Movers, Shakers, Music Lovers: Steve Liesman, CNBC

This year, HeadCount is taking a deeper look at the people who make and report the news in Washington, D.C. — and we’re talking to them about (what else?) music. It turns out that the people who shape the political landscape are as passionate about music as they are about politics. We’re talking to them about the bands they love and the shows that changed their lives.

In this edition, we'll hear from Steve Liesman (@steveliesman), senior economics correspondent for CNBC, and a seriously accomplished guitarist. When not on the air reporting the latest moves at the Federal Reserve, or offering an analysis on the day’s Wall Street developments, he’s playing in two active bands – the Stella Blues Band and Steve Liesman and the Mooncussers. Not only has Steve played with the Mooncussers at Sweetwater in Marin County (with Bob Weir and Sammy Hagar), but Stella Blues Band also plays regular gigs at Garcia’s at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY.

HeadCount: You went to college in Buffalo, and upstate New York and the New York state thruway was like a decades-long thoroughfare for the Grateful Dead. You obviously saw a lot of upstate shows. Speak about that, and when you really got into the scene.

Liesman: Yeah, I saw a bunch of upstate New York Grateful Dead shows over the years like so many others did. Great times, and a lot of great venues. But my first show was the Meadowlands in 1978, and I was 15 or so, at Edgemont High School in Scarsdale. And I’m not even sure I enjoyed the music so much that first time, when you’re young like that it’s hard to process all that’s going on. I found it all very interesting. The music and the scene together were something I’d never experienced before, and I had a favorable impression after that first show, even though I didn’t quite understand it all.

My friends and I proceeded to see a bunch of shows before I got out of high school — like seeing shows at the Rochester War Memorial. I remember eight of us piled into a Toyota Corolla. I don’t know how we did that, but we did. And I also saw that great fall 1980 show in Lewiston, Maine, which was very special and just an incredible show. That show — Lewiston — was “it” for me, when it all clicked: the music, the atmosphere, the trip up and the trip back — it was all part of one special memory. I’ll never forget it. Wow, that was great.

Getting back to upstate New York, I edited the school magazine and we published in 13 of the 15 weeks of the semester. So I could choose which two weeks we didn’t publish, and I’d wait until the fall and spring tour schedule came out and then plan the two weeks off around the tours. What I don’t recall is how I afforded to go on tour, and the best I remember is that I must have used part of my tuition loan check to tour. We went through Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and then go see the downstate shows and stay with the family for Jersey and Madison Square Garden shows. And of course there was Philly. So, yeah, that period of time – the early part of the 80’s — was when I saw the bulk of my shows.

Did you hit any West Coast shows along the way? And how many shows do you estimate you attended?

One of my best memories, and this may be surprising, is the three New Year's shows I went to in a row, in Oakland, in the early '80s. I would get into the first two nights, but three years in a row I couldn’t get a ticket for the New Year’s show. True story, but it was a great time. Don’t feel sorry for me. There were like 10,000 people out in the lot and no one could get in — no one could get a frickin’ ticket. But they started doing a live shortwave fm broadcast and we could get it in the lot — which was very cool.

There was of course the pre-Touch of Grey and post-Touch of Grey periods. Everything changed dramatically, and I kind of fell out of the scene after, I guess, about 1987. But one memory from that standpoint was being in Oakland and watching a rather large bunch of kids try to storm the doors in Oakland and I asked myself whether I want to be part of that or not, and the answer was not really. So, we’re hanging out, and up rides Bill Graham on his moped, patrolling the area, I think about a year before he died, and we sat their chatting about how much the scene had changed. That was pretty cool.

So yeah, I saw fewer shows in that post-'87 or so timeframe. In total I saw about 70-100 shows — with about 20 Jerry shows and a few Bobby shows thrown in there. After you start to work things get more serious, and you just see fewer shows – that’s just the way it is. I’d still go on tour for a week or so post-'87, but I just saw far fewer shows. Then I moved to Moscow in 1992. I learned about Jerry’s passing in the backseat of a minivan in Siberia listening to BBC on shortwave radio. I’ll always remember that.

Moscow — what was that like? You play music over there?

I’ve pretty much always had a band, even in Moscow. We had a band called the "Technical Difficulties" because we had all this Russian equipment that didn’t work. We did some Dead tunes, like I Know You Rider and Dark Hollow, and a bunch of other easier stuff, and we had these two female Russian singers with us. David Filipov, the then-Moscow bureau chief of the Boston Globe was in the band.

We had a regular gig in a place called Armadillos, right across from the Kremlin, owned by a former KGB guy; it was an unusual Tex-Mex place. And we had a pretty regular gig at this place called The News Bar. And this was all in the 1992-‘98 range when I was there.

So your current bands are Steve Liesman and the Mooncussers and Stella Blues Band?

Sequentially, I first had the Mooncussers. And the Stella Blues Band was an already-established band here in Westchester. Conveniently, they needed a rhythm player, so that was awfully fortuitous, and here we are. It’s working out pretty well and I really enjoy it. There’s obviously a great fan base here in the Westchester and NYC metro area. It’s a huge release and awesome creative outlet. There’s nothing better than practicing three part harmonies in my basement with the band. It's just great.

So discuss a bit how you went about learning to play guitar, and your general approach to learning Bob Weir’s incredibly unique style.

