Ghost Light is part of a circuit of bands known for prioritizing the live show, where albums offer a simplified template for songs that take on expanded life on the stage. But Ghost Light, who check many of the “jam band” boxes, like including members with ties to the Grateful Dead and Phish universes and bookings at improv-loving venues such as Brooklyn Bowl, is an outlier.
Bandleader Tom Hamilton — himself a member of popular Dead tribute band Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and a collaborator with Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann — answers with an emphatic affirmative when asked if the songs on “The Healing,” the band’s new sophomore album, are the definitive versions.
“Yes. Every album I’ve made in my career, I’ve had someone saying this same thing. I don’t make jam band records.” Bringing up the oft-cited criticism that jam bands lack “songwriting prowess,” Hamilton says, “My whole attraction to it is I grew up on the Grateful Dead, and it was about the songs first. When you go out and you play [live], you can do whatever the fuck you want with it. The record is the statement. This record is the statement of who we are.”
Ghost Light’s focus on songwriting and studio recordings was its foundation, with Hamilton forming the group in the aftermath of his previous band, American Babies. Raina Mullen, who had joined ABs, was brought in, as was keyboardist Holly Bowling — known for her piano tribute albums to Phish and the Dead — who had played some shows with ABs. Ghost Light released its debut album, “Best Kept Secrets,” in 2019.
Hamilton noted how the members of Ghost Light bring specific strong points to the band and help compensate for any deficiencies other individuals might have. He remarked on his “really great” songwriting relationship with Mullen, noting that on the last ABs record, “she was super green and guitar-playing was secondary.” However, Mullen’s inexperience compared to that of the road dog Hamilton was a benefit, too, he said, allowing Ghost Light to “start with such a clean slate.” Calling her “a great singer,” Hamilton said Mullen’s vocal skills helped him use his own singing to greater effect as well. Mullen’s influences have helped flavor Ghost Light as well. “She’s not coming from the Dead, she’s coming from more Paramore than Phish, and that’s super cool.”
Scotty Zwang, he said, “is just a great drummer, a great improviser, he listens, he has big ears. Scotty really shines in the live show, as does Holly. What Scotty and Holly don’t have in songwriting, Raina and I provide. … Scotty also has a great fuckin’ voice.”
Taylor Shell, on bass, “he’s just game,” said Hamilton. Shell, formerly of Turkauz, is the newest member, replacing Dan Africano, who had replaced original bassist Steve Lyons. Lyons, Hamilton said, “has a great sensibility in the studio but I had to talk him into the jamming thing.”
Asked what artists he’d like to have Ghost Light open for, Hamilton listed some performers that shouldn’t come as too much a surprise for people who have been paying attention to the band’s output this far: The War on Drugs, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, My Morning Jacket and Kurt Vile.
While the aforementioned “clean slate” allowed Ghost Light to operate as a new band and not a supergroup per se, Hamilton and Bowling’s connections to the music of the jam genre’s biggest acts was the elephant in the room. “Expectations can be a bit of a boner killer,” Hamilton said. “Holly is in the band, why don’t you play Phish? Tom is in the band, why don’t they play Grateful Dead songs? That type of stuff, it doesn’t fuckin’ matter. There is always going to be someone complaining about something. The flip-side of that is there’s a large section of our scene that is generally down: ‘Let’s see what these clowns can do.'”
Ghost Light will perform at Brooklyn Bowl on Friday, Oct. 14, and Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia on Saturday, Oct. 15.
Photo by David Veltri
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