Warren Haynes has a history of sharing the stage with some heavy hitters, from his own Gov't Mule to the Allman Brothers to the Dave Matthews Band and Phil Lesh & Friends.
On Tuesday night, the guitarist will front the biggest band he has ever played with -- the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The occasion for his orchestral debut is A Symphonic Celebration of Jerry Garcia, the iconic frontman of the Grateful Dead.
This is the first of eight Garcia concerts the guitarist is doing with orchestras around the country, including one in Philadelphia with the PSO. The program is going to be ... well, that's a secret, and it's going to vary from city to city.
Mr. Haynes culled the set list several months ago, and the songs were divided between three or four arrangers. He will be on stage with the orchestra, a rhythm section of Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit) and bassist Lincoln Schleifer (Warren Haynes Band), plus background vocalists Alecia Chakour (WHB) and Jasmine Muhammad (Pittsburgh Opera).
When you have nearly 60 people on stage, you need some pretty detailed charts. But that's just not the Dead way.
"One of the interesting parts of the equation," he says, "is that, in the spirit of the Grateful Dead's music, we asked each arranger to build in windows of improvisation. So there's little sections where the symphony will bow out and the electric band will continue to play in an improvisational way, and upon cue, the symphony will come back in. So that way the songs will take a different path each night. And also in the spirit of the Grateful Dead, the song selection will vary as well."
One would assume that any orchestral Dead set list would include "Terrapin Station," the gorgeous 1977 suite arranged by Paul Buckmaster and performed with the Martyn Ford Orchestra.
"We are not revealing any of the song selections, but 'Terrapin' is definitely one of my all-time favorites," he notes.
"I actually chose the songs based on what I felt would be a list of songs that would most benefit from an orchestra, and that the orchestra would elevate to a higher place," he says. "I didn't choose them from my personal taste. I've sung a lot of these in the past with The Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends, but I didn't want to rely on stuff that I had already sung or played. I wanted to go through and find some more obscure stuff that maybe the audience wouldn't be expecting. It's not going to be a greatest hits show."
The 53-year-old Asheville, N.C., native is primarily a hard-edged blues-rock guitarist who cut his teeth on Eric Clapton (Cream years), Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. Garcia, whose fluid style tilted toward psychedelic and country blues, doesn't often get the respect of those players in guitar circles. In fact, the most recent Rolling Stone magazine ranking of the Top 100 Guitarists, in 2011, has Garcia, who died in 1995, down at No. 46.
Mr. Haynes says he didn't grow up a Deadhead but saw the Dead in 1979 (a show that included "Terrapin") and then became more interested in the late '80s.
"I started, song by song, realizing how important the catalog was and how great a lot of these songs were," he says. "His legacy speaks for itself and if someone's too close-minded to get it, then that's their own personal opinion. And I think Jerry's legacy is not just as a guitar player and not just as a singer. It's the overall package that made him the true artist that he was. He was also someone, like Miles Davis, who was not content to do what was expected of him. He was always looking for ways to make himself happy musically that may or may not have been what the audience expected or what would make him the most money. He was always a student of music."
In the past we've seen a wide variation of symphonic rock productions from the complexity of the Trey Anastasio show to the more simplistic Ben Folds approach. Mr. Haynes promises that these scores are "quite challenging."
He's played all kinds of venues and festivals all over the world, including last weekend at Bonnaroo. Are there any nerves about this gig?
"Yeah," he says. "It's new territory. You get nervous or anxious any time you dive into uncharted waters."
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.