The last time Jerry Garcia performed in public, he was holding Tiger, a 13–and–a–half–pound guitar created specifically for him in 1979 by luthier Doug Irwin. It was July 9th, 1995 and the Grateful Dead were headlining a show at Chicago's Soldier Field. Tiger hadn't been his primary guitar for six years at that point, but his new one, Lightning Bolt, was in the shop for repairs and Rosebud, the backup, was experiencing technical problems. Midway though the show he strapped on Tiger and stuck with it through the final encore of "Box of Rain."
Tiger has resided in the private collection of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay ever since he purchased it for $850,000 in 2002, but this summer he's loaning it out for a special series of shows honoring Jerry Garcia. "Because [Garcia's] music lives on, there's a need to preserve the instruments that created the sound," Isray tells Rolling Stone in a statement. "Tiger needs to be available for future generations to see and hear. I know this instrument, in the right hands, can produce sound capable of moving the human spirit to dance, to tears, and every emotion in between."
The instrument will make its debut Monday night at Red Rocks in Denver as part of the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration tour, which features Warren Haynes and local symphonies performing the music of the Grateful Dead. Haynes, who has played with members of the Dead in various incarnations over the past two decades, has played Wolf, another Garcia guitar created by Irwin, at recent stops on the tour. "They're such unique-sounding instruments," Haynes tells Rolling Stone, "and the sound that comes out of them are as instantly recognizable as Jerry's voice. I feel one step closer to the music just from having these beautiful instruments in my hands."
Haynes first teamed with the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration in the summer of 2014. "On opening night we were all nervous for obvious reasons," he says. "We didn't know how many people in the audience would be Deadheads, how many would be my fans and how many would be there just for the symphony. But as soon as we walked onstage, it felt like a Dead show. The place was completely filled with Deadheads and they were celebrating as if it were a Dead show."
Merging the improvisational nature of the Grateful Dead's music with large symphonies that carefully rehearse each and every note was no easy feat. At some points in the show, the symphony simply stops playing and allows Haynes and his backing band to jam until they get the signal to jump back in. At other moments, the group will improvise on top of the symphony. There are also times when the symphony gets as close to jamming as is technically possible. "I took a four-minute section of a 1968 'Dark Star' performance and had it scored for a symphony," says Haynes. "There's no repeating parts and no themes. That's the way the show opens each night."
It then merges into a rendition of "Bird Song" that the Grateful Dead once did with saxophonist Branford Marsalis. "Not only does it integrate Jerry's and Bob [Weir]'s and Phil [Lesh]'s parts and assign them to different parts of the symphony," says Haynes. "But it also has Branford's improvised sax parts that are a part of the score as well. The first 15 or so minutes of the show is completely steeped in improvisation coming from the symphony, which is I think very unique. I'm not familiar with a situation where symphonies have done that."
The Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration wraps up on August 8th in New York's Central Park, and nine days later Tiger will make another appearance at the Fillmore Auditorium as part of the Can't Stop The Train: A Tribute to Jerry Garcia concert which will feature performances by Phil Lesh, Luther and Cody Dickinson, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jackie Greene and San Francisco Giants pitcher Jake Peavy and his band the Outsiders. The evening is a benefit for The Rex Foundation and The Jake Peavy Foundation. "It’s humbling just to be in the presence of an icon with a career like Phil Lesh," Peavy tells Rolling Stone in a statement. "The fact that he cares enough about the cause shows that he’s a true gentleman in every sense of the word."
There are no plans for Tiger beyond that, but it seems likely that Isray will continue to make the guitar available for special occasions. "I'm psyched to have the opportunity to play it," says Haynes. "Great instruments are not meant to be in glass cases."