By Steve Houk
The Grateful Dead began their amazing journey 50 years ago this year, and thanks to the surviving members, the golden threads of their indelible music have kept on truckin’ ever since, despite Jerry Garcia’s untimely passing twenty years and a lot of tears ago. To honor the Dead legacy as it turns a half century old, remembrances and celebrations abound in 2015, the biggest being three days at Soldier Field in Chicago this July 4th weekend where tens of thousands will dance to the music of the surviving members and friends and deliriously bask in all things Dead.
Steve Kimock’s parallel journey has also been an amazing one, rife with Dead-like discovery, improvisation, experimentation, collaboration and ultimately, an established standing as one of the most talented musicians playing a guitar today, not to mention his esteemed place in the Dead family as both a contributor and close friend for almost as long as the Dead has been around. Kimock will pay his own homage to his friend Garcia with a special tribute tour in mid-March that includes stops in New York, Washington DC and Providence.
But Kimock’s tribute is not part of some bigger Dead 50th celebration, this is his own personal expression of appreciation. He often comes about these things almost accidentally, and the timing here is truly coincidental; Garcia tributes have been an ongoing thing over the last few years, and this one just felt right at this particular time. But there’s an intimacy here that supercedes any bigger celebration, because Steve Kimock knew Jerry Garcia. So it’s really just about him wanting to pay homage to music by a guy he has played with, respects and yes misses, like the rest of us.
Jerry Garcia jams with Steve Kimock live (photo by Robbi Cohn)
“It’s maybe a bit awkward being it’s the 50th, but we’ve done it before and it just kept sounding better so we thought we’d do it again,” said Kimock from his home in Pennsylvania. “The way it shook out in my life this time is what do you call it, synchronicity, I guess. I’m really just acknowledging a debt more than anything else. Jerry and I really loved each other’s playing and just the commitment to the instrument. He was a hard working guy and he did his homework every day. He stayed on top of it, and he got out the books and he practiced his ass off. He did not just sort of show up and get dosed and suddenly become a guitar player. He worked really really really hard. And when we got to hang out, we had a little cone of silence, nobody would bother us, we’d sit there and bullshit talking shop, you know.”
Clearly, Steve Kimock has walked with giants like the guys in the Dead and others throughout his illustrious career, but he himself is certainly a giant in his own right. He has established himself as a master guitar player and collaborator who can either play the Dead’s tunes like he was born to play them, play his own brand of masterful often improvisationally stunning tunes, or nail killer covers of the music he loves. Whatever he plays, and with whichever machination, he injects a special sound and feel to the guitar that you simply don’t hear or experience very often in your lifetime and that makes every band he plays with that much better.
Steve Kimock arrived in Northern California in the 70’s as a wide eyed Pennsylvania kid who was more than ready for whatever new experiences came his way. And come they did: people there were gloriously experimenting with all sorts of music — folk, blues, funk, psychedelia and other sounds — and it all spoke volumes to Kimock and his own mixed bag of musical roots.
“I couldn’t have been more than 12 and I think the first person I saw that played the guitar and I went oh my God was when I saw Joan Baez on TV, “said Kimock. “I’m watchin’ her fingerpick and I’m going like, holy shit, that’s cool. On some levels, she kicked my ass. My Aunt Dottie was a folk player on the Philly scene, so there was a whole bunch of that going on. If we had a book full of songs it was like Canadian fishermen laborer ballads, or protest songs from other countries, that was kind of the bag along with the regular Pete Seeger and that kind of stuff. And then of course any guitar player my age grew up strongly influenced by that first generation of the electric guitar playing, and the second generation blues guys like BB King. And nobody wasn’t affected by John Coltrane’s band and Miles Davis, you know, those elements were all there, the folk stuff, the blues stuff, the improvisation. And nobody was unaffected by The Beatles, or me in particular, The Beach Boys, really well crafted pop songs, great tunes, great melodies. Those elements were all in there and then you get all that through the lens of the 60’s San Francisco thing, the pyschedelic thing, you’re kind of deep in it. I felt fairly authentically able to feel right in line with that culture musically.”
Kimock felt the whole musical immersion process was pretty organic, kind of a “when in Rome” type thing, as in you absorb the musical vibe of people whom you associate with, and that’s what happened for him bigtime in San Francisco.
