|An ad for the Grateful Dead/Bob Dylan/Tom Petty show at RFK Stadium on July 6, 1986|
The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band got an informal start at a party on November 23, 1986, and played its first performance at the Fillmore on March 18, 1987, adding John Kahn on bass. The band expanded somewhat, adding a drummer (David Kemper) and then a fiddler (Kenny Kosek), and played a number of excellent shows with the Jerry Garcia Band, most famously at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on Broadway in New York City. Nelson's timely re-appearance recharged Garcia's interest in old time folk music, and Garcia and his fans were all the better for it. Still, the timeline begs a curious question: what was David Nelson doing between 1982 and 1986? Or, to ask the question another way, was David Nelson doing anything interesting between 1982 and 1986? The answer turns out to be a decided yes.
Steve Silbermann's liner notes for the 2010 release of Ragged But Right, the decades-delayed second album by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, include a fascinating detail unremarked anywhere else that I know of. Talking about Garcia's health, Silbermann says
[Garcia's] health crisis came to a head in early July after a concert at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC featuring the Dead, Dylan and Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Nelson, who was Dylan's guitar tech on the tour...Wait, really? David Nelson was Bob Dylan's guitar tech on the 1986 Bob Dylan/Tom Petty tour? The tour began in February in Australia, and ran through around Memorial Day, well after the July bills with the Dead. Was Nelson on the whole tour, or only part of it? Inquiring minds really want to know.
Inquiring minds really want to know, but its extremely unlikely they will ever find out much. Bob Dylan is not just a fine musician and songwriter, but a major, one-name celebrity. People who work for celebrities generally sign ironclad Nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) that present them from discussing their work, or anything that they saw or heard about the celebrity's life or business. This is why it's very rare to hear any statements directly attributable to Jennifer Aniston's chauffeur or George Clooney's housekeeper. Dylan has a particular reputation for being particularly secretive, even by celebrity standards, so he would be considerably less sympathetic to informal leaks that might be tolerated by movie stars whose personal lives help sell movie tickets. No one who works for Dylan says a thing, and if they do Dylan's lawyers apparently make sure that it doesn't occur again.
The inevitable NDA explains why Nelson has never, to my knowledge, uttered a word about working for Bob Dylan on the 1986 tour. I should add that none of Dylan's other guitar techs (I know who at least some of them were) have ever said a word about their work, either. Nelson, of course, while always talking effusively about Garcia's work with the New Riders and other things he had in common with Nelson, has to this very day kept to himself many private things about the Dead that Garcia must have shared with him in passing. Nelson kept Garcia's counsel long before there was any NDA in question, so it must have been appealing to Bob Dylan to know he had a guy working with him who was already a friend and colleague to a legendary rock star.
What are Guitar Techs, and what did they do? The Grateful Dead were very different than most major 80s and 90s bands of similar stature, in that they did not employ Guitar Techs in the same fashion as other touring bands. Jerry Garcia was famous for being all but surgically attached to his guitar on the day of a show. There are many stories of people meeting Garcia in the dressing room hours before the show, while Garcia ran through scales and other exercises endlessly, while talking and carrying on. Garcia always used his "A" guitar, too,throughout the whole day. Obviously, Garcia always had spares on the road in case of an emergency, but on a given evening, he only played one guitar all night long. Weir and Lesh followed roughly the same policy. Occasionally I would see Weir or Lesh switch instruments during a show, but they too generally stuck to one axe at a time. The net result of this approach was that each player tuned his own guitar and changed his own strings before and during a show.
Most of the 80s and 90s bands playing basketball arenas and "sheds" (indoor-outdoor Pavilions, like the Shoreline Amphitheater) followed a completely different practice. Most groups who played big places worked off pretty rigid setlists with comparatively fixed arrangements. A band on stage didn't want to leave their audience hanging while they re-tuned their guitars--I'm obviously not talking about the Dead--so the guitarists had someone off stage handing them guitars. Most players used several guitars during a show, each appropriate for the song and tuned accordingly. I use to see a lot of rock concerts back in the day, and I always counted guitars (that's just me). My personal record was seeing Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits use nine different guitars at a concert at the Concord Pavilion (the band was great, by the way). Each guitar was perfectly chosen for each song, and Knopfler's Guitar Tech would discreetly hand Knopfler the next guitar and take the old one from him, while remaining partially blocked by a substantial monitor.
