Drummer Bill Kreutzmann, best known as the steadfast heartbeat of the Grateful Dead from 1965 to 1995, has devoted his life to stretching and surpassing the percussive limits of music. Armed with his signature dynamic rhythm and uncanny subtlety, Kreutzmann’s lifetime pursuit has garnered him the reputation as an unequivocal, if enigmatic, backbeat.
Enigmatic because, during his three-decade career with the Grateful Dead, and even since then, Kreutzmann has let his sweet rhythm and undeniable musical charisma do the talking. And that’s right where he’s most comfortable.
He and fellow Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart (who joined Kreutzmann and the band in 1967, making the Grateful Dead the first rock band to have two drummers), were together known as the “Rhythm Devils” due to their ability to send audiences into paroxysms of polyrhythmic ecstasy.
Today, Kreutzmann’s compelling musical dialogue continues in his potent new trio project BK3, Bill Kreutzmann featuring bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson (Bonnie Raitt) and guitarist Scott Murawski (Max Creek).
With BK3, Kreutzmann finds himself lined up and locking into a powerful new wave of musical freedom. In all it’s lineup variations (Phish bassistMike Gordon and Allman Brothers’ bassist Oteil Burbridge have both done gigs with BK3), Kreutzmann is thoroughly enjoying making music with such great players, and is driven by musical chemistry that is simply “over the top.”
BK3 toured select dates in 2009. Listeners heard echoes of Kreutzmann’s four-decade trip in BK3’s original material, which features a dozen new songs co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
“Don’t listen to the words; listen to the jams out of the tunes!’ He did, and that inspired all these great new songs.”
“I sent Hunter some music we’d been jamming on, including ’Eyes of the World.’” recalls Kreutzmann. “He asked me, ’What do I write I’ve already written that song.’ I answered, ’Don’t listen to the words; listen to the jams out of the tunes!’ He did, and that inspired all these great new songs.”
Bill’s fate as a drummer was sealed the day he was kicked out of his sixth grade band class by the teacher who told him, “Billy, you can’t keep a beat.” This didn’t shut down his passion for playing drums; drumming is what he was meant to do. Relieved at no longer being forced to play music that couldn’t come close to the wailing R&B tracks his parents spun at home, the thirteen-year-old immediately hopped on his bike and headed for downtown Palo Alto in search of a drum teacher. Seeing a sign on a music store offering $3 drum lessons, Kreutzmann skidded to a halt.
Lee Anderson taught Billy how to play drums in a Perry Lane home decorated in Hawaiian style. (“Maybe that’s one of the reasons I live here today,” surmises Kreutzmann.)
By somewhat eerie happenstance, acid-test godfather Ken Kesey was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a house in the same neighborhood following his stint as a psychedelic guinea pig at the local veterans hospital. At times, Kreutzmann found himself rubbing elbows with Kesey and other bohemian luminaries during breaks from practicing on Anderson’s silver-sparkle Slingerland drum kit (which Bill eventually bought), or at the Palo Alto, CA weekend jazz hang, The Château.
“I like to establish a feeling and then add radical or oblique juxtapositions to that feeling.”
By 1964, Billy Kreutzmann had become a familiar local musician, playing in a band called “The Legends,” who dressed in black pants, red blazers, and black pin ties. 1964 was also the year that Kreutzmann first met his future Grateful Dead band mate, Jerry Garcia. Kreutzmann was at Dana Morgan’s music store, where Jerry worked, when Billy’s dad sold Jerry an old banjo.
Kreutzmann recalls watching Jerry play during a regular stint at The Tangent in Palo Alto. “I was so inspired by his playing,” Bill reminisces. “I remember thinking to myself, ’I’m going to follow that guy forever.’” He subsequently joined Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the Warlocks, precursor to The Grateful Dead. The Warlocks played their first real gig on May 5, 1965, two days before Bill’s nineteenth birthday.
In 1987 The Grateful Dead filmed a music video for the song Touch of Grey. The video gained major airplay on MTV and featured a live performance of the band, first shown to be life-size skeleton marionettes dressed as the band, then as themselves. They also released a 30-minute documentary called Dead Ringers: The Making of Touch of Grey, about the production of the video. The documentary was directed by Bill’s son Justin Kreutzmann.
If such a thing as a psychedelic style of drumming exists, Kreutzmann arguably defined it in all its extended percussive energy. His preference for a shuffle rhythm, he reckons in retrospect, is rooted in an early passion for the music of Fats Domino and Ray Charles. “I like to turn corners rapidly,” Bill says. “I like to establish a feeling and then add radical or oblique juxtapositions to that feeling.”
