Musician Brady Rymer is known for his positive attitude and for heading up Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could, one of the best live bands in kindie. Oh, and in a former (and occasionally) current life, playing with the band From Good Homes.
The GRAMMY-nominated Rymer and his Little Band That Could have just released their latest album Just Say Hi!, but in this latest installment of "How I Got Here," Rymer goes back nearly 40 years to talk about an album important to his musical development, the Grateful Dead's double live album Steal Your Face.
I bought Steal Your Face at the Rockaway Mall in Rockaway, New Jersey, in 1978, the summer before 8th grade; I was 14.
Steal Your Face is a 1976 double album of live recordings from The Dead's Wall of Sound/Farewell to Winterland tour. They carried around a huge sound system, designed by the band and top engineers, and recorded crystal clear sound for the time. The album has gotten very mixed reviews -- mostly not good -- and even the band didn’t like it all that much, but it was the first Dead album I bought with my own money. Plus, I loved that cool red, white and blue skull on the cover.
The first time I listened to the album in my basement, it sounded very strange. I couldn’t figure it out, but I still related to it on a gut level. It sounded so different than David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, or Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, or Kiss Alive, or Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, or anything I ever heard on Top 40 radio. It was the first time I was so intrigued by what I heard that I picked up my guitar and tried to figure out how they were doing it. I didn’t know where to begin. It didn’t even sound like they were playing chords; it was more like each song was a jigsaw puzzle with all of its pieces scattered. Slowly, I started to put it together.
The band was a simple combo. Similar to other rock ‘n’ roll or rhythm & blues bands, it consisted of two guitars, piano, bass, two drummers (I always loved that!) and lots of singing. But the music came across like a Cubist painting – the picture broken up into pieces, parts here, other elements over there, counter melodies. Everyone not playing the same way at the same time, and going in different directions. The underpinning percolating and chaotic at times, relaxed at other times – but still holding together somehow, in some way, and sounding like a song. And all with this happy, feel-good groove and spirit that I could feel was similar to the records and artists I knew – Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles.
As I worked on playing the music on my guitar, to see how they created this magic, I realized it was actually simple – and then again, not so simple. Mostly, they were playing chords and progressions I knew, but they were doing it in such a different kind of way: not playing the whole chords, or plucking notes or little melodies in between strums, changing their parts – leaving space, playing alternative notes, but mostly what I heard was a monster of a band playing together – this organic growing, moving thing – alive in the moment. That was thrilling.
I fell in love with a few things.
- Jerry Garcia. His voice and guitar playing was so beautiful. So soulful, laid back at times, on fire at times. I could hear rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues and gospel all rolled into one.
- Bob Weir's rhythm guitar playing. I am a rhythm guitar player; back then I was just learning about rhythm guitar’s role in a band. Bob played such cool variations and voicings of the chords, adding in little counter-melodies to his rhythm, adding spaces to let the other instruments peek through; all the while acting as the bonding glue between the lead guitar, bass and drums. His rhythm guitar lived right in the middle of the overall sound, adding very colorful parts but still holding it all together, creative and integral.
- The songs. Their originals were a combination of rock ‘n’ roll, country, gospel, rhythm & blues, jugband. I didn’t really know all of these strains of music when I first listened to Steal Your Face, but the Dead led me back to all of those treasures: Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Elizabeth Cotton, gospel music; really, all American roots music. And their lyrics were poetic, impressionistic; filled with images and cool scenes, rich language and mysterious characters. The words worked perfectly with the music. What I didn’t realize until now is how many cover songs are on the album: songs by Johnny Cash, Jesse Fuller, Chuck Berry, traditional American songs. Wonderful musical markers of our past which are hard to come by as a kid, and markers which inevitably lead further down the trail of wonderful musical discoveries.
After that album, my bandmates and I started playing more Dead and trying to improvise, as they did. This led us to writing our own songs and developing a sound of our own; something that felt good, natural and honest. The sound was laid back but still rockin'. We began listening to each other and playing off each other instead of just churning through learned parts. We learned how to trust the song, trust each other and let the song go, grow and move where it wanted to take us. As we learned the music never played out the same way twice, it became very exciting, and addicting, to revisit the material night after night.
Who would have guessed that about two decades later, three of us from that original garage band who learned how to play from listening to Dead records would get the opportunity to tour with The Dead’s Bob Weir (as the band From Good Homes). We got to see him work – how he structured his shows, sculpted his sound. We asked about songs; he told some amazing Grateful Dead stories, but the most memorable things for me was when I asked him how he’s been doing this for so long. What has kept him going, I asked. He immediately replied – by having fun! The Dead always approached the music with the attitude, “it has to be fun or we ain’t gonna do it!”
It became so clear to me: that’s exactly what I was hearing and responding to in the music. The joy, the togetherness. It’s what I loved about playing music and being in a band, and it’s what we just naturally did. And it’s been the kind of music I’ve been consistently drawn to – gospel, bluegrass, rhythm & blues, rock n roll – the kind of music that’s full of joy or a strong spirit – where there seems to be some kind of something important going down – some kind of gathering of the spirits – an uplifting experience – a higher purpose.
I don’t listen to The Dead much these days, but every spring or early summer I get a craving to hear some of their live concerts; the shows from the years when I was seeing them perform. Listening, I’m reminded of the power and effect that a rock band can have. Their incredibly nimble, colorful sound washing over me; this group of 6 players with traditional instruments, playing a smorgasbord of traditional American/modern music, creating a wall of sound all their own, something that gets thousands of people moving and shaking together as one. Getting out of the way of the music, letting it lead the way. I always was amazed by that, and loved the feeling of being in the audience and experiencing that collective joy. Like going on a thrilling amusement ride together. Whenever I’m on the stage I guess that’s one of the things I strive for – that connection with the music and the audience. Kind of like a ping pong match; giving music to audience members, then giving energy back to the band and so forth until we’re all eventually moving as one, feeling good and trusting that the music will take us on an uplifting and fun journey. An amazing thing to create for just a few people with guitars, piano and drums!
So yeah, this not-so-loved, certainly not best Grateful Dead album, Steal Your Face, made me want to be in a band and play music for a lifetime. It started me down roads of musical discovery which I’m still traveling today. It showed me how music of all genres can span, reach and stretch out across all generations, and be dusted off and reinterpreted at any time, at any moment, in any way. And it showed how a band can have all different types of music that inspire them thrown into one big bubblin’ stew of songs. That still sounds pretty good to me.
Photo Credits: Brady Rymer: Jayme Thornton; From Good Homes: Vic Guadagno