By Rich Barnstein
When Jon Wood and I were in the final phases of forming Dancing Bears – Grateful Dead Tribute, I knew we could be on to something special. Our main focus was to help connect the music of the Grateful Dead to the younger generation of live music fans. No one was really doing it like us. (We love and appreciate all of the GD tribute bands out there. We were just doing something a little different.) We knew the most important component was forming a fantastic team of highly skilled musicians who performed live, who loved playing with one another. We already had 4 out of 5, where we still needed another lead guitarist who could also join in on vocals. When Ari Lesser met with Woody (Jon Wood) and jammed together for the first time, Woody knew pretty quickly that Ari was the one we’ve been looking for! We can go on about his skills, and the chemistry, which is true, but let’s first take a look at Ari’s background, as a perfect example of our main focus as live performers. When we first approached Ari, shortly pre-pandemic, he was 29 years old, working full time in the music/acoustics industry as an engineer with BFI acoustics. He majored in Acoustics and Music at the University of Hartford, and plays lead guitar and vocalist in Puremotion, and Greasy Hands. Here’s the key: **With music being a major part of his life both personally and professionally, at 29 years old, Ari still had never dove into the music of the Grateful Dead.*** Below, I asked Ari some questions regarding this:
Who are some of your musical influences?
“Musical influences for me kind of come from everywhere…I was brought up on Red Hot Chili Peppers and classical music…2 completely different styles that have shaped how I approach music….going to music school…you learn to get influences from anything and everything around you…it comes from everywhere. In school I really studied the classical guitarist John Williams & his approach to music. Playing everything with reason and making sure you’re focused on your sound and technique…More recently, bands like Snarky Puppy, Lettuce, Vulfpeck, and John Mayer too… they’re pushing the limits…they bring a different approach to music that’s very fresh….that has contributed a lot to how I approach the instruments since the first time I heard them.”
Prior to being approached by Dancing Bears, who had you been listening to a lot?
“A lot of Tom Misch..a lot of Kasey Musgraves…she’s great…her album Golden Hour has been on repeat…Mila’s (Ari’s 10 month old daughter) favorite thing to listen to. It’s a lot of fun to grab an acoustic guitar and play along with it…and then John Mayer…we listen to John Mayer all the time. In listening and revisiting folk/country/pop artists, I have been really appreciating the value and weight of a song including the lyrics, which is something I admittedly would previously overlook in favor of the harmony.
What were some of your recent shows you saw live before the pandemic?
“I went and caught White Denim, which was outrageous and so awesome. A little bit more extreme, but when you approached me in January 2020, we were on our way to JamCruise, right before everything shut down…Circles Around the Sun was one of my favorite things period…I also saw them at the 8×10 right before everything shut down. They’re one of my favorite bands at the moment. I also got to catch the Lennon Claypool Delirium on Jamcruise. I went into that show really not knowing a single song, & I was there with Greg Ormont from Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and he was kind of guiding me through it, and that blew me away..it just opened my ears to something completely new and different, and I came out of the cruise just a different person from an approach to music, to what I’m listening to, to how I’m listening to things..it was just awesome.”
How do you like it so far, with Dancing Bears?
“It’s incredible! It’s awesome! It feels so great to get to play with this level of musicianship across the board. Everyone is so fun, and everyone brings something so unique to the table. Everyone in the group has been playing together forever. I’m kind of the new guy, so it’s fun piecing into that, and seeing what, as ensemble, we do collectively. With all of our different backgrounds and perspectives coming in and taking this new approach.”
Since we formed Dancing Bears, how has the music of the Grateful Dead influenced you, both as a musician, and live music fan?
“That’s a deep question. Through this, I dove right in. Any project that I’m a part of, I dive deep into what the content is. I really try and learn it down. With this I include reading. I went to some of the biographies…Jerry and some of the documentaries that are out there about the band and the whole vibe. I think the biggest thing that I’m gaining from this group is the mentality to lose the ego. Removing the egos from the situation, having fun with it. Playing what feels fun. Listening to everyone, and experiencing it together. That applies to how I listen to music. It’s so easy to judge immediately. I’ve found myself going to shows, and thinking, “Oh I can do that”, or “Ah I don’t like that”, or judging just different random things, “Oh I love that.” Part of getting into the Grateful Dead Music has taught me and is teaching me to approach any musical situation, whether it’s listening, whether it’s playing, to just kind of experience it for what it is, regardless of whatever you think. Acknowledging what’s going on, acknowledging to either like it or don’t like it, but taking it in just the same, any which way, and learning from it each time.”
How excited are you about all of this?
“This is a dream come true, as far as getting to play the type of music that we’re playing. We’re playing the music of the Grateful Dead, but we don’t feel constrained. When it comes to jamming, when it comes to the feel for the song, when it comes to really making it our own. I think we’re really allowing our own creative processes and juices to shape it, and that’s really liberating. It’s really exciting! One of the big things that we’re working on is connecting the music of the Grateful Dead to the younger generation. I think, through the fun that we’re having, I think that’s going to happen. We’ve got something for everyone…every type of Grateful Dead fan. We’re just starting to push the limits, as far as where we’re going to take this. We’re getting into some pretty awesome songs in the catalogue. All very exciting. Every new song that I learn, because most of the songs are new to me…they’re just as exciting as the last song. It’s all a lot of fun! I think I only knew 5-10 songs of our first set at the Recher. Leading up to this…a big factor in me being so open to this was that, John Mayer did do it, and he’s probably the biggest guitar influencer in my life. For me, as a guitarist, hearing how John Mayer approaches Dead & Company, was like, “huh! I wonder if I could even scratch the surface of what he’s doing with this music?” It seems that his joining Dead & Co. changed his approach to life, music, and his career, and I think that is really special. Lastly, I may have mentioned this before, but really I’m excited to be making music with this team specifically. Everyone has been so welcoming and inspiring.”