Jay Blakesberg Creates Magic With Dead Tour Photo Books
By Blair JacksonPhotographer Jay Blakesberg has been shooting the Grateful Dead since the late ’70s, and has even picked up the pace in the years following Garcia’s passing. Though he shoots album covers for many bands and works regularly for Rolling Stone and other magazines, he always makes time to shoot The Dead and their many offshoots—he’s been the de facto chronicler of Phil Lesh & Friends since that ever-evolving unit got its start in 1998. The last couple of years he’s also gotten more and more into video directing: Besides Phil & Friends’ commercial DVD (the group with John Scofield), he’s directed video shoots at various jam band festivals and other venues.
For the recent Dead tour, Jay added a new wrinkle to his impressive resumé—instant author. He created beautiful individual photo books for every city on The Dead’s tour; a great memento for fans. Previews of each book would appear online at blurb.com/thedead shortly after the concert and then they could be ordered right then and there. (Tour books for all cities are still available through Blurb at that URL.) Additionally, Jay partnered with filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann to document the tour in that medium—hopefully we’ll see more of their handiwork in that area up the road a little.
We talked to Jay a bit about his experience creating the tour books and being out on the road with the band.
How did you come to go on tour and create these amazing photo books for each stop along the way?
Actually, it was Jill Lesh who asked me for a proposal to go out on the road because she wanted me to be part of the team with Justin Kreutzmann to document the tour on video and also to do photography. The idea for the tour book—having one for every city they played in—also came from Jill Lesh. It was a brilliant idea.
Photo: Jay Blakesberg ©2009
I would think it must have been hard to be on the road, shoot the shows and then turn the books around so quickly.
It was a huge workflow thing for us, because I had to shoot the shows, edit them, create the books in just a few days to get them up on line so people could see them and buy them. But it was a super-fun project and we’re hoping we can take this idea to other bands or festivals because I think it’s a great idea. I was talking to David Lemieux on tour and he was saying what a great memory package you can have now, between the tour book and the downloads or instant CDs available the same night at each show, and imagine if we could have done this 25 years ago!
We used to make our own tour books, with setlists and stuff that we cut out of newspapers and magazines, weird things like that. Psychedelic scrapbooking.
Right! I still collect and save everything; all of my old ticket stubs, backstage passes and things I’d pick up outside shows. I figure my kids will probably sell it all on eBay some day after I’m gone. [Laughs]
So, the workflow was, as soon as the show was over, we’d immediately start editing so we could get some things online at dead.net, jambase.com, etc., literally the next morning. I was shooting anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 pictures a night, and I was typically editing about 50 percent of those out immediately.
Photo: Jay Blakesberg ©2009
One of the other things I was brought in for was this tour app we did for the iPhone. It’s a very cool technology. I had done an electronic book on the Grateful Dead for the iPhone, and when I showed that to Phil and Bobby, who are big iPhone guys—and Mickey is also—they loved it and said, "This is great. How do we do something like this for the tour?" So we went into high gear and created a platform for the iPhone where we could have streaming audio from every show on the tour, and blogs by the band, set lists, photos, instant “Tweets” via Twitter right after they started playing a song, and backstage video. It turned out to be really cool. You can find it in the iTunes App store under “The Dead.”
So really, what I did on tour was create and manage content that was used across a whole range of places: The iPhone app, the tour book idea, the video stuff that’s up on dead.net that Justin and I did, plus the band now has an incredible documentation of this tour and this incarnation of the Band Beyond Description! I don’t think the Grateful Dead or The Dead has ever done such an extensive documentation of a tour.
Did you guys shoot much video of the music, or was it mostly backstage stuff?
We did shoot a lot of music. We would look at the set list every night and say, "Ooh, let’s cover these two or three songs as best as we could as a two-camera shoot." The idea for the film that Justin and I want to make is more of a documentary glimpse of the overall tour, with a healthy dose of old history thrown in through interviews, and not a concert film really. It can’t be a concert film because we didn’t do a four- or five- or six-camera shoot anywhere. But we have good coverage of very specific songs, of “Drums,” and then a lot of backstage stuff. We did a lot of great interviews, too. We interviewed some of the crew guys and we spent a lot of time in the rehearsal rooms backstage every night, watching them get into the groove and warming up. So we have a lot of intimate behind-the-scenes stuff. The photos I took really tell a story, but the video that Justin and I and our third party in video land—Stephanie Cinesi—created is really going to tell the Dead story in a way that is brand new.
I’m curious about what sort of things went on in the rehearsal rooms, because we don’t think of the Grateful Dead as a band that sat around and rehearsed before a show… to say the least.
That’s true. [Laughs] You know, I was just at Summer Camp Festival with moe. and Umphrey’s McGee, and both of those bands had instruments and amps in a back room. It’s become a much more common thing. Phish used to always do it. They used to have a lot of guests play with them, so it was a great place to get the guests warmed up. I have pictures of both Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in Phish rehearsal rooms at Shoreline; Warren Haynes, too.
What goes on at the rehearsal room with The Dead? Well, they look at the set list and they rehearse. You know, rehearsal is a big part of what made the Grateful Dead so great back in the late ’60s. Listen to those Fillmore West CDs from ’69.
