Warren Haynes wasn’t sure what to expect when he stepped on to a Pittsburgh stage last week in front of a 90-piece orchestra. The founder of Gov’t Mule and guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band had never played with a symphony before and was about to lead the debut performance of the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, an orchestral tribute to the Grateful Dead legend.
From the opening notes, it was clear this wouldn’t be a regular night at the symphony.
“I thought, ‘OK, it’s going to be a lot of Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia fans, a lot of symphony fans and a lot of my fans,’ ” Haynes says. “Right from the very beginning, it was a very raucous audience. Personally, it made it a little more fun and easier to relax, but I don’t know how the symphony people reacted to it.”
The tour — which stops at Wolf Trap tonight — bridges the gap between the hoity-toity symphony world and the free-flowing jam-band universe. For Haynes, who has logged countless hours playing Garcia tunes with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, the biggest adjustment to playing with an orchestra has been sticking to the score.
“During the symphonic parts, we can’t stray from [the arrangements], and that’s very different for me,” Haynes says. “When I toured with the Dead, we might play the intro for five minutes, and whenever [one of us] felt like singing, we’d just come in haphazardly.”
It goes both ways, though. Haynes built windows into the arrangements for improvisation, where the band — Haynes on guitar and vocals, a drummer, a bassist and two backup singers — can jam. He also based some of the symphony’s scores on improvised live performances, rather than studio recordings. “We’re doing a lot of things to honor the Grateful Dead tradition in a different way,” Haynes says.
To that point, Haynes is playing one of Garcia’s custom guitars, Wolf.
“It plays amazingly well,” Haynes says of the yellow instrument Garcia played in the ’70s. “It makes you play a little more like Jerry.”
In keeping with Garcia’s spirit, the set list changes each night, as does the orchestra. (In Vienna, Haynes will play with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Emil de Cou.)
The melding of the symphony and the Dead may seem odd on paper, but by the tour’s third show, in Lennox, Mass., any barriers were all but broken down. Front and center was Haynes, in a blazer and dress shirt. Behind him was Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, who had ditched his standard suit and bow tie for the unofficial uniform of Dead fans everywhere: a tie-dye T-shirt.
The Garcia tribute is part of a larger trend of symphonic rock shows:
Metallica: In 1999, the band released “S&M,” a live album that meshed metal with an orchestra.
Ray LaMontagne: The soul singer played Strathmore with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2009.
Ben Folds: The piano player has given his songs symphonic tweaks on several occasions.Wolf Trap, Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna; today, 8:15 p.m., $22-$55; 703-255-1868.