Grateful Dead concerts were nothing short of religious experiences for some people, and if religious studies have taught us anything, there’s plenty of room for new denominations through which to spread the good word. Craig Marshall’s band Cubensis has been doing just that for 30 years. While the band continues to gig regularly throughout SoCal, continuing to carry the Grateful Dead torch.
Marshall began by pointing out the distinction between his tribute band and others. He said, “We’re not like a regular tribute band — like a Bowie tribute band, for instance, where the guy’s gotta look and act just like David Bowie.” Marshall emphasizes that the improvisational tradition of the Dead and explained that “to replicate it on the nose and just play the same leads all the time…nothing can be more frustrating or boring for me. We like the thrill of the chase and the extemporaneous feel of the whole thing; making it up as we go; playing by the seat of our pants.” Thus was the nature of the Dead’s tradition and one of the reasons why each of their concerts was wholly unique. Marshall said, “That’s what people expected of the Dead, so that’s what we try to give them.”
Generally, the Grateful Dead had approved of other bands performing their music. Marshall indicated that Bill Kreutzmann, one of the Dead’s two drummers, is an exception. He said that Kreutzmann, “doesn’t think that anybody should tribute the Grateful Dead; he thinks that a musician should play original music.” However, Marshall points out the inherent originality involved in any performance of a Dead tune. He said, “There’s millions of possibilities of how a song can be played…probably 75% of what we do in a given night is original. It’s never happened before. It’s spontaneous. It’s improvisational, and it’ll never be heard that way again.”
Not only does the ethos of performing Grateful Dead music involve improvising on the solos, but it also involves significant stylistic alterations, which correlate with a given evening’s vibe. He said, “However we feel going into the show, we put all that emotion into the songs, and then we get all the energy from the crowd, and then although we’re playing the same songs, they always come out differently. They could come out bluesy one night, or jazzy, or straight-ahead rock ‘n roll.”
The ultimate blessing came from the Grateful Dead’s departed leader, Jerry Garcia. Marshall recalled their one-time, chance meeting, during which he told Garcia that Cubensis played Grateful Dead music. He said that Garcia responded with “Oh yeah? So do we!” Garcia went on to tell Marshall that as long as Cubensis played the music well, everything was cool.
Recently, Cubensis lost drummer Steve Harris to cancer. Marshall says that while the “hot seat” for the Grateful Dead was the position of keyboardist (the Dead lost Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Brent Mydland to alcohol and drug related deaths), Cubensis has lost three drummers to cancer. Marshall recalled Harris’s two year fight with the disease: “[Steve] said, ‘Don’t give my spot away. I’m coming back.’ He believed it, and I believed it, but he didn’t quite make it. So, like they say about Pigpen, Steve was and always will be a member of Cubensis. No doubt.”
A cursory Facebook search reveals the extraordinary amount of love lavished upon the fallen drummer by the extended Cubensis family. Photos of a memorial, which was held at a Jewish synagogue [Harris wasn’t a Jew; the venue was supplied by a Cubensis fan], are more reminiscent of the colorful parking lot scene from a Grateful Dead show than they are of a traditional memorial.
Truly, the spirit of the Dead resonates with both Cubensis and its devoted fanbase. Marshall said, “Happily, we can play almost anywhere and evoke the spirit of the Grateful Dead.” Beyond bars, festivals, and a synagogue, he pointed out “We even played a nudist colony one time.” He added that the band did not disrobe — partially in consideration of the drummers who would have been exposed to his backside for a whole set — but as long as there was room to dance, it wouldn’t matter where they played. “It’s all about coming in, forgetting your cares and troubles for awhile and, whether you call it church or your getaway…[It’s all good as long] as the people have a good time, and they commune with us. Without those fans, we’d look awful stupid up there playing music.”