It has been 22 years since Jerry Garcia’s death. The passing of the Grateful Dead’s iconic figurehead also meant the end of the band all those years ago. However, given the monumental and legendary following of the Grateful Dead, as well as the dedication of the surviving musicians, it should not be surprising that the fans and musicians keep the spirit of the Dead alive in various incarnations. That same ethos of peace and love and jam-based playing style continues to be cultivated by new generations of devotees. Through an examination of Southern California’s Grateful Dead tribute scene, it is clear that an awakening is upon us.
In early April, SoCal native Chris Mitrovich, owner/general manager of DELUXE Presents, founded and organized the Skull & Roses Festival at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. The weekend-long event promised 48 Grateful Dead tribute bands in 48 hours, and 1,500 people heeded the call for this gathering of diverse tribes.
With performances by former members of the Grateful Dead and their various side projects, including headliners Melvin Seals & JGB (Jerry Garcia Band), this festival proved there are not many degrees of separation between the tribute bands and the original.
Currently, three of the Dead’s founding members—singer/guitarist Bob Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann—tour as Dead & Co. with John Mayer. The 2015 Fare Thee Well concert series, which celebrated 50 years of Grateful Dead music with the aforementioned original members and bassist Phil Lesh, seems to have generated a new swell of devotees. Mitrovich points out that while pockets of Dead tribute bands have existed in a more-or-less underground fashion for some time, “something about [the Fare Thee Well shows] re-ignited the Dead world . . . and now these bands are blossoming.”
Andy Roth—lead guitarist/vocalist of Cryptical Development, one of the bands that performed at Skull & Roses—agrees there’s a new wave of Dead fever. “In the past several years, it has become very, very active again, and the fanbase seems to have an unquenchable thirst for the music,” he says, adding that fans form deep connections within the tribute scene. “A lot of the people build friendships with the people in these bands. . . . It’s an amazing community in terms of the depth and enthusiasm of the people who love this music.”
One of those enthusiastic music-lovers, Sydne Kasle of Fresno, explains there’s a national network of Dead tribute bands. “Compass Rose on Facebook keeps us informed of pretty much the full list of active Dead cover bands throughout the country,” she says.
Some of the bands within that network would stress that cover bands more or less play the music of other bands note-for-note, while tribute bands take other people’s songs and perform them in an original fashion. This is essential for Dead tribute bands, as they were the original jam band.
“The Grateful Dead was one of the very first bands whose music was based on extended jams—in other words, solo-ing for long periods of time as opposed to just playing the song in the traditional way, and then playing a guitar solo or a keyboard solo, and then moving on,” Roth explains. “[Cryptical Development] always approach the music to allow it to go in whatever direction it goes. . . . So sometimes we’re just creating music, sometimes actually creating songs within songs.”
Marcus Rezak, a Los Angeles-based guitarist who performed at Skull & Roses with his band Shred Is Dead, recalls the profound effect the Grateful Dead’s style had on him when he was younger. “Once I discovered the freedom in improvisation uniquely found in the Dead’s music, I was hooked for life,” he says. “I’ll never forget the airy, open, vast feeling of hearing ‘Jack Straw’ off Europe ’72, which inspired me uncontrollably to play their gorgeous music with as many people who were truly immersed in it as possible.”
Rezak adds that the music has a magical effect on him. “When I play or even hear their music,” he says, “I feel right at home and want to keep playing it forever.”
The relationship between the musicians and the fans that was a hallmark of the Grateful Dead also continues. Not only is there a palpable artist/audience synergy that can be witnessed at the shows, but there are also friendships that develop. “Each local band usually has a regular spot to play, weekly or monthly, and has a following that is truly family,” Kasle says, adding that these families are open to newcomers. “Someone new to a community can always find a safe space and instant new friends if they find the Dead cover band, which has happened to me time and time again, moving all over the country.”
That sense of acceptance is also evident among the various Dead tribute bands. “Cryptical Development looks at itself more as a family than as a band,” Roth says. “We’re a network of musicians. . . . Sometimes, for example, we’ll rent a studio just to jam, and some of the members of our current band might have paid gigs elsewhere . . . so we draw upon this family to fill those blanks.” Roth has played with Larry and Tom Ryan, who went on to join Cubensis, the pre-eminent SoCal Grateful Dead tribute band. And Shawn Cunnane, who performed at Skull & Roses with Rich Sheldon as Sheldon & Cunnane, has performed with both Cryptical Development and Cubensis.
The bands even make an effort to not book gigs on the same evenings, creating a situation in which everybody wins—especially the fans, who, Roth says, “will come see me on a Thursday night in Burbank, and then they’ll go down to see Cubensis [in Long Beach] on Friday night.”
Another interesting facet of the Dead tribute community is its diversity in interpretation. This mix of styles can even be complementary, explains vocalist/bassist “Jeff Wears Birkenstocks” Abarta, whose band, Punk Is Dead, perform in a punk-rock style and “have played a couple of gigs with Cubensis.”
For some musicians, paying tribute to the Dead is a part-time gig. Reggae band Urban Dread performed at Skull & Roses as Urban Dead; Roth, Rezak and Abarta all play in other SoCal bands. Regardless of the incarnation, the appeal of the Dead’s music continues to have a profound effect on people, and the growing number of fans have plenty of options to whet their appetites.
“The music will never stop being what it has always meant to us,” Rezak says, “but bringing a fresh perspective to it is what will keep it thriving instead of just existing.”