This weekend, the spirit of the Grateful Dead returned to the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Though the Dead had played there multiple times back in the day, this weekend marked the second year the venue held the Skull & Roses Festival, featuring an eclectic variety of Grateful Dead tribute bands. The 20 bands that performed from Friday to Sunday featured styles and arrangements of Dead tunes ranging from punk rock to bluegrass. The headliners throughout the weekend included: Cubensis, Stu Allen & Mars Hotel, and Golden Gate Wingmen. By the time the Weekly was able to make it up to Ventura for Sunday’s line-up, all but three bands had played; however, those three provided a great day of music.
Grateful Bluegrass Boys got the day started at 11. Their set featured some great renditions of “He’s Gone,” “Scarlet Begonias,” and “Ramble on Rose.” As they played, the dusty raceway filled with lawn chairs and dancers, and before long, there were probably three hundred to four hundred tie-dye-wearing attendees grooving to the music or checking out the clothing vending tents that lined the perimeter. Most of the folks in attendance ranged from their thirties to sixties, and several dozen of those folks had also brought young children with them. Throughout the day, many of the children and their elders practiced juggling and hula hooping while the music played.
Among the various vending tents, artisans and entrepreneurs sold tie-dyed clothing, Guatemalan and Baja shirts, crystals, and hand-blown glass pipes. There was also a charity auction being held for a John Mayer guitar [Mayer has been touring with Dead & Company since 2015], with the proceeds to benefit Mono Arts Council. Just outside of the raceway, the fairgrounds had essentially become a campground, which was comprised of parked cars, tents, and additional vendors, as well as a couple of food trucks and standing concession areas.
The next act was Melvin Seals and JGB. Seals, a veteran member of the Jerry Garcia Band, and his band played a terrific “Lay Down Sally,” which apparently roused some folks from the tents elsewhere on the fairgrounds, because by the end of that number, the crowd in front of the stage swelled to somewhere around six hundred people. Those folks then got into full swing with “Ain’t No Bread in the Breadbox.”
Golden Gate Wingmen got on stage at around three o’clock to bring the festival home with two sets. The band, which essentially features musicians who have worked in various projects with all of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, started their show with some great psychedelic noodling and then gradually dropped into a jam of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” (also performed by the Grateful Dead). Next came decent renditions of “Sugaree,” “Mexicali Blues,” and “Lazy River Road,” “Cassidy,” and Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.” Before the band wrapped up the weekend, they also got in great performances of “Dark Star,” “Terrapin Station,” “Ripple,” and “Brokedown Palace.”
Much of the jamming style of Sunday’s bands showed just as much deference to Jerry Garcia’s guitar work as some of the singers showed to Garcia’s and Bob Weir’s singing. However, through both the familiar and the more unique presentations of Dead songs, the crowd’s prevailing spirit was one of kicked back music appreciation. For those wanting to get their peace / love / music fix, they had found what they needed at the second annual Skull & Roses festival.