ST Exclusive: Bringing the Persuasions back from, and to, the Dead

By Rip Rense
Producer, Persuasions of the Dead
Zoho Roots, Allegro Media Group, http:persdead.com

 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? But then, “broke” can be in the eye of the beholder, and I thought The Persuasions’ “Might as Well” album, released in 2000, was broke. Well, somewhat broke. Well, broke-ish. Yes, it’s very lovely music. Yes, it’s a warm, endearing document of their Grateful Dead tribute recording sessions, a project I dreamed up and executive produced in 1999. Yes, it was well reviewed and sold well. But. . .I couldn’t listen to it.

By Rip Rense
Producer, Persuasions of the Dead
Zoho Roots, Allegro Media Group, http:persdead.com

 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? But then, “broke” can be in the eye of the beholder, and I thought The Persuasions’ “Might as Well” album, released in 2000, was broke. Well, somewhat broke. Well, broke-ish. Yes, it’s very lovely music. Yes, it’s a warm, endearing document of their Grateful Dead tribute recording sessions, a project I dreamed up and executive produced in 1999. Yes, it was well reviewed and sold well. But. . .I couldn’t listen to it.

You see, I absolutely love The Persuasions. And I love the Grateful Dead. I wanted the meeting of these singers and this music to be more than “lovely,” “warm,” “endearing.” I wanted it to be, as Bob Weir used to say during Grateful Dead shows, “just exactly perfect.” But I wasn’t producing.

When I arranged and coordinated the project, from booking the studio and group living quarters in Berkeley to figuring out which songs they would sing (to, yes, even taking a small hand in the production), the plan was for lead singer Jerry Lawson to produce. Too often he had been de facto producer of Persuasions albums while sharing the title with someone else, or relegating production entirely. I wanted Jerry to have sole credit. He is a genius when it comes to arranging any music for a cappella, so what more would be needed? But I’m the kind of guy who is open to suggestions, and change, and the very un-Zen idea that more is better.

So I thought that bringing in other musicians to play solos on some of the tracks, preferably musicians who had some Grateful Dead connection, would be nice. I invited my old friend, David Gans (longtime host of the Grateful Dead Hour) to bring in such guests, and also to drop by the sessions to, if necessary, “help the guys out if they get stuck on a weird Grateful Dead chord.”

There is a line in a Dead song called “Cassidy” that goes, “Let your life proceed by its own design,” and I adopted just this philosophy in supervising the sessions. Which is to say, I didn’t supervise. I let things take their own course. And why not? David hit it off with Jerry and the guys, brought in an array of superb guest musicians, wound up co-producing with Jerry, and spontaneous and good things happened. Problem was, the end result was just not what I had in mind. It wasn’t. . .just exactly perfect.

You see, I know The Persuasions, and their tremendous energy. And while the original album leaned toward lush ballads, it still lacked the fire and foot-tapping that I crave in a Persuasions record. Where were the joyous gospel shouting, handclaps, testifying, electricity? Propulsive bass? This music often bordered on sedate. Okay, the guys weren’t 25 anymore, but still. . .

And a number of songs were just very. . .long. “Bertha,” “Liberty,” “It Must Have Been The Roses” were all around five minutes, only because of repeated verses and choruses. There were double verses in “Brokedown Palace” and “Lazy River Road,” that I thought worked against impact. There were big prologues built of the song choruses on “Roses,” “Lazy River Road.” “Ship of Fools” was (gasp) over eight minutes long. Plus four songs committed the cardinal a cappella sin of being. . .cappella. Right, accompanied. Okay, it was the piano of the Grateful Dead’s Vince Welnick on three of them, but. . .

Then there was the fact that what I thought were three terrific, essential songs were aborted: “Greatest Story Ever Told,” “New Speedway Boogie,” and “Stella Blue.”

Hell, half the reason I pursued this project was just to hear the guys sing “Stella Blue.”

But these are sort of niggling mechanical things, easy enough to change. The “just exactly perfect” that I wanted meant that the album needed. . .more. More production, more concept, more arranging, more grandeur, more energy, more a cappella, more fun, more novelty, more brightness, more spark, more laughs, more spirit.

This took, oh, three years. (Cough.)

