Mike Falzarano Talks Live Dead and the Riders ’69

Mike Falzarano (Center) performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

Mike Falzarano has played countless shows and been a part of a handful of great bands over the years including Hot Tuna, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and now Live Dead and The Riders '69. He took some time out before his return to D.C. and talked about where he's been and all that he's been a part of musically so far....

Karin McLaughlin: So we are going to talk about quite a variety of things but I want to start out with – you’ve been in the music business for some time, worked with a whole lot of artists – what year or age, maybe just when would you say your official music career began?

Mike Falzarano performs with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

Mike Falzarano performs with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

Mike Falzarano: Yeah that’s a good question (laughs). Most people would think the go-to answer would be just pick the first, biggest thing you ever did and that will be where it all began. With anything that happens in life, there’s a lot of stuff that leads up to it, so I started playing music at a pretty young age. I was probably 16 or 17 when I got my first band together and they were pretty successful right off the bat, on a local level, playing the local gigs that we could play at 16 or 17 and sneaking into the bars to play (with phony I.D.) and weddings and that kind of stuff. One thing lead to another, one band lead to the next. Towards the mid ‘70s, things were sort-of getting a little stagnant around Long Island, we had gone around the circle and played all the great places, there’s only so much you can do. I wanted to expand, so we started playing in the city and other places. Then in the mid to late ‘70s, I moved to San Francisco with my girlfriend at the time, my wife now for 40 years, she was already living there and upon arriving in San Francisco, things started happening pretty quickly. It was a time when a lot of things were happening – clubs were everywhere and there were lots of shows. I immediately formed a band called The Phantoms and started playing around the San Francisco Bay Area and then shortly thereafter, within a little bit of time, because my wife had already known Jorma (Kaukonen) and Jack (Casady), and I got introduced to them and then shortly after that, Jorma and I started just hanging out together and playing music at his place and then we started doing some shows around the Bay Area, like The Keystone Berkley, Keystone Palo Alto, the Keystone in San Francisco, and we played a bunch of other places up and down the coast. So that sort of got the ball rolling and while I’m doing that, I’m also meeting a lot of people in the Grateful Dead world – a lot of guys in the crew, the band, and meeting a lot of people through my connection and my association with Jorma. I’m meeting a lot of people and we aren’t necessarily forming any alliances but you know, somewhere down the line, you might get a phone call or I might call them, you know, that’s sort of how it works. So at some point, a couple years into this, maybe late seventies, early eighties, Hot Tuna had broken up in ’77 and Jorma and Jack went their separate ways to do their own thing for a while and then in ’83, Hot Tuna was getting back together and Jorma and Jack asked me to join the band. We went out on the road for about a year as Hot Tuna, the famous reunion tour, which was sort of the catalyst and the engine that started that whole Hot Tuna thing back up. We did that for a little bit and then they went back to doing their duet thing for awhile. Then in the 90’s we put a full band together and  traveled all over the world as Hot Tuna. That band was Jorma, Jack, Pete Sears, Harvey Sorgen and myself. We also did the Jorma Kaukonen Trio, which was Pete Sears and I. We probably played about 1,000 shows over the course of the 90’s from about ’90 to 2003. For a change, Jorma and Jack went back to doing the duet thing again and I went out and started playing around the New York area with a lot of different people. I went on the road for a little bit with Garth Hudson from The Band, with Professor Louie and The Crowmatix, playing a lot of the music from The Band and during that particular period of time, I also played with Buddy Cage who had been the pedal steel player for New Riders of the Purple Sage throughout most of their glory years. So we get to like 2004, I’m playing around New York, not much is happening, my daughter got asked to play for Soccer for Team America in Amsterdam so we went there. The day I got back the phone was ringing when I walked in the door- strange, I know, seems like I’m making it up but I walked in the door and the phone was ringing and it was Buddy Cage and he said, “Hey man, we’re putting New Riders back together – do you want to be in it?” I said, “Sure!” Growing up in Long Island, I played all their music, I played the New Riders, played the music of Hot Tuna and I played the music of the Grateful Dead in bars and concerts and theaters as a youngster, so it was like second nature to me, I said, “Sure, I’m in!” So the plan for the New Riders was to do five shows which we did, and they all sold out and it was really great and we had fun so I said to the guys, “I have an agent, do you want me to ask him if he’d be willing to take us on?” They all said yes. The agent was thrilled, he loved the New Riders, it was Blue Mountain Artists – they took us on and we ended up playing approximately 100 shows a year for about 12 or 13 years from 2005 to 2016 when David Nelson fell broke his shoulder so we had to put the band on hiatus for awhile. So to go all the way back to your original question (laughs), there is really no defining moment to say, ‘this is when it all began’ but I would say the notoriety began upon joining Hot Tuna, because that was a very high profile tour. They hadn’t played in seven years, we had sold out the National Coliseum, we sold out Philadelphia Spectrum, we sold out Shea’s in Buffalo you know, a lot of giant venues. Bobby and the Midnites (Bob Weir’s band) were on most of the shows with us. Some of the shows, Dickey Betts and Great Southern Band were on with us and that was a great, great tour and all the subsequent tours after that with Hot Tuna were great. Same with the New Riders – we played all over the country. Hot Tuna was a little bit more international, we toured as far away as Japan and every state in the United States, except Alaska. With the New Riders, we pretty much stayed in the United States and Canada but it was quite an interesting journey. Which leads us back to the thing we’re doing now Live Dead & Rider 69 at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C in the first week of August. Live Dead and Riders ’69 came right at the right moment for me because The New Riders were on hiatus Once again, the phone rang, (laughs) and it was the manager, Michael Gaiman, saying, “I’m putting this thing together called The Airplane Family and Live Dead ’69, do you want to be part of it.” I said, “Yeah, sure, let’s do it” and that lead to the Live Dead and Riders thing. Michael Gaiman and I had discussed it and we thought, 'Why don't we add the New Rider element to the Live Dead show and maybe what we could do was try to recreate the feeling of what we used to do in the old days at The Fillmore or Winterland where the Riders would open for the Grateful Dead?’ So I come out and do like an hour of New Riders stuff with the boys, and then I leave and TC (Tom Constanten) comes out and joins them and does the Grateful Dead thing. We’re not trying to do a note for note thing, just trying to recreate something that happened back in the day where the New Riders opened for the Grateful Dead, it’s just a concept, sort of how it felt – you’ve got this crazy country rock band that comes out, then the Dead come out and do their thing. We’ve done a bunch of shows now and the crowds seems to really dig it so we’re going to continue on with it until the wheels fall off as they say (laughs).

