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Bill Kreutzmann - Drummer with Grateful Dead

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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.

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.

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 80sreleased 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.

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.

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.”

“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.

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distance: 7,944 Miles
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