“Bobby Vega said if you walk into a room full of people with a cold, you catch a cold. If you walk into a room full of people playing East Bay funk, you catch that. To the extent that the elements of style are regional, Chicago blues, New Orleans funk, a community of people play a certain way. And when you play with those people and you’re in that area, it’s in the water, it was literally in the water up there sometimes, you had to be careful. So I kind of came up musically in that San Francisco psychedelic rock thing, so all of those elements, you know, quite a few which were already part of where I was at.”
And among those in Northern California who were also finding their way and sampling and creating the musical stew of the time was another group of young musicians who would first call themselves The Warlocks, and then, the Grateful Dead. And Kimock would begin a lifelong relationship with these guys that would see him both embracing and yet sometimes also gently pushing away from the Dead sound. But above all, he recognized and nourished a bond with their music, which with its shared elements of folk, blues and improvisation, drove each of their passions.
“I remember the first time that I really heard the Grateful Dead, where I listened and went, oh s–t, these guys are good, was the Europe ’72 record,” Kimock said. “I was listening to that and I was like, oh my God, where have I been? Kind of immediately there were elements of my own thing, the kinda sound that I like out of the guitar, and where I was at. There was the folk and the improvisation and the blues and everything like that, there were enough similarities there, sort of in a real general way, that people would say hey, you sound like Jerry Garcia or something like that, and I’d be like, no I don’t. Leave me alone. I consciously kind of sort of pushed away from listening to that to kind of maintain some identity. I didn’t learn their tunes and try to do that, I went in the opposite direction with alot of the production and stuff like that, I wasn’t trying to eat off that plate. If there was stuff that happened, like in a more or less parallel development way, then fine. But I didn’t really want to go there, I got it, but it wasn’t like I was going to a bunch of shows. I went to a handful of Grateful Dead shows with all those guys, but it wasn’t like I was a Deadhead exactly. Yet.”
Kimock had a couple major influences he brought with him to his new musical life, and Garcia became one of them. “A whole bunch of what I thought I was trying to do was kinda like a Roy Buchanan thing,“ Kimock continued. “Somewhere in between Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, kinda like a melodic string bending. Still with some heat on it, but not like a shredding level. Just good solid keynote modern interpretation of electric blues. And I heard so much of those shared influences in Garcia’s early stuff.”
Kimock got to know the guys in the Dead more just by hanging around the same haunts and knowing similar people. “When we landed in Marin County,” he said, “there was a bunch of [guys in the Dead] around. A whole bunch of the initial personal connections came from Howard Danchick who worked for Ultrasound who provided the sound for the Grateful Dead for all those years. He had the Hot Tuna truck at the time, and we’d go past that on our way to our apartment every day. And once, Phil Lesh picked me up hitchhiking in the rain.”
Kimock would start to hone his eventual musical direction right away, even starting with the type of live shows he would go to after he arrived in this new world.
“One of the first gigs I went to was the Merl Saunders Band at the old Waldorf down in the financial district. It was a hip gig man. I was so young and I stood right in front of him and he had the full headdress on, and he’s playing the tenor saxophone through the Echoplex and stuff, my mind was so blown. I was completely transformed, I’d never seen anything like it, it was like going to see John Coltrane or somethin’. I was just like shocked out of my little Pennsylvania skin and we hooked up shortly after because he lived right there.”
Before finding success with his own band Zero, Kimock would join a band featuring former Dead members Keith and Donna Godchaux. “That was really the first time sittin’ and pickin’ with any of those guys. Zero kind of emerged from the ashes of the Keith and Donna band. They were a great band, it just didn’t last very long, Keith dying tragically in that auto accident and all.”
Steve Kimock and his band Zero circa 1992 (photo by Bob Minkin)
Through the years, Kimock has established himself as one of the Dead’s surviving members’ most coveted players. And he reveres his time learning from, playing with and eventually teaching his friends in yet another collaborative environment.