KM: Funny, when I talked to Slick, he kind of said the same thing, you know, ride it til the wheels fall off (laughs).

Mike Falzarano (R) performing alongside Slick Aguilar with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

MF:  Yeah you know, it’s very hard with bands – you just never know what’s gonna happen. For instance, you can put a band together and have a lot of great musicians in the band and for whatever reason, it just doesn’t take flight, doesn’t get off the ground. This particular project got off the ground pretty easily. I have another project called The Englishtown Project – Englishtown was the biggest show the Grateful Dead ever played – so I had this concept of ‘Let’s just do that, let’s just play the music the bands played at Englishtown concert, Grateful Dead, Marshall Tucker and the New Riders’ and it took off. So, I’m doing that on the side too, but you never know what’s gonna take off. When something is rolling like it is now with Live Dead and Riders ’69, you just ride the wave, ride it until it crashes on the shore – and it doesn't always, sometimes it never does crash on the shore, sometimes, it keeps going. I’m sure that if you asked Jorma when he started Hot Tuna, or started with Jefferson Airplane, or even the Grateful Dead for that matter, they never thought that 50 years later they’d still be doing something related to that. So that’s where we’re at with this and it’s really great. I’ve known most of the guys in Live Dead Rider 69 for a really long time. I’ve known Slick for awhile, I’ve known Mark Karan for probably the longest, since the early ‘90s, I just met Robin Sylvester, the bass player, great player, I’ve known TC for forever and so we just go do what we do. It seems to me, when we’re doing it, that it’s just effortless because it’s something that we all have done. It’s not like I gotta learn all the music by the band Queen (which I love) which is very complex. That’s not this. This is really comfortable.

KM: That’s why you’re still riding the wave right?!  And it hasn’t crashed on the shore yet. (laughs)

MF:  (laughs) I guess, yeah, it’s one of the reasons for certain!