I’ve always been unique among my friends in being more of a Bobby fan than a Jerry fan, despite the obvious fact being that if you love the Dead, you love Jerry Garcia. And musically, Bob Weir always intrigued me. You got to shows when you were young and you kind of get what Phil is doing, and you get what Jerry is doing, and you get what’s going on with the drums and keys. But what’s that guy in the middle doing? That was the thing that fascinated me, because the more I watched and listened, the less I understood.

And that’s about when I was learning how to play guitar, around 16 or so. There was a guy I knew who played the Jerry part, so I would then try to play the Bobby part. So I decided that’s what I wanted to do: learn the Bob Weir technique — which now, 34 years later, is still largely a puzzle and I am still just learning it.

I’d play tapes to friends and say, "Listen to this part right here: that’s Weir not Jerry," and they didn’t know. Like early on in the '70s when Bobby would take a solo in the China>Rider transition – he eventually stops doing that over the years – but he did all kind of interesting licks that were “so Weir,” and makes me think even more highly of him: He was turning people on and they didn’t even know it was him!

When I was first learning how to play Dead music, I never really had good quality stuff. You know, audience tapes with lots of hiss. I completely rediscovered the band in the digital era with the CD stuff and Dicks Picks and Sirius-XM. I started listening all over again… learning the eras in more depth, learning about the equipment and the effects they used -- and really starting to listen to how Bob Weir’s playing evolved. So I became reinvigorated in the digital era and see this all as a journey – like how Bobby bends strings? Nobody has a string-bending technique like Bobby’s.

Most of all I’m interested in that ’7-ish to ‘84 period of Weir’s playing. When he got that Ibanez Cowboy he developed his own sound, I think. So Bob not only deserves credit for developing a style, but developing his own sound, not to mention that he really experimented with the forms of songs.

Bob’s long-time drummer, Jay Lane, once said in an interview a few years back, “People don’t just show up and play with Bob Weir.” But you actually did at Sweetwater in 2013 with the Mooncussers. What was that like?

It was really incredible, and we rehearsed quite a bit for that, and were really serious about it. In the moment I was very focused on what I was doing at the gig. Of course I was smiling and very happy to be there, but it was work at the time because I wanted to make damn sure I wasn’t screwing up with Bob Weir [laughs]. We rehearsed the entire day at TRI. Jeff Chimenti kind of walked us through and let us know how Bobby wanted stuff done. A great experience and a huge thrill.

How did the Sweetwater gig come about?

Around the time I did an interview with Bobby, there was that fairly well known article in the Atlantic that talked about the Grateful Dead business model, and viral marketing before the Internet. It turns out a lot of the folks around Bobby are former or current financial folks, and they knew me from TV. Bobby apparently liked the piece I did, and they liked the piece.

Then some of them saw me play and said, you need to play with Bobby. They said, "You’re not," in the derisive term “just a dentist with an Alembic.” So they helped provide the opportunity to do a gig at the Sweetwater, and with Bob’s total blessing we turned it into a charity for the Coming Home Project, which is for our returning vets. Sammy Hagar showed up. One of the best memories was when Bobby stepped up to the mic and said: “Veterans are just like us — except with courage.” [laughs]

So how did you get hooked up with the Capitol Theater, Pete Shapiro and your gig at Garcia’s?

Well, Pete has been a huge supporter of the Stella Blues Band, and what he’s done to bring back the Capitol Theater and bring back music to the area is just out of control. There isn’t a suburban area in America with this type of high quality music scene. I look forward to seeing RatDog at the Cap when they come through.

After the nine-show Furthur run at the Cap, we did a "Cap to the Copa" after-party gig down the street. Bobby came over twice to play, Jay Lane flew in. It was great. So yeah, we love doing gigs at Garcia’s. We proudly consider ourselves the house band because I think we’ve played there more than any other folks. All of this has led to us doing some Brooklyn gigs, the East Village, and elsewhere around the metro area with some great crowds coming out.

The Grateful Dead is incredibly popular on Wall Street. Why is that?

Well, it’s extraordinary. I don’t want to be presumptuous to say why that is, but let’s just say there are a lot of very smart people that really love the Grateful Dead. It's intellectually challenging music just as much as its emotionally satisfying. There’s a huge amount of people who looked around and heard everything over the years, and then at the end of the day what they loved and dedicated themselves to was the music of the Grateful Dead.

But it’s noteworthy, too, that the fans are also high achievers. That’s undeniable, and is the opposite of the stereotype. I’ve run into all these guys on Wall Street (in very high positions of power with high-powered jobs) and when you say you’re a Deadhead they smile ear to ear. It’s a pretty special thing. I’m pretty public about being a Deadhead. Once in a while, I’ll take a Dead lyric and make it the title on the screen before my CNBC segment and allude to it, and the guys producing will throw in a little Dead music before I go on. That’s always fun.

The Mooncussers did this nice gig in Greenwich recently for this Wall Street guy. He flew up Bobby Keys with the Rolling Stones, Papa Mali of Billy Kreutzman’s band Seven Walkers, and a few other guys to play at his house, and we backed them up. Loved it. Playing with Bobby Keys? I mean, c’mon! Anyway, there were a huge number of high-powered Wall Street people there and two guys, separately, came up to me that night and said, "Steve, thanks for being so public about being a Deadhead. It makes it much easier for me in my office." I thought that was a really cool thing.