You could say that Old and In the Way, the bluegrass band that counted Jerry Garcia among its members, planted a seed in guitarist Ryan Phillips' head.
He attended his first fiddlers' convention in 1999. While at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2003, Phillips was walking home from class when he heard Roy Meyers playing banjo on his Floyd Avenue porch and walked up to introduce himself. The duo began playing daily and before long, in bars.
After making his way through the Grateful Dead catalog, Phillips stumbled on that Old and In the Way album, struck by how much was going on in the songs with instrumentation so intricate it felt like classical music. He was particularly captivated by the bluegrass element he heard in some of the cover songs, like a version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses."
So Phillips formed the Whiskey Rebellion in 2004 as an outlet for skillful picking and three-part harmonies and, by 2005, they had a full band.
"We didn't grow up playing bluegrass," he explains of the band's Americana sound. "Our influences are rock and roll." Before long, they'd been invited to play at the Firehouse Theatre as part of its monthly Front Porch series, an incubator for folk music. They liked the space and thought about doing a regular show because the room worked so well.
After Tom Petty died, the band felt strongly about doing a tribute show. When Firehouse's artistic director, Joel Bassin, reached out about them doing their own show, he was similarly enthusiastic. The show sold out and the band became a fixture every other month, doing a bluegrass-tinged tribute show to a major act — the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, the Band, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles — and closing with a set of original music.
The challenge for the band is learning all the cover songs for each tribute. For the Grateful Dead tribute, it had performed "Terrapin Station," a long, composed and difficult piece with a lot of parts. "It was super-ambitious, but we worked through it," Phillips says. "We were scared, but we did it, nailed it and, by the time we got through it, that was the big payoff."
Choosing what to play is Phillips' responsibility and he tries not to let what's on the recording keep them from doing their own thing. He found selecting from the vast Beatles' catalog challenging because the mechanics of what's going on in the music was so integral and important to the songs.
"I look for songs [that] have a folkier, country flair, like the Stones' 'Dead Flowers,' which is essentially a country song. It's fun to dig around and find what works," he says.
The Firehouse lineup includes Phillips on acoustic guitar, Myers on banjo, Jesse Wells on fiddle, Tim Deibler on bass, Danny Shyti on drums and Rudy Byzdyk on piano. Myers and Phillips have been around since the band's inception, with Deibler on board for a decade, Wells for close to seven years and Byzdyk and Shyti the newest members. All are full-time musicians. Adjustments are made as needed, like when Phillips played electric guitar for the Pink Floyd tribute or original fiddler Mary Simpson — who now tours with Yanni — is in town and can sit in.
When the band isn't learning new songs for a tribute show, they're on the road every weekend playing private shows and events like Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden's Flowers After 5, which it will play in August. That schedule kills the weekends, but is convenient for the Firehouse tribute gigs because they're always on Mondays.
Performing Mick Jagger's vocal parts was challenging, but Phillips pulled it off.
"We try to push the limits as much as we can," he says of choosing bands for the tributes. "I'd love to do Queen, but I couldn't pull off Freddie's voice. And it would be amazing to do Led Zeppelin, but Robert Plant's voice is of a different world. We can't splurge that high."
What's interesting about their performances is how they're able to appeal to bluegrass aficionados as well as nonenthusiasts. After the Petty tribute, Phillips got an email from a bluegrass-averse attendee who'd come for the Petty material and decided to take a chance.
"They said they were blown away and that's exactly why we did it," Phillips laughs. "That's what's worked for us for 15 years. Lots of people think they don't like bluegrass, and then they're surprised that we're so likable."
Whiskey Rebellion plays Richmond Performing Arts Alliance's Parking Lot Party, April 27, 4-8 p.m., Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace St.