Wake the Dead blends Celtic bagpipes, traditional Irish fiddle and mandolin with the timeless melodies of the Grateful Dead. The San Francisco Bay Area band has done this for 19 years, but more recently it has fused ancient music from the British Isles to other folk and rock tunes from the late 1960s.
The sextet combines the musical forces of Danny Carnahan on vocals, mandolin, guitar and fiddle, Paul Kotapish on vocals, mandolin, guitar and jaw harp, Sylvia Herold on vocals and guitar, Cindy Browne on bass, Kevin Carr on bagpipes and pennywhistle, and Brian Rice on percussion.
The band is set to perform at 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 8, at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland. Tickets in advance are $22, at the door $25. Students and those under 25 pay $12 at the door.
Carnahan — like all the other band members — began playing music at an early age. He discovered Irish music while in high school, but mostly enjoyed listening to the Grateful Dead and other popular Bay Area bands.
Over the years, he performed folk music, bluegrass and country swing, but eventually migrated into traditional Irish, Scottish and British fusion music with another musician. The two toured for several years beginning in the late ‘70s before going their separate ways.
By the late 1990s, Carnahan’s original Irish songs were known all over the world and he was mostly a solo artist living in the Bay Area, and hanging out with other musicians.
One of those was Kotapish. He grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and began his musical odyssey as an electric guitarist with a rock ‘n’ roll band while in the eighth grade.
“In my college years I went to some bluegrass festivals, and got interested in that and then all kinds of traditional music including Irish,” he says.
After college, Kotapish moved to Seattle, and got involved with a lively traditional Irish music scene, where he learned many tunes and eventually got to team up with legendary Irish fiddle player Kevin Burke.
Kotapish stressed that he has always enjoyed all music genres, and he began listening to the Grateful Dead tunes in 1967. “I love their musicianship, especially Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing,” he says. “It eventually came to me that Grateful Dead songs and melodies were steeped in traditional idioms — making them like folk songs in many ways.”
Kotapish came to the awareness that Dead songs could be played as folk music partly because he was playing in an Irish band with harpist Maureen Brennan, who occasionally slipped in a Grateful Dead tune during performances.
Meanwhile, one day Carnahan was alone listening to a recording of the Grateful Dead’s “China Cat Sunflower” while playing an Irish jig on his fiddle. “The Dead song and the Irish fiddle meshed perfectly,” Carnahan says. “A few days later I mentioned that to someone.”
By coincidence, that person also had recently spoken with Kotapish about folk music and Dead tunes, and he encouraged the two musicians to get together.
A few days later, Carnahan, Kotapish and Brennan met and tried out different songs that combined Dead tunes with traditional music. They liked the sound so much they decided to make a studio recording and invited other musicians into the project, including bagpiper Kevin Carr, who by then had performed with traditional Irish music bands for about 25 years.
When the self-titled “Wake the Dead” was completed in 1999, Carnahan dropped the record off at Grateful Dead headquarters to see what might happen. Two days later, an official of Grateful Dead Enterprises called saying the company wanted to put Wake the Dead on Arista records and it wanted the band to open for Bob Weir in concert at the Fillmore West.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ but we were not a band yet,” Carnahan says with a chuckle. “Then I called all the musicians and we started getting together and learning to play as a band.”
Carr notes that the first time the band members got together, they liked each other and mutual admiration is one reason they still make music together. Brennan — not wanting to tour anymore — left the band in 2016.
Over the years, Wake the Dead has released several albums and recently expanded its repertoire to include songs originally performed by Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, The Beatles, Jessie Collin Young, Buffalo Springfield and others — all blended with Celtic melodies and influences from a variety of other genres.
The band’s latest album, “Deal,” features some of those songs. “It is the showcase of our wider connection with the Summer of Love,” Carnahan says.
Kotapish explains that the connection to the Summer of Love motivates the band’s live performances as well. “We feel that we have hit the mark when people are singing along and there is a big love vibe in the air,” he says. “We really feel like we can share the healing and love spirit that music can bring.”
Find more information, visit wakethedead.org or grizzlypeakwinery.com or call 541-482-5700.