KM: You also mentioned, on the musical journey, in your own life, San Francisco, during a certain time period.   Everyone knows about Haight-Ashbury and the Dead and Janis Joplin and the influences and what was going on there during that time period – how did that shape your life musically, but just in general as well?

Mike Falzarano performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

Mike Falzarano performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

MF: I can’t even emphasize how much it’s shaped my world. What happened was I came to San Francisco, and if you weren’t there in 1967-69 for the explosion then the second biggest time, in the music world, was the late ‘70s when a lot of things were happening – the whole jam band world was still bubbling up and exploding, punk rock was happening, new wave was happening, corporate rock was happening and it was all kind of happening in San Francisco because it’s such a great music town. So when I got there – I’ve always been open to any kind of music, world beat, punk rock, new wave, I don’t care, jam band, I just love it all. So when I got there, I started this R&B, sort of, rock and roll band called The Phantoms and we played around. New wave was starting to happen. So I hooked up with some younger guys, we started playing  all over the bay area, I was also just starting to hang out and play music with Jorma. So all this stuff began to really shape everything that I do and that I’ve done since I left there in ’87. Since I’ve left there, it’s all been shaped by what I did and who I met in San Francisco because it was just so explosive at the time. Everybody was doing something, you know? Jorma was doing his Jorma thing, and was also doing some sort of new wave kinda crazy thing, he dyed his hair pink and was doing some sort of punk thing at one point. Jack was in SVT (and the Yanks) – there was a lot of music exploding everywhere. It was very open. You could have a show with your crazy new wave band and then Jorma Kaukonen playing an acoustic solo, it was that kind of thing. Over time, it’s gotten a lot more consolidated, this band plays with this band – but it was a great time and there was a million places to play. Now by the early 80’s, like everywhere else, a lot of the clubs had started to close down, I even started putting on some shows in warehouses just to have some place for my friends and I to play, those were successful and we had fun doing it. Then slowly, it all sort of settled and died down a bit. So then my wife and I decided ‘You know what, all our family is getting older – let’s just go back to the east coast for a little bit’ just to be with them, so that’s what we did. The funny thing, is that the year we did that, every single one of our aunts, uncles, cousins, her parents and my parents all packed up and moved to Florida (laughs). So now we’re back on the east coast, living in New York, scratching our heads going, ‘What did we come back here for?’ (laughs)

KM: Whoops, bad timing (laughs).

MF:  Yeah, but it was time and things were starting to happen here in New York and I put a band together named The Memphis Pilgrims and we started playing around. Jorma moved to the east coast and was living up in Woodstock and we started playing again together and in 1990 Hot Tuna got a record deal with Epic Records and we got together.  I wrote five or six songs for the album and then Jack flew in and we hired drummer Harvey Sorgen and we toured throughout the ‘90s, all over the world, in multiple configurations. Either they did the duet or we did a trio with Jorma, Jack and I or with Jorma, me and Pete Sears – sometimes we added drums, sometimes it was a five piece with keyboard and drums, it was a really exciting time in the ‘90s, a lot of things were happening.

KM: Kinda like a snowball effect

Mike Falzarano (Center) performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

Mike Falzarano (Center) performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

MF:  Yeah, a little bit. There’s no real straight line, kinda going back to the original question about the catalyst moment – there’s a lot of little moments where one thing leads to another. Sometimes when they’re happening, you don’t even know they’re happening. Like playing one night, with the great blues man Hubert Sumlin at B.B. Kings It’s all these little steps, which I hate to say, because they’re really giant leaps sometimes, but it’s not haphazard, but to some degree it is haphazard. It’s like a pinball machine, you never really know where the ball is going to go. You rattle the cage a little bit and you hope it goes in one of those pockets. Being a musician, something I tell all the young guys too, is you can’t be easily discouraged because if you’re easily discouraged, it’s not gonna happen. Perseverance is key. You gotta stay in it, sometimes it’s hard and I get it but ya gotta stay with it. I’ve been very fortunate with the caliber of players that I’ve been able to play with over the years and the notoriety that I’ve received while doing it. And that’s kind of what lead me into this thing now, this Live Dead and the Riders thing, one thing lead to another, it wasn’t one big thing, it was a whole series of actions that set it in up this way.

