Back in March 2020, Live For Live Music was preparing to help debut a new tribute project from The Disco Biscuits keyboardist Aron Magner. Building on the momentum of his lively jazz trio SPAGA, which in less than a year of existence had built up a cult following with engaging live performances and a thrilling debut album, Magner was set to stage a special SPAGA Plays Dead set featuring jazz interpretations of the Grateful Dead songbook.
This tribute set was due to make its world debut on Saturday, March 21st as part of Brooklyn Comes Alive. The set was just one of many special performances set to occur at Brooklyn’s Avant Gardner, including—among other things—a Birds of a Feather superjam featuring members of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and a rising jam band by the name of Goose.
Then, a little over a week before Brooklyn Comes Alive, the entire music world shut down at the onset of the COVID pandemic. Dark times followed as stages around the country sat vacant for months on end. Eventually, however, we emerged from behind the COVID curtain and live music returned in full force.
Fast forward just over three years from its initially scheduled debut, and Aron Magner, drummer Matt Scarano, and upright bassist Jason Fraticelli are finally ready to deliver the long-awaited debut of SPAGA Plays Dead, a show quite literally years in the making, on April 30th at the Toulouse Theatre in New Orleans as part of Live For Live Music’s Fest by Nite series [get tickets].
“It almost feels like finally doing this SPAGA Plays Dead show is helping to correct the pandemic timeline the world accidentally fell into,” Magner recently told Live For Live Music of finally getting to stage the set three years later. “And doing the first show of this small series in New Orleans where SPAGA played our very first concert, ties everything together perfectly.”
“The Grateful Dead songbook and philosophical approach to improvisation is what has guided my life’s path,” he continued. “Getting to share this passion with Jason and Matt is part of the fun. Bringing these songs alive in ways they were not directly intended is also part of the fun. But mainly, seeing Jason and Matt go down the rabbit hole of the Grateful Dead, which they had previously only had a cursory understanding of, is for me, the best part.”
The day before most of the world shut down for COVID three years ago, Live For Live Music ran an interview with Magner discussing the set he had planned and what the music of the Grateful Dead means to him. Scroll down to read the original interview below and catch the long-awaited debut of SPAGA Plays Dead in New Orleans this Sunday, April 28th.
[Originally published 3/10/20]: In the short eight months since SPAGA released their eponymous debut album last summer, the instrumental jazz trio led by The Disco Biscuits keyboardist Aron Magner has already generated significant buzz in the live music world.
SPAGA—comprised of Magner, drummer Matt Scarano, and upright bassist Jason Fraticelli—has developed a unique niche in the scene by cultivating an approach to improvisation that toes the line between jazz and “jam.” Now, SPAGA is set to apply their jazz-forward approach to the iconic songbook of the Grateful Dead for a special SPAGA Plays The Dead tribute set at Brooklyn Comes Alive on Saturday, March 21st at Brooklyn, NY’s Avant Gardner.
SPAGA, which has been Magner’s acoustic outlet from the Biscuits since 2018, is quite familiar with reworking initially-electric songs within the jam vernacular. On their debut album, they reimagined Magner’s Disco Biscuits composition, “Resurrection“, as a down-tempo jazz waltz that still manages to build to some glorious peaks.
“I’m certainly more primed now [for SPAGA Plays The Dead] than I would have been 5 years ago,” Magner tells Live For Live Music. “There was no real impetus to do this set other than to take advantage of an event like BCA and present my new project with something different. It also affords me the opportunity to demonstrate to Jason [Fratecelli] and Matt [Scarano] how good the Grateful Dead catalog truly is. It’s been interesting trying to arrange these songs for this project. There’s some reharmonization of the chords, some new stylistic ways of playing the songs and, of course, [the challenge of] arranging them instrumentally and without a guitar.”
While Fraticelli and Scarano are undergoing a crash course on the Dead, Magner’s history has long been intertwined with the band—both as a fan and a collaborator. On multiple occasions, The Disco Biscuits have welcomed Grateful Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart to join in on live performances. Then there’s Billy & The Kids, the recently-revived Kreutzmann project which features Magner, bassist Reed Mathis, and guitarist Tom Hamilton. The group is set to play their first shows since 2016 this summer.
Kreutzmann has gone on record about his love for the Biscuits, as well. He spoke about the band and their abilities in detail in his biography, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead:
It’s bands like Phish and the Disco Biscuits that really make me proud of what the Grateful Dead did, because they keep our spirit alive by taking what we created and doing their own thing with it. If people insist that we were the forefathers, well then the kids have all grown up and moved out and given birth to babies of their own. Music should never be stagnant.
Well before Magner was collaborating with members of the Grateful Dead, Magner was a card-carrying Deadhead himself. “I had an older cousin whom I idolized and he was into the Grateful Dead, therefore I liked them,” Magner explains. “What an incredible butterfly effect he had on me. I first saw Jerry [Garcia] in ’89 when I was 13 and must have seen close to 50 shows before 1995. I have never lost my passion for their music, but interestingly, I never really played most of the catalog until Billy & The Kids. That’s what kind of got me digging in deep to learn these songs on my instrument that I already knew so well in my head.”
As far as which era(s) of Grateful Dead music SPAGA will adapt—or which keyboardist’s style(s) he will emulate, Magner remains open-minded. When asked which era, or eras, were his favorite, he lists off a range of dates that practically spanned the band’s entire career. “I learn something from each of The Dead’s keyboard players,” Aron notes. “I’ll listen to different eras when learning a song for that reason. But the whole time I’m also aware that as much as I love their individual styles, my playing is also unique to me. I love listening to any of these eras, but when I play Grateful Dead, I want to borrow from the past but sound like me.” Fans will have to head to Brooklyn Comes Alive to find out the answer.
Prepare for SPAGA Plays The Dead at Brooklyn Comes Alive with a full video of SPAGA’s performance at DROM in New York City during The Disco Biscuits’ 2019 New Year’s Eve run below:
SPAGA – DROM NYC – 12/29/19 – Full Video
SPAGA Plays The Dead will be but one act among a massive lineup at Brooklyn Comes Alive on March 21st. Other scheduled performances include Oteil Burbridge & Friends with members of Dead & Company, Soulive, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Lettuce, and more; Birds of a Feather featuring members of Pigeons Playing Ping Pong and Goose; Turkuaz with special guests Cory Henry, Robert Sput Searight, and Nate Werth; The Motet with special guests Oz Noy, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, and Shira Elias; Robert Randolph & Friends featuring Karl Denson, Ivan Neville, Rashawn Ross (Dave Matthews Band), and members of Ghost-Note; Anomalie / Deitch / MonoNeon; Lettuce/Dumpstaphunk supergroup Dr. Klaw; undead funk outfit Here Come the Mummies; and bassist/DJ Karina Rykman; as well as late-night performances by Jade Cicada, Potions, and 5AM Trio and a rare DJ set by Beats Antique.
Tickets to Brooklyn Comes Alive 2020 are on sale now. A festival pass to Brooklyn Comes Alive grants attendees access to the full schedule of programming across both stages, including the late-night sets. Fans can also purchase late-night-only passes, which grant attendees access to The Great Hall only from 12:00 a.m.–4:00 a.m. Brooklyn Comes Alive late-night passes can be purchased here.
Brooklyn Comes Alive: SPAGA Plays The Dead Lineup