“I grew up paying attention to the people that I was playing with,” Kimock said, “and how they played. You just try to learn from that. The cool thing about getting to work with any of those guys in the Dead and to hang with them, and trying to understand what they understood, is that there’s a whole bunch of what they did musically that was really off the page, those guys knew how to manage a certain kind of energy and create certain kind of spaces, and you can’t learn that from a book, you have to actually go to the guy and sit there and glean what you can. But musically they were enormously successful and influential.”
Kimock is clearly a master of collaboration having done it his entire career, and finds himself still bouncing between different feels and sounds. After this Garcia tribute run, he will do a few shows during the New Orleans Jazz Fest with Bill Kreutzmann and other buddies as Voodoo Dead, and then following his recurring teaching presence at Jorma Kaukonen’s music camp in Ohio, he’ll return as Steve Kimock and Friends at a May gig with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros honoring Wavy Gravy’s 79th birthday. Kimock takes the aspect of collaboration to heart as part of an ongoing learning experience, for him and his fellow musicians.
“I think you just have to take the responsibility seriously,” Kimock said. “There’s a couple things that you have to do as a musician. You have to practice, you have to listen, you have to study, you have to teach. You have to do all those things. If you’re approaching that with any respect, and you love what you’re doing, with all those different people, like the recent stuff with [Bob] Weir for example. I love the people and I love the music and I take the responsibility and the opportunity seriously to try and be there for the right reasons. It’s just about coming at it with the right attitude.”
Steve Kimock (R) joins Derek Trucks (L) and Warren Haynes onstage with the Allman Brothers
Kimock has also jammed with another band he reveres, The Allman Brothers, including one incredible tale about a phone call one night sitting at home. “Dickey apparently had fallen off the wagon before some big Bill Graham event at the Fillmore, and the phone rang, and the voice on the other end said ‘Steve Kimock? And I said yeah, and she said ‘Steve Kimock the guitar player?’ and I’m like YEAHHH, and she says ‘Can you play a gig right now?’ I was like, what do ya mean? She said, ‘Just get in the car with your guitar, right now, and drive to the gig and play.’ And I’m like, for WHO? And she says, ‘The Allman Brothers.’ And I say I’m gettin’ in the car! The Allman Brothers were hugely influential for me so it was pretty cool, Duane Allman, he was so free with his playing, what a beautiful player. I missed your first call because I was practicing the bottleneck. I’ve been playing the bottleneck since I was like sixteen and as I was waiting for the call, I think something snapped in my brain, I think I’m starting to get it like 40 years later or something!”
Kimock is clearly more than proud when he speaks of his 25 year old son John who will join him on drums for the Garcia tribute shows and has played with him many times before.
“He couldn’t even walk when he first started playing,” Kimock said, “he was pulling pots and pans pout of the cabinet and beating on ‘em with spoons, and never looked back. He’s so good. There are no blessings higher than my first born who I just bonded with, that he found his path in the music. And I didn’t push him into it or anything or sit there and watch over his shoulder, I just did my best to encourage. It really shows me that musician’s kids, just growing up in a musical environment and having some musical lineage, just how valuable that is. It took me forever being out on my own with not whole lot of any kind of support to get going. Seeing the progress that John has made partially because he wasn’t impeded as a youth to play, like nobody wanted me to play guitar, you know, get a job at the steel company. Johnny’s got a gig now with Mike Gordon’s band, that’s a big deal.”
Steve Kimock and Bob Weir (photo by Rich Saputo)
Steve Kimock may be best recognized by many for his collaborations with surviving members of the Grateful Dead, but with all of his various machinations and the wide scope of his talent and his ever effusive musical mind, he is so much more than that. Yet he is never reluctant to laud the band that he has run alongside with for basically his entire career, especially their bespectacled leader.
“It didn’t start that way, but now, I’m probably the most closeted Deadhead musician on earth. Having to play that material with whoever the surviving participating members were, having to get my nose rubbed in that book, and listening to music like that, the stuff is just brilliant. So unbelievably good it’s just like humbling. Really incredible catalog, great playing, great tunes. These guys have given us so much, so much beautiful music to so many people, that if I can nod to that, and just give a nod to those people because all those guys in those bands were friends of mine and I’ve played with them in whole bunch of different bands. They’re like family. As for the Jerry shows, being I’m not gonna be able to do this forever, I thought, well, now’s a good time to tip my hat.”