Aspen Times Weekly: Karan lives with Dead influence

by Stewart Oksenhorn
Terrapin Flyer, with guitarist Mark Karan and keyboardist Melvin Seals, covers the music of the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band, Thursday, Jan. 23 at PAC3 in Carbondale.
Norman Sands |

Terrapin Flyer

Thursday, Jan. 23 at 8 p.m.

PAC3, Carbondale

In July of 1998, Mark Karan, a little-known guitarist, found himself onstage at Alpine Valley, a gorgeous amphitheater in Wisconsin, looking at a hillside filled with 30,000 listeners and maybe a few thousand Bic lighters. Flanking him onstage were surviving members of the Grateful Dead.

“And I’m realizing, ‘This is a band I’m in.’ I’m saying, ‘Pinch me,’” he recalled.

Karan almost certainly wasn’t thinking it at the time, but there is a downside to the path he headed down as a member of the Other Ones, the first post-Grateful Dead band featuring most of the musicians from the Dead. Karan has since become known as a post-Jerry Garcia guitarist — playing lead guitar not only in the Other Ones, but also in bands led by Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart, all members of the Grateful Dead. He also tours occasionally with the tribute band Terrapin Flyer, which will be putting its spin on Dead material on Thursday, Jan. 23 at PAC3 in Carbondale.

But Karan also leads a group of his own, Mark Karan’s Buds. The influences on his group don’t end with the Dead; Karan has soaked up indie rock, Bakersfield-style country, blues and r&b. But that musical identity can get eclipsed when he slips into material, and the Garcia-oriented leads, of the post-Dead groups.

“It’s definitely a mixed blessing,” Karan said from somewhere between Chicago and St. Louis. “It’s been a joy to be included in the Dead projects. I’ve gotten a lot of recognition and made a lot of powerful relationships. But it means my visibility is because I’m associated with someone else. I wasn’t there in the Dead; I didn’t write those songs that I’ve been playing all these years. My momentum fell by the wayside because of that.”

It’s possible too that his momentum was curtailed by his choice of band name. Mark Karan’s Buds were originally known as Jemimah Puddleduck, after the Beatrix Potter character. Karan reluctantly changed the name after many people observed that the name wasn’t a good fit for the sound. “People thought the name was silly. But I thought it was silly in a good way,” Karan said.

Karan is 59, and as he notes, that meant growing up with groups that had names like the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Peanut Butter Conspiracy. And Karan grew up in San Francisco, meaning that his formative years took place amidst the emergence of the San Francisco psychedelic scene.

But Karan began playing guitar at 9, a touch before the local rock scene took hold. His most significant early influence wasn’t from the Bay Area, but from a town on England’s River Mersey — the Beatles.

In a few years, though, it became impossible for a 12-year-old guitarist living in San Francisco not to be taken with what was happening around him. Karan says that giving a short version of the late ’60s in San Francisco is a fool’s errand, but then he goes ahead and does a worthy job of it.

“Certainly a time that was massively transforming for the entire world. A lot going on, a lot of musical exploration, personal exploration, spiritual exploration,” he said. “It changed a lot of lives and mine was one of them. It was five years of some of the most moving parts of my whole life. I was young and able to participate.”

Karan adored the Grateful Dead from the first time he saw them play, in 1966 at the famed venue the Fillmore, on a bill with blues harmonica player James Cotton. But he also loved the other northern California bands, including the Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. If he had to pick a favorite, it wasn’t the Dead, but a group that left a lesser legacy.

“If I had to be honest, my favorite was the Sons of Champlin, who might have been the first jazz-rock band,” Karan said. “They had Eastern spiritual philosophy-oriented lyrics, James Brown-type songs with jazz and funk and r&b jams. I came from a home that listened to a lot of Billie Holiday, old bebop jazz — pretty much anything black and funky.”

Karan lost his interest in the Dead in the ’70s as he discovered first the Los Angeles cowboy scene, with Poco and the Eagles, and then funk, like Tower of Power and Sly Stone. The years away from the Dead created an interesting phenomenon in Karan’s later life: when he plays a song from the Dead’s later era, songs he didn’t have burned into his mind early on, he is freer to put his own stamp on them.

“Those I play without much Garcia influence,” he said. “But I’m never aping Garcia. That’s almost impossible. Nobody could fill those shoes. He was a unique individual, musically and in a lot of other ways.”

Karan was more taken with the Dead’s songs than the lengthy instrumental jams. “I’m a song freak, and that’s a big part of my attraction to the Dead,” he said. “I have maybe a more traditionalist approach in how I like to hear the song part of the song.”

Even in the song department, though, Karan finds himself mysteriously linked to Garcia. Karan is always on the hunt for songs to cover, and the more obscure, the better. But he often finds that a certain someone beat him to the tune.

“I’ll get a wild hair up my butt for a song I haven’t heard in years and years,” he said. “And 80 percent of the time, I’ll find that Garcia has covered it at some point.”

The current lineup of Terrapin Flyer also features Melvin Seals, who has an even deeper connection to Garcia. Seals was the organist for 15 years in the Jerry Garcia Band, and did much to give that group its strong gospel element.

“One of the things he does that blows my mind pretty consistently is, he’ll take a solo, take it to a peak where you’re ready for the vocal, and he’ll keep going, take it around two or three more times and keep taking it to a new level,” Karan said.

Terrapin Flyer is rounded out by bassist Wavy Dave Burlingame, who also plays banjo in the acoustic band Cornmeal, drummer Jim Farmer, and guitarist and bandleader Doug Hagman, who brought Karan and Seals into the group for the current tour.

“ I think Doug feels Melvin and I add a little something special to the Terrapin lineup,” Karan said.

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