The Skull & Roses Festival Returns For a New Wave of Deadheads

Image from 2017 Skull & Roses festival by Rich Saputo

The Skull & Roses festival has returned for another year of providing young and old Deadheads with the music and the community that they love. Last year, Chris Mitrovich founded and organized the festival at the Ventura County Fairgrounds as a hub for the burgeoning new wave of Grateful Dead fans to come together in celebration of the band’s legacy. The three day festival begins on Friday and, once again, features an eclectic mix of musical styles from a variety of bands which will perform the celebrated tunes.

According to the festival’s new publicist, Dennis McNally (a Grateful Dead historian / former publicist for the Grateful Dead), the festival’s debut stumbled a bit as a result of its ambition. With 48 bands scheduled to perform in 48 hours, McNally said, “[The promoter] had too many bands, and they were competing with each other…This year, some of the kinks have been ironed out. For instance, there will be only one band playing at a time, so everybody doesn’t have to divide themselves.” He went on to say that the festival’s hours will be different. He said, “It’s not going to be all night. It’s going to be basically music from noon to close to midnight but not all night.”

Image from 2017 Skull & Roses festival by Rich Saputo

McNally, having been the Grateful Dead’s publicist, was a natural choice for Skull & Roses’ new publicist; however, even he admits that the resurgence of Deadheads took him by surprise. He said, “I thought that the Deadhead phenomenon would trickle away.” As Mitrovich pointed out, when the Weekly spoke with him last year, the Fare Thee Well tour of 2015 (a limited 50th anniversary tour featuring the surviving members of the Grateful Dead) re-ignited the spirit of the fans. McNally pointed out how this current wave of fans is distinct from some members of the old guard. He said, “There are probably more Deadheads now then there were in 1995 [when Garcia died] because the focus is not on capital T capital G capital D, The Grateful Dead; the focus is on the songs. And it almost…almost…doesn’t matter who plays the songs, which is what Skull & Roses is sort of the living proof of.”

This revival is not a matter of nostalgia, McNally emphasized.  “There’s all these people that are kids that weren’t even born when Jerry died or were, you know, babies. And now they’re Deadheads; they’re just as much Deadheads as I ever was,” he said. “[And] when I talk to them about why they like what they’re doing, it just doesn’t come across as nostalgic. It comes across as a living tradition that’s a body of music that has sort of somehow separated itself from the original band and has just spread into or morphed into being a phenomenon that doesn’t even require the original band, you know.”

He pointed out that the songs are the root of the phenomenon. He claimed, “These songs, which Bruce Hornsby calls them hymns — and they really have become hymns — have become a genre like jazz or blues. It’s a sub-genre of American music that mixes 50 flavors of American music into one, and that’s Dead tunes.” He went on to point out how far and wide the movement exists. McNally said, “There are people who play it everywhere. Every city in America has at least one probably three or four Dead bands that play Dead music, and it’s fascinating. I mean, the Deadheads sort of reclaimed the tradition from the [Grateful] Dead.” He clarified that there is still great demand for the continuing performances by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, as well.

Image from 2017 Skull & Roses festival by Rich Saputo

As to how the songs are represented at the Skull & Roses festival, McNally confirmed that there will, once again, be great diversity. He specified, “Everybody is not going to play the same. You’re going to hear punk — there’s a band called Punk is Dead; you’re going to hear this wonderful musician named Roosevelt Collier, who plays sacred steel…there’s a guy who plays Hawaiian slack-key guitar [Stephen Inglis]. You’ve got Shred is Dead, which does heavy metal. You’ve got JGB, which is, you know, Melvin Seals played with Jerry for 15 years. You’ve got Stu Allen & Mars Hotel and all the bands that have played a little bit more like the Grateful Dead did it.”

Image from 2017 Skull & Roses festival by Rich Saputo

The venue also has special significance, as the Grateful Dead used to perform there. McNally reminisced about the experience of attending Dead shows at the beachside venue as he looked forward to returning. He said, “I just have these vivid memories of standing on the stage, and it would be rather high staging, so I’d look down and all I’d see is the top of everybody’s heads. So what I’d see is this hair —  hair extending all the way to the back of the bowl, and on the other side, the Pacific Ocean. I mean that’s as good as it gets.”

For information on tickets and camping, visit the Skull & Roses site.

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