Music: Celtic Dead

Wake the Dead plays Grateful Dead songs with an Irish twist

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East Bay-based Wake the Dead plays Irish folk arrangements of Grateful Dead tunes that are lively, folksy and dance-friendly. Photo courtesy of Wake the Dead.

By Lily O’Brien

Wake the Dead describes itself as “the world’s only Celtic all-star Grateful Dead jam band.”  

“The Celtic aspect was just a happy accident,” says Paul Kotapish, co-founder of the band, which, along with Grateful Dead tunes, plays songs from the Summer of Love era fused with traditional Irish folk music. Think classic Dead songs like “Box of Rain” and “Dark Star” played—complete with fiddle, mandolin and Irish bagpipes—as though you were hearing them while sitting in a pub in Ireland. The band takes the Sweetwater stage on Thursday, March 16—appropriately, St. Patrick’s Day eve.

Kotapish (mandolin, vocals) says that he had been playing bluegrass and old-time fiddle music for a while when he got hooked on Irish music at a folk festival in 1976. “I listened to those jigs and reels and just had to learn them,” he says.

Around 2000, Kotapish joined forces with Danny Carnahan (octave mandolin, fiddle, vocals), who shared the vision of making a recording of Dead songs with a more gentle, acoustic approach. “In our minds, that made a lot of sense given the deep folk roots the Dead—especially Jerry—were steeped in,” Kotapish says.

The musicians soon brought in others who shared their love of both the Grateful Dead and traditional Irish music, and “it just kind of fell into place without a lot of thinking,” Kotapish says. “We knew we didn’t want to try to compete with or emulate the kind of open-ended jamming that made the Dead so unique, but we wanted the songs to take off and go somewhere else during the interludes.”

Kotapish says that Wake the Dead’s all-ages audiences are “a wonderful mashup of Deadheads, folkniks, pop music fans and Irish-music enthusiasts,” but most in the crowd are probably old enough to remember when the band’s repertoire was brand new. “It’s material that seems timeless to us.”

Wake the Dead, Thursday, March 16, Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; 8pm; $20-$22; 415/388-3850; sweetwatermusichall.com.

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