Kreutzmann performed with the Grateful Dead until its dissolution following the passing of Garcia in 1995, making him one of four members to play at every one of the band’s 3,500 shows, along with Garcia, Weir and Lesh. In 1996 Bill moved to Hawaii where he and Garcia had promised to relocate together should the Dead ever call it quits. He has lived on the island of Kaua‘i since. His first post-Dead musical project was Backbone, a trio with guitarist Rick Barnett and bassist Edd Cook. They released a self-titled album in 1998.
In 1998 Kreutzmann joined Kaua’i bass player Calvin Schaeffer and Oahu guitarist Stephen Inglis to form House of Spirits. Playing originals and covers with extended improvisional jams, the band’s first gig was on Kaua’i in December. They played several gigs in Hawaii on Oahu, Kaua`i and the Big Island. Hawaii has been quite healing for Bill, and he’s kept his chops fresh playing in Hawaii with wonderful local players including Dan Parslow and Randy Carnevali and fellow musicians from around the world who visit often. In 2002, Kreutzmann played and recorded with Sy Klopps, Ira Walker, and Ralph Woodson as the Trichromes. They released an EP, Dice with the Universe, and an album, Trichromes.
In 2005, Kreutzmann participated in the 17th Annual Warren Haynes Christmas Jam as the drummer for SerialPod, a group which also included Phish members Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon. During 2006, Kreutzmann joined Mickey Hart, Mike Gordon, and Steve Kimock to form the Rhythm Devils. The Rhythm Devils played their first tour in 2006. In 2008 they released a DVD called The Rhythm Devils Concert Experience.
In October 2008, Kreutzman joined Weir, Lesh, Hart,Warren Haynes, and Jeff Chimenti, playing a show for the Obama campaign, called “Change Rocks”, at Penn State University.
On January 20, 2009, they performed at one of the ten official balls for the inauguration of President Obama.
The Dead toured the United States in the spring of 2009, playing 23 concerts in April and May, with a lin eup of Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Warren Haynes, and Jeff Chimenti. The Dead also headlined theRothbury Music Festival in Rothbury, Michigan on July 4th. In addition to performing with BK3 and The Dead, Kreutzmann performed several shows with Papa Mali and sat in with Phish at Red Rocks in Colorado.
During 2010 Kreutzmann has been touring extensively with his new band 7 Walkers with guitarist / vocalistPapa Mali, legendary New Orleans bassist George Porter Jr., and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard and The Rhythm Devils. Both bands have been blessed with songs written for them by the legendary songwriter, Robert Hunter, whose collaborations with the late Jerry Garcia provided the Dead with their most beloved and durable material.
7 Walkers is something special to Kreutzmann, due not only to the chemistry among the players but also to Hunter’s involvement. “I asked Papa one day, ‘How would you like to get some songs from Hunter?’” Kreutzmann says. “I was hoping Hunter would say yeah, and he did oblige quite nicely and sent a bunch of tunes. We have more we haven’t even gotten to yet.”
7 Walkers, their self-titled first album was released on November 2nd, 2010. Every track on 7 Walkers – or his new band. Among the highlights is “King Cotton Blues,” which features Willie Nelson guesting on vocal and guitar. “That was actually the very first sowhich the band calls “an open love letter to the city of New Orleans” – justifies Kreutzmann’s exhilaration first song that Hunter sent me,” says Mali. “When Matt suggested that maybe he could get Willie to contribute a track, this song came to mind immediately, because it has that classic Old Western theme about it: going down to the barroom and picking a fight.”
“7 Walkers hit the ball so far out of the park it’s still sailing,” he says about the album. “It might actually have gone into orbit. I’m very proud to be part of the project. This album is sheer joy from first note to last.”
When he’s not playing music, Bill devotes much of his energy to surfing, kayaking, and other aspects of the life aquatic. His 1994 video, Ocean Spirit, documents a diving expedition to Mexico’s Revillagigedo Islands. An outspoken supporter of protecting the world’s oceans, Kreutzmann is active in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Save Japan Dolphins Campaign and is part of a new movement to raise awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“Living on an island, the ocean gets into your blood,” Bill explains, “and that’s been a really good thing for me.”
Bill is a talented cyber-artist. His artwork has been shown at Colorado’s Walnut Street Gallery and giclee prints may be purchased here.
He is also a farmer. Orchids, he asserts, are the world’s smartest plants. “I just tie them up on a palm tree with some wire, and pretty soon the roots surround the tree and cover it in flowers. It’s gorgeous.” He’s started growing puakenikeni, a fragrant flower used to make Hawaiian leis. And he recently built an “honesty” farm stand to sell the bushels of grapefruit and other consumables.
“My favorite hobby is growing things,” says Kreutzmann, who is also passionate about leaving a small footprint on the earth. “I feel compelled to help Mother Nature – to nurture the things she offers to this planet, and to try not to negatively impact the process.”
For Bill Kreutzmann, his drumming is a gift from something bigger than himself. He just helps it grow. But this time, it’s leaving a big mark on this planet.