How Bill Kreutzmann Revived Billy & The Kids With Santana And Billy Strings For Grateful Mahalo

Jay Blakesberg
– The Kids Are Alright
The revamped Billy & The Kids lineup – Tom Hamilton, Carlos Santana, Aron Magner, Bill Kreutzmann, Reed Mathis, Billy Strings and James Casey (from left) – perform in Kauai to celebrate drummer and Grateful Dead co-founder Kreutzmann’s 75th birthday.

Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, who turned 75 on May 7, is no stranger to birthday jamming. During the Dead’s 30-year run, the band played on Kreutzmann’s birthday a dozen times, including particularly esteemed gigs at England’s Bickershaw Festival and at the Boston Garden, in 1972 and 1977, respectively.

To mark his latest trip around the sun, Kreutzmann reconvened Billy & The Kids, a band built around core players Tom Hamilton (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead), Reed Mathis (Tea Leaf Green) and Aron Magner (The Disco Biscuits, see cover story HERE) that played from 2014 to 2016, in Kauai for three shows, streamed on as Grateful Mahalo.

For the gigs, Kreutzmann juiced the lineup with jamgrass sensation Billy Strings and Trey Anastasio Band saxophonist James Casey – and, on the final day, guitar legend Carlos Santana and String Cheese Incident shredder Bill Nershi, who like Kreutzmann both live in Kauai, joined in on the fun.

“It was a huge success,” says Peter Shapiro, who has extensive booking histories with all of Mahalo’s performers and began plotting the gigs with Kreutzmann’s wife Aimee and Kreutzmann’s manager Benjy Eisen about a year ago.

Tickets were available for $20 per show or through a $45 package that covered all three days. Free teases of the streams garnered 660,524 views, landing Grateful Mahalo at No. 1 on Pollstar’s livestream chart for the week ending May 10. Thanks to continued high demand for streams from jam artists – “The streaming thing has really helped keep us standing,” Shapiro says – the Mahalo team was able to bring the gigs to life with a six-figure budget, certain it could sell enough tickets to cover costs.

Jay Blakesberg
– Passing The Torch
Billy Strings and Carlos Santana share a moment during downtime at Grateful Mahalo.

In the days leading up to the shows, band and crew rented a beachfront house, jamming in the yard and bonding over music during downtime. Santana brought his Bluetooth speaker, discussing tunes by jazz greats like John Coltrane and Miles Davis with Strings.

Not that it was all play. The rehearsals “beat Billy up,” says Strings manager Bill Orner, recounting that he’d return home, eat, sleep, then rise the next morning for more practice.

Grateful Mahalo’s sets generally resembled the ones Kreutzmann might play with Dead & Company, but contained some curveballs, like Phish’s “Back on the Train” and Old & In The Way’s “Midnight Moonlight,” both part of Strings’ repertoire, and a Santana-led version of The Doors’ “Riders On The Storm.” For one poignant moment, the group debuted “Thunder,” comprised of lyrics by late Dead lyricist Robert Hunter set to new music Strings composed.

“Getting an ask from a member of the Grateful Dead is just pretty mind-blowing,” says Orner, adding that Strings was “extremely honored and emotional” by Kreutzmann’s invitation to put Hunter’s words to music.

By the weekend’s end, jam fans online were clamoring for Kreutzmann to take the ensemble on the road.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it,” says Orner, “but when that will be, I don’t know – or it could be sooner than later.”

Word hadn’t only spread virtually. The Mahalo crew’s backyard playing had generated both interest and chagrin among locals.

“We got in trouble with some of the neighbors,” says Shapiro, with a hearty laugh. “We got out just in time. People started to catch on. The amount of people on the beach was growing each day.”