KM: So now that we’re back to that this event, let’s talk specifically about this event.  Most people who are fans know your relationship with The Grateful Dead and know the relationship and why we call it the days between – Jerry was born on this day in August and died on this day in August, so there was ‘The Days Between’.  Can you talk about your relationship with Jerry and the music and how it’s had an impact on you specifically and influenced you?-

MF:  Yeah, here’s the thing – I have a lot of friends who will say, “Oh well I’ve been to 300 Grateful Dead shows or I’ve been to 500” and, to be honest, I haven’t been to that many because I was always working (laughs). I have played and jammed with Bob Weir many times and I’ve played with Phil (Lesh) one time. I never got to play with Jerry, but I did meet him one time and it was a wonderful meeting, we had a long conversation. But when he passed he left a void - there’s no question about that – that has been filled, to some degree by the music that was left behind. In my mind – there’s so many bands that play this kind of music now that, it’s become a genre unto itself. It’s kind of like, there’s blues, jazz, rock, Grateful Dead, rhythm and blues, country western – it’s a genre, almost it’s on style. It’s not just the music of the Grateful Dead, it’s a style of playing, it’s the way it’s played. This particular week – the days between – I’ve worked now probably since he’s passed away, but with the New Riders, we always played somewhere on his birthday and most of those days. This particular tour starts on the 1st and runs through the 5th , it’s poignant. It’s both a tribute to what he’s left behind but it’s also sad because we know how it ended up. Musically, both bands, the Grateful Dead and the New Riders, were both started by Jerry Garcia. If we go back even further to the very beginning where it was just Jerry and a bunch of guys hanging out the South Bay in the south of San Francisco playing before there was a scene, before there was Grateful Dead or the New Riders. David Nelson from the Riders was there, Robert Hunter was there, Jerry Garcia was there and they had bands and they were playing bluegrass and folk music. That is the catalyst and the little steps that eventually lead to the Grateful Dead which lead to John Dawson coming into the picture with these great songs just as Jerry was starting to play the pedal steel. They put this thing together which became The New Riders of the Purple Sage. The first couple of gigs were not even gigs like we know them really, they were not jobs. Most of the guys that were in the Dead were in the New Riders at that point. I think Phil was playing bass and Mickey (Hart) was playing drums and Bobby would come out and play with them Jerry was playing pedal steel. So what we do with Live Dead Riders is similar to that. When the New Riders started to take off, it made sense to bring them out on tour with the Grateful Dead so Jerry could continue to play with both bands. The Riders opened many, many shows for the Grateful Dead and then eventually, they got their own footing and then wound up selling 5 million albums and at the time, Grateful Dead weren’t selling those kind of numbers (laughs). It worked out for everybody. Then as time marched on, things changed and the Riders went out on their own and the Dead went back to touring just as the Grateful Dead. When Jerry Garcia could no longer fulfill the pedal steel seat, he suggested they use Buddy Cage and Buddy came in to the picture and played on all the classic albums, with the exception of the first album, which is Jerry, David Nelson, John Dawson, Dave Torbert and Spencer Dryden on the drums. That lineup stayed together for multiple albums, all the big ones: Powerglide, Adventures of Panama Red, Home, Home on the Road, there were lots of them that followed. I think, in the end, including the two albums that the newer version of The New Riders put out, there had to be 15 or 17 of them. Who knows how many Grateful Dead albums there are (laughs)? Too many to count. Getting to play during “the days between, is always an honor, the crowds are always great. We’ll be doing the Hamilton and a handful of other shows. You can find all the dates on our Facebook page Live Dead 69.

KM: We talked about this a little bit about this before the interview, but you’re very familiar with D.C. and the area, the venues.  Do you have any opinion or observation about the crowd and scene here as a music city?  No one obviously thinks of this as a music town, it’s a political town but you mentioned you’ve played at State Theater and The Birchmere so you’ve been around.  I’m interested to hear your take on it.

