David Gans Live-Streams Daily During the Pandemic
Guest column by Edward Guthmann — Feature image by Doug McKechnie
Every afternoon at his home in Oakland, musician/songwriter David Gans climbs the stairs to his studio and livestreams a performance. He plays 60 to 65 minutes per set, offering original songs, favorites from the folk-rock canon of the last half-century, and a large number of Grateful Dead tunes. Since April 4, shortly after California established order, he’s been livestreaming seven days a week.
“This is such an interesting version of my life that I’m having right now,” says Gans, 66. “I am simultaneously on tour and at home, playing a gig every afternoon without having to get on an airplane or rent a car or go anywhere at all.”
His last in-person gig was March 6, at the Point San Pablo Harbor Club in Richmond, CA. “We got the shelter-in-place order early [in California]. I was stunned for a couple of weeks as my future came unbooked a day at a time, and then I did a few online shows. After a couple of weeks, I decided it would be best for my music if I played a set every day for the duration.”
At home, Gans says, “I’m able to warm up and rehearse in exactly the same conditions as the broadcast. I start the digital recorder as soon as I turn on the PA. I’m playing my Rick Turner Renaissance RS-6 Deuce, a magnificent and beautiful instrument with a remarkable expressive range: it combines ‘acoustic’ and ‘electric’ sounds and delivers different flavors depending on how I play.”
He uses a tiny PA system by TC Helicon and points the speaker at his iPad for transmission. “Ridiculously simple, and it allows me to interact with the acoustics of my studio for a nice full sound at the other end.”
A music journalist and author as well as a musician, Gans spent his early years in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles and moved to the Bay Area at 12. He shares his home, located near Oakland’s Lake Merritt, with his wife of 26 years, Rita Hurault. His two cats, Ringo and Percy, frequently wander into his studio for on-camera appearances during a set.
Each day, Gans promotes his gig by creating a Facebook event and sharing it on multiple pages. He sends weekly reminders to his e-mail list and on Mondays he Tweets the week’s schedule. Go to http://facebook.com/dgansmusic on Tuesdays through Sundays at 4 p.m. PST, and both http://facebook.com/deadheadland and http://deadheadland.tv on Mondays at 3-4:15 p.m. PST.
Selecting the music he’ll play each day is a delicate combination of forethought and spontaneity. “I never make a set list ahead of time, but I do make a menu of sorts each day, keeping in mind what I’ve played on previous days. I’ve gotten some suggestions from followers of the feed and I’ve been looking over set lists from my entire performing history.
“As an example of how I ‘tell the story in my own voice,’ I use the opening guitar lick of ‘Happy Together’ as the basis of a loop jam, and after a few minutes of improvisation I launch into the song. I do that with ‘Within You Without You,’ ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy,’ and some others, too. It’s a way to keep the music fresh.
“There are times, of course, when I don’t need any prompting, and the song sequence just reveals itself to me as I go. In performance, I’ve adopted a policy of saying ‘Yes’ and acting immediately upon any idea that occurs to me during the show – a way of honoring the adventurous impulse and forestalling conservatism or laziness.”
By honoring that impulse, Gans also honors the musical and spiritual example of the Grateful Dead, the band he’s followed and chronicled for 48 years. He hosts the nationally syndicated radio program “The Grateful Dead Hour” and SiriusXM’s “Tales from the Golden Road,” co-wrote songs with the Dead’s late, gifted songwriter Robert Hunter, and has written or co-written four books about the Dead. The latest, This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: an Oral History of the Grateful Dead (2015), was co-written with his neighbor and fellow Grateful Dead historian Blair Jackson.
Gans’s guitar playing, his playlist, and his entire approach to performance and music and community are all heavily influenced by the Dead. “One of the nice things about the Dead music scene is that people expect to hear the same songs, played a little differently each time and strung together in fresh sequences. Taken as a whole, the set is unique even if the components are familiar.”
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Gans played 80 to 90 gigs per year – primarily Midwest, Southeast and Northeast – and spent a quarter to a third of each year on the road. “I love almost everything about touring,” he says. “I love the long drives, during which I get a lot of listening done for my radio job, as well as reviewing my own performances. I’m a textbook extrovert, so I miss all the schmoozing and the group meals and the green- room hangs. Most of all, I miss playing with other musicians and interacting with live audiences.”
On the road, “I co-bill with bands around the country and collaborate onstage, giving me the benefit of playing with a band without the expense of hiring one. Grateful Dead-loving musicians can make real music happen at first meeting, and I have some nice ongoing relationships with bands I work with every time I’m in the area.”
Gans receives a steady stream of small donations through the livestreams. He has other income as well, “but the loss of performing and merchandise revenue for the better part of a year puts my business in some jeopardy. So I have to earn at least some money from these daily feeds. I’m doing reasonably well so far.”
Also, working at home has its benefits: “The overhead can’t be beat, and the amenities are great! On the road, the green room rarely has anything that suits my dietary profile: I don’t drink beer; I don’t eat chips or M&Ms. Here at home, before these afternoon performances, I have access to amazing foodstuffs of many kinds. But I’m already good at not snacking when I’m at home and not doing a gig, so it’s easy enough to not snack when I am doing a gig at home.”The gallery was not found!
Keeping healthy is paramount. Gans says he weighed “well over” 250 pounds in the 1990s and in 2009 suffered a “mild to moderate” heart attack. Since 2012, he’s maintained a low-carb diet and stays fit with cycling. He currently weighs 177. “I started fasting 12 hours a day in 2015, and that broke the cycle of what I realized was a 50-year addiction to sugar. I resolved my eating issues on the demand side, by becoming someone who doesn’t crave carbohydrates at all hours.”
At this moment, Gans notes, “I’m not sure I want to resume touring at my previous level when that becomes possible again. I am doing the best work of my life, within these weird limits. It’s great to have this continuity, a sense of flow from gig to gig.”
Edward Guthmann is a Bay Area freelance journalist and former staff writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Chronicle.