Tom Hamilton had a distinct vision when he and Philadelphia-based guitarist Raina Mullen went into the studio to conjure their new band, Ghost Light. Hamilton is well known for his work with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD), which is popular for reinterpreting the music of the Grateful Dead, and Mullen is a highly successful guitarist for hire, working with Bob Weir and Buddy Miller, among others.
“It wasn’t a loose affair. There was focus to it,” Hamilton tells me over the phone.
Hamilton and Mullen share a love for the Grateful Dead, and while they both wanted Ghost Light to be able to improvise, the vision for the band was first and foremost strong songwriting.
“To have some freedom to do whatever we want and for everyone to be able to react and create, but we also have songs — good songs that mean something, not just a vehicle to jam,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton’s love for the Dead goes back to his teen years. “That music’s in my DNA. It’s the soundtrack of America,” he says.
His first instrument was the drums, but he shortly switched to guitar, and he’s been playing shows since around the age of 12. Over the years, he’s explored blues and even metal, but the Dead were a constant.
“The first thing that was mine was a cassette of the Dead,” he says, playing Red Rocks in 1978. “I wore that tape out,” Hamilton recalls, but it wasn’t about the drugs or the tie-dye. “It was always about the songs and the magic of it.”
When it came time to round out Ghost Light’s lineup, Hamilton and Mullen chose Scotty Zwang, formerly of Dopapod, and Holly Bowling, recognized for her work transcribing the music of Phish and the Dead for solo piano.
After an intensive deep dive of about four months in the studio, the band put together enough material for Ghost Light’s debut album, Best Kept Secrets. While working on the record the band found inspiration from perhaps an unexpected direction, given their collective resume: the straight-up, hard-rocking grunge rock of bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden.
The band members asked themselves, “What if we have riff rock, but use more interesting instrumentation like marimba, vibraphone or horns?” Hamilton says. That gives the record the jazzy feel of Gershwin or Mancini at times, but also the more-orchestrated side of Wings. There’s also plenty of Dead-inspired folk rock, as can be heard on the song “Don’t Come Apart Just Yet, My Dear.”
“Everybody in the band has a strength that sets them apart,” Hamilton says. “Holly has a great musical ear and is a great improviser. Raina is an incredible singer and stunning songwriter. Scott’s a monster drummer, but he’s also a great singer. It’s not about sounding like the Grateful Dead. It’s the ethos: The songs matter the most.” ν
Ghost Light play 8 pm Sunday, Nov. 17, at Sessions Music Hall; $16 advance, $20, 21-plus.