4LM: How do you prepare for something like this? What kind of mental and physical preparation goes into walking on stage and performing the tunes of a band that opened the door to so much with the guys that started it all?
JC: I’ve always approached performances and preparation exactly the same way whether there are 80,000 people in the audience or if it was just 10 people (and I’ve done plenty of those, ha!). I’ve always believed in giving a 110% and not take anything for granted. Work hard and believe in what you do as an individual and as a group.
L4LM: Generally speaking, what is your philosophy on this genre of music?
JC: For me, having an improvisational background, this music gives the full experience from presenting “song” to “jamming”, and who knows where it will take you, and enjoy the ride as it really is never the same twice! It’s always fresh, and as a player, that is a satisfying thing.
L4LM: Musically, how do you describe your experience with John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge as newcomers to the current reunion tour?
JC: I was familiar with John prior and knew he was a great player (and now having spent some time with him personally, a very upstanding human as well!). I wouldn’t have associated him with the GD genre initially per se but have watching him really come into his own in the music both playing and vocal wise! He really is quite the talent and a complete musician in my mind. (As well as others I’m sure). The same goes for Oteil for sure! They are both killing it. In fact, the three of us are similar I think as not having any prior experience or much knowledge of GD music in essence. And honestly, it is a difficult songbook to do well as it is so varied, so kudos to John and Oteil! I’m definitely enjoying the energy of the whole group.
L4LM: A little intimate moment happened early on in Dead & Co tour where you had to tell John Mayer that the set had ended and escort him off the stage. What happened there?
JC: Bob called the end of the first set even though there was another song slated on the list! I don’t think either John or Oteil had seen Bob give the cutoff sign and they looked a bit confused as to why the rest of us left the stage. Mickey was actually the one that went back out to tell John that the set was over and John was still out there as Mickey walked off, and honestly, I am a bit of a jokester so I said ‘what the hell’ and went out and pulled him off stage! Glad he didn’t punch me or something! (Laughs).
L4LM: We did the math… you’ve been with the Dead for 13 years now, longer than any keyboardist in the Grateful Dead. Do you think about that, or is it more about preserving and carrying forth the legacy at this point?
JC: I don’t like to think about being in the so-called “hot seat.” (laughs). The way I see it is that I am here until I’m not anymore! One must enjoy each day because we all share the same end result whenever that may be. Not trying to be morbid, (laughs), just real!!
L4LM: Had you ever seen Jerry Garcia play with the Grateful Dead?
JC: I unfortunately had never seen Jerry Garcia nor the Grateful Dead in concert, although I wish I had.. I have been fortunate enough to be able to share music with them (except Jerry obviously) on stage over the years. It is also inspirational that after 50 years of the GD (technically), the guys are still out there doing it with such love and vigor to keep the music alive! Thank you Bob, Bill, Mickey, and Phil!
L4LM: How does it feel to have a devoted fan group on Facebook with over 5,000 members?
JC: It is very flattering and touching to have the support out there! Being I have no social media whatsoever, I don’t have the ability to contribute anything on the site or communicate, but can say here, Thank you and very much appreciated, and it doesn’t go unnoticed! There is room for more if anybody feels so inclined to join! (Wink!!)
L4LM: Will we ever see FOG again?
JC: I would hope so down the road! FOG was a pre-existing and current trio that still performs, comprised of Brian Melvin (dr) (who also had a band called “Nightfood” that included Jaco Pastorius as well as Bob), Brad Buethe (g), and Peter Barshay (bs), all of whom are old close friends that I used to frequently play with many years ago, albeit usually separately.
Brian currently lives in Estonia but also still has a home in San Francisco, so we see each other when he visits town and my inclusion was initially just a chance to play together as it had been some years since we had essentially, and we went to Bob’s studio (TRI) to jam and they ended up recording the two different times we got together. We decided to put out one of the sessions for the hell of it called “FOG..TRI Sessions Volume 1”. Hopefully we can play together again soon!
L4LM: Thanks for your time Jeff! Have fun on tour!
[Cover photo via Jay Blakesberg, Article photos via Adam Straughn]