In 2008, I spoke with Jerry and the rest of the guys about releasing a new version, about “fixing” the album. They were, pardon the expression, Dead-set for it. They gave me carte blanche, bless them, and Jerry offered invaluable consultation. First step: reunite The Persuasions. That’s right. Lawson had quit the group in 2002. Well, he graciously agreed to sing lead on “Stella Blue” (hooray), and the others agreed to record a second brand-new track, the bouncy and joyous old blues number, “Don’t Ease Me In.” Yow! New Persuasions songs! With the original guys!

Next step: dig through the tapes for the discarded “Greatest Story” and “New Speedway Boogie” (the first “Stella Blue” never made it past rehearsal.) My wonderful engineer, Marc Doten, and I performed some fairly major surgery here, but the end results justified it. “Greatest” is now kick-ass rave-up gospel, thanks to percussion, handclaps, and “Sweet Joe” Russell’s testifying behind Jayotis Washington’s soaring lead. “Speedway” is an understated gem rescued from two aborted rehearsals (thank you, ProTools.)

Next next step: remove most of the reverb-induced blend that is all over the “Might as Well” album, apparently to mask tuning problems. Hey, I’m not burdened with perfect pitch, and I think The Persuasions are plenty good enough to let their vocals ring out loud and clear on their own merit.  

My next call is controversial, I suppose. Seeing as the first album had morphed into Persuasions-plus-lotsa-guests, I figured why not go whole-hog? Hence “The Persuasions and Friends.” Six more, to be exact. To address the “brightness” issue, I brought in wonderful Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones, Jerry Garcia’s chosen back-up singers for about ten years. I ignored Lawson’s call to “put ‘em on everything,” and settled for seven tracks. If you do a before-and-after listen, especially to “Liberty,” “Ship of Fools,” and “Bertha,” you will hear the dramatic difference Jackie and Gloria made.

Further, I enlisted: Mark Karan, virtuoso lead guitarist of Bob Weir’s group, RatDog, to play stinging leads on the house-party that is Weir’s “One More Saturday Night,” barisax James King to do screeching call-and-answer with Joe Russell on “Loose Lucy” (which I stripped back to five voices from a strangely doubled choir), Alyn Kelley to replicate a Garcia guitar solo with her “voice trumpet” on “Don’t Ease. . .”, Country Joe McDonald to play blues harp solo on “Sugaree” and take a verse on “Liberty” (hey, Joe cut an album with Garcia, sang with The Persuasions on one of his old albums, and the Pers dedicated their children’s album to him), and one Dongming Qiao to play erhu (the plaintive Chinese stringed instrument) on “Stella.”

(The Dongming story alone is epic. Summary: he was a street performer from China who spoke no English and knew no western harmony. He had never played western music before, was extremely self-effacing, and had to be cajoled over a period of weeks by his wife to work very hard on composing a solo for “Stella.” He has since returned to playing on the streets of Beijing.)

And in the boring technical stuff department, every single vocal on every single track (except “Black Muddy River,” which is. . .perfect) was re-auditioned, painstakingly remixed and remastered, with Jimmy’s pumping, rather miraculous basslines boosted to where I think they should be (especially on the accompanied tracks, where his essential rhythms had been subsumed by piano on the first album.) And Lawson recorded a new, livelier lead vocal on “Might as Well,” plus overdubs on “He’s Gone,” injecting life into what had been tame renditions.

Crazy? Yes, a little, I suppose. My original concept was to have the album follow the form of a Dead concert, with “first-set” (straight ahead performances) and “second set” (more stretched out, segueing songs, plus the freak-outs known as “Space” and “Drumz.”) Yup, that’s here, too, and for those who find The Pers’ tongue-in-cheek versions of “Space/Drumz” too weird, I say two things: 1) bring a sense of humor(!), and 2) you can skip ‘em.

I won’t get into the changed arrangements that make a difference on “Might as Well,” “He’s Gone,” “I Bid You Good Night,” “Brokedown Palace,” or the great five-track segue on disc 2---that’s right, it’s a two-disc set now---or the fact that many of the songs went through 12 or more mixes. Oops, I guess I just did.

This should give an idea of the extent of the remake. But the point is, of course, not to compare and contrast the differences between the original and remake. They both exist, take your pick. It’s just to have a good time with the fabulous Persuasions and this deep and beautiful music. Quixotic, you say? Yes. Expensive, you ask? Put it this way: when I’m homeless in a year or so, I can tell the other bums that I produced a record that is “just exactly perfect.”

Well, almost “just exactly perfect.” If I’d just turned the guitar up a little on “Saturday Night” and maybe asked the guys to add handclaps to “New Speedway,” and maybe. . .

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