Mike Falzarano performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

Mike Falzarano performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

MF: Yeah, We’re looking forward to playing the Hamilton again. Ive played a bunch of places in D.C. I think that there’s a thriving music scene in Washington, D.C. for the fans. The fans always come out, when New Riders have played Gypsy Sally’s before, it always sells out, did really well at State Theater, did great at The Birchmere – Hot Tuna sells out The Birchmere all the time. So there’s a lot of people that love to go see music. I don’t know if there’s a music scene, per se, because I’m not from there so I don’t know if there are a lot of great bands actually from there, there might be, I don’t know. I do know that the little area that Jorma and Jack came from there are some really amazing players that came out of there. It’s always great to play in D.C. though. I think we did the grand opening of the Hamilton, with NRPS that was fantastic. Hamilton is a great venue, Gypsy Sally's is also a great venue. You guys have a lot of great venues in that town and you can’t have a lot of great venues if people don’t go to the shows because they wouldn't sustain and stay open. So I don’t know much about the music scene, but I know there are some die hard music fans in Washington.

KM: Well that might be better than having the musicians, right?! (laughs)

MF:  (laughs) Well, I don’t doubt one bit that there are great musicians and bands in that town – they go hand in hand. –

KM: So, last question is my kind of for my curiosity, and to feel you out as a musician and a music fan– is there anything on the musical bucket list – playing with someone, getting to see or play at a certain venue – anything that you haven’t done yet that is a must?

MF:  Actually, yeah that’s an easy one for me (laughs). Bucket list? I’d love to – I’ve heard it’s difficult but – I’d love to do a show with Bob Dylan someday, I’d love to sit and talk with Keith Richards someday. I’d love to see The Rolling Stones one more time. I’ve been seeing The Rolling Stones since the early days, the late ‘60s at the Madison Square Garden shows, so getting to speak with a guy like Keith Richards would be unbelievable to me. To play with him, that would be unworldly, but even just to get to hang and talk with him would be fun. Getting to play a song or two with Bob Dylan onstage – either it would be torturous or it would be great (laughs) - that’s a tricky one. Other than that, I’m pretty open minded. I’ve seen almost everybody play that I’ve wanted. Going forward, keeping the door open to whatever happens. Sometimes as a musician, we all get a little nervous – if you’re working all the time, you kinda complain that you’re working all the time, but then if you aren’t working, you’re nervous you’re never gonna get a gig again. Just leave the door open to whatever comes down the pike next, because you never know where it's gonna lead. For bucket list though, those are the couple of things that are on it. I’ve been very fortunate to go from playing the music of Hot Tuna and The New Riders to playing in the band with the guys. That’s stuff that would be on a bucket list if I hadn’t already done it. It seemed like one night I was playing cover songs of the New Riders and Hot Tuna in a bar on Long Island and then the next night, I’m playing at a festival, the same songs and singing it to 5,000 people. It’s such a crazy thing.

KM: You just thank the musical gods for the good karma, huh?

Mike Falzarano (Center) performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

Mike Falzarano (Center) performing with Live Dead ’69 (Photo Credit: J. Scott Shrader/ Courtesy of Live Dead ‘69)

MF:  Yeah, I’ve said this to a lot of people and I’m saying it to you too, I’m feel that I’m very fortunate, I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been in the right place at the right time. A lot of it is preparation and opportunity, but I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to do what I’ve done, play with who I’ve played with and the train continues to roll today.

KM: (laughs) Not too bad a gig!  Well, Mike, thanks so much for the time, I look very much forward to seeing you play at The Hamilton for the days between and getting to see this all come together.

MF:  Yeah, we’ll see you there with Live Dead and Riders 69, thanks!

Thursday, August 2

Doors: 6:30PM

Show: 8:00PM

Tickets: $20/$30


Tom Constanten will NOT be performing with Live Dead & Riders '69 at this Days Between performance. Scott Guberman will be performing on keys during this performance.

Related Articles & Interviews:

Read more about the Days Between event presented by The Hamilton and those associated with this event.

About the author
Karin McLaughlin

Karin McLaughlin

Karin has been a live music junkie all her life, however is a fairly new fan in the world of jam bands and bluegrass. She grew up on hip hop, classic soul, motown and classic rock but has found a new home in the festival world and that is what, in part, had brought her to DC Music Review. Karin produces and hosts a weekly radio show in the area called Karin's Calendar, where she talks all about 'Where to be in the DMV'. She is very excited to be starting down a semi-new road with us and hopes to use her interview skills and write ups of shows to contribute even more to DC Music Review.