Photo: Jay Blakesberg ©2009
In Marin, before the tour, they were rehearsing jams, and yes, they still improvised, but it gave them a sturdier framework. I also watched them in the rehearsal room and they’d say, “OK, we’re going to play ‘Terrapin’ in the first set and then in the second set, right in the middle of ‘China-Rider’ let’s throw in a little Terrapin,’” or “Hey, this is how we’re going come out of this song to get into this other song.” Transitions. A place where they could throw out ideas and see if they could make them work, before going into a show cold and winging it.
Were you ever there when they were actually making up the setlist?
I think once or twice I saw a band member really getting into the set list at a venue. Often, though, they were e-mailing it before the band got to the venue. But at the venue is when it would get updated.
How were the set lists done?
I believe different band members picked out and made the set list. One night it would be a Phil set list, one night it was a Bobby set list, one night it was a Bill set list…
So that was true, eh? I’d heard that but couldn’t believe there was actually a show where Bill or Mickey would choose the songs…
Yes, indeed. They were rotating. The set list would typically be done early in the day, because the crew needs to get it and everyone needs to be aware of what’s going to happen, for a variety of reasons. And then it changes and evolves over the course of a day. Literally, when they send the list in the early afternoon, by the time they get to the rehearsal room at 7 p.m. that set list has changed a few times—songs get swapped out, orders get changed. The Sharpies come out.
Here’s a funny story: Up in Buffalo, “Morning Dew” was on the set list and all of a sudden I saw Billy crossing it out. I’m a huge “Morning Dew” guy so I’m like, ‘Whoa, Billy, what’s up? You’re not gonna do ‘Morning Dew’? He says, “We’re saving it for New York City. We want to do it at Madison Square Garden.” I said, “Great idea!” So they get to Madison Square Garden. Do they play it? No. OK, more shows go on, still no “Morning Dew.” The first night in Philly, I was up on stage during soundcheck and the only person up there was Phil and I needed to do some shots of his new custom speaker cabinets. So I said to him, “You know, you still haven’t played ‘Morning Dew’ yet.” I knew the set list was already done for the first night and it wasn’t on there. So Phil looks at me and he says, “You’re right. We haven’t played ‘Morning Dew,’ and we really need to play it before we leave the East Coast.” I said, “Well, that means tonight or tomorrow.” And he says, “I think you’re right,” and he got this kind of prankster look on his face.
So sure enough, I was on the bus driving over to the venue with Warren the next day and he says, “So, ‘Morning Dew’ is on the set list.” And I said “Yeaaaah!” I told Warren the story about how I reminded Phil they hadn’t played it yet and I asked him who was singing it and he said Bob wanted to sing the first one and “I’m gonna sing the next one. That’s one of the songs Bob want to alternate between us singing.” They played it that night and it was a great moment. Warren sang the next one, so East and West both got “Morning Dew” and both were incredible versions.
As a guy who did a bunch of tours back in the day, what are your observations about the crowd and the vibe of the tour? Everyone keeps talking about how many young people there were out there. My 18-year-old son hit the Forum show, his first…
The thing that was interesting is because a lot of the seats up front were VIP seats and more expensive, the people up front were a little bit older but definitely long-time Dead Heads and way into it... But in general, yeah, there were a lot of younger fans. Younger fans, older fans—everyone came to the party! I thought the energy was great, I thought most of the fans loved it, and when they got to a place like Madison Square Garden that place exploded from the crowd. There were some very electrified moments coming from the audience.
Backstage, the energy was really high, too. Mickey and Billy were really into it. Most shows, Mickey and Billy were the first ones there working on their drum section, so they were putting in almost an hour of soundcheck of their own before the full band soundcheck. Same thing up in Marin at rehearsal: Mickey and Billy would get there before everyone else because they had this guy Jonah Sharp helping Mickey with a bunch of the programming and they really wanted to get it all dialed in. I think their hard work paid off, because everyone really through the “Drums” were amazing on this tour.
Jeff was amazing on this tour, too.
Jeff was amazing. He knows the song book really, really well, and so does Warren. I think everyone was really stepping up to the plate. I’d walk into the rehearsal room and Warren and Jeff would be working out some vocal stuff, so when Phil and Bobby got there, there was already energy in the air to up the ante and have all of them take it to the next level. It was phenomenal to see them work out the intricacies of their harmonies. They did not take it for granted that they could go out and sing a song like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” without practice. It was an amazing process to watch, but as I said, it’s something that many bands in the jam world do on a regular basis.
Were you there for both of the Branford nights?
Oh yeah, Justin got a great video interview with him talking about how he met the band and about playing with the band and stuff like that.
Photo: Jay Blakesberg ©2009
Sometimes when they would rehearse, they would find a groove and really be getting it going, and all of a sudden, they’re like, “OK, let’s stop it right here. Let’s see where it goes onstage,” which I thought was very cool. They definitely did that with Branford the second night backstage. They did that frequently with a lot of songs in rehearsal—get it going, bottle the magic brew, and then on stage open the bottle back up and see where it would take them. They didn’t beat songs to death in the rehearsal room. They got them to the point where they were ready to go. The rehearsal room was like the launching pad, and then they’d get on stage and the rocket would blast off!
For more info about Jay and his work go to blakesberg.com.
I went to the Greensboro, NC show, had a blast. I saw the link for these books and ordered one. I was a bit disappointed in it, it is really cheap. Wish I had saved my money. I'll be jamming the music for many years to come, it was a great tour. Jamming the latest RT now, really nice Loose Lucy. Jam on America.
Coconut Phil, living Free.
Rjblueberry has some amazing video footage. WOW!
check out videos from 09 tour on you tube rjblueberry you feel like your at the show