Players who were using multiple guitars needed them all in tune and ready to go throughout the show. Almost all roadies can turn on a guitar, change a string and get it somewhat in tune. But if you are in the spotlight and about to play your biggest hit in front of 20,000 people, when a guy hands you the guitar it needs to be Ready To Go. So for a guy like Mark Knopfler, changing guitars on almost every tune and with all of them different, you need a real guitar player to set them up and check them out, each and every night. Don't forget also that for most major bands, the lead guitarist is one of (if not the) big stars, so prior to the show he's probably meeting radio station guys, shaking the promoter's hand, and so on, all as part of the record company's promotional efforts, another ritual the Grateful Dead largely avoided. Even a serious player like Knopfler who probably enjoyed fiddling with his instruments before a show would not have had time to insure they were all up to speed according to his standards.
A Guitar Tech, however, with no other duty but to make sure all the guitars sounded good, were tuned perfectly and clean as a whistle could make sure that the lead guitarist had what he wanted when he wanted it. Guitar Techs had to be pretty good guitar players, they couldn't be temperamental, and their ego had to be manageable enough so that they weren't jealous of working in the shadows of a more famous player. As a practical matter, the Guitar Tech gig often provided a good job for a guitar playing friend of the lead guitarist, giving him a trustworthy lieutenant on the road as well as someone to hang out with and jam. Sometimes the Guitar Tech became an adjunct member of the band--in 1986, when I saw REM at Oakland Coliseum, the Guitar Tech (Buren Fowler) handed guitarist Pete Buck his instruments all night, but for the last few numbers he joined in with the band onstage, as Buck could not cover the overdubs effectively in such a giant place (many metal bands were reputed to use the Guitar Tech to keep the sound rockin' while the lead guitarist engaged in various onstage performance antics).
A guy like Dylan might just switch back and forth between acoustic and electric, but he still wanted it to happen quickly. But if a string broke, or something got out of tune, he wouldn't have wanted to stop and tune it--there was too much going on, and in any case, Dylan is a man of mystery, and men of mystery cannot be bogged down by technical problems without seeming unmysterious. So Dylan, like almost every other major act besides the Dead, would have used a Guitar Tech. Dylan, however, was notoriously insular, and probably did not hang out and jam with his Guitar Tech. Nonetheless, its still at least possible that once in awhile, Nelson and Dylan sat around picking "Pretty Peggy-O." It's a nice thought, but Nelson, unfortunately, can't tell us about it.
How did David Nelson get the job as Bob Dylan's Guitar Tech, whether he had it for just a few stadium shows or months of touring? It's hard not to suspect Jerry Garcia's hand in this. And, for that matter, who was Dylan's Guitar Tech during the 1987 Bob Dylan/Grateful Dead stadium tour? I've gotta think it was Nelson. Hey--maybe Garcia, Nelson and Dylan sat around playing "Pretty Peggy-O," but I'm sure Jerry and Dave did even if Bob didn't. If Nelson was on the 1987 stadium tour, it certainly would have set the table for the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band shows that would follow later in the Fall.
The Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band slid away in late 1988. David Nelson found himself playing with Al Rapone And The Zydeco Express, and he toured with Zydeco acts for a few years. In the early 1990s, as the Dead became more and more popular, Nelson's status and talents made him a more appealing entity, and that in turn led to the David Nelson Band and the current New Riders Of The Purple Sage. All to the good.
What about the mid-80s, though? Did Jerry Garcia secure a gig with Bob Dylan for one of his oldest friends? It sure seems like it. Maybe the historical closeness between Garcia and Dylan has a missing link, a missing link named David Nelson. Dylan has written a number of songs with Robert Hunter over the years, in itself a remarkable fact that has been lightly commented on. Everyone always sees the Garcia/Hunter connection with Dylan, and rightly so, but perhaps there is another, unseen connection between Dylan and Hunter through David Nelson. We may never know, but it's still an intriguing line of thought.