Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cubensis - Bringing the Dead Back to Life

A few weeks ago a few friends and I fell in for a routine Cubensis show at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach. It was "just another Saturday Night" in a way as we made the familiar drive, found a parking meter, and made our way inside the Lighthouse Cafe.

As we got some seats near the stage, there was a troupe of belly dancing ladies on the stage gyrating rhythmically. My friends and I ordered food and sodas as Cubensis loaded their two drum kits and numerous amps onto the cramped Lighthouse Cafe stage. We saw many familiar faces going back to the era of Grateful Dead tours (with Jerry). That is one of the nice things about going to a Cubensis show - I always run into someone that I never thought I'd see again...

Everything seemed just groovy as Cubensis started their show with a loose, free form jam (and belly dancers in tow). Things started to pick up steam as they played a few first set classics like Bertha and Operator. The bassist Larry Ryan was beginning to feel the groove and as he was rocking back and forth on the wooden stage his amp behind him was also thumping and swaying with the beat.

That Old Familiar Feeling

Midway through the first set, an old familiar feeling swept over me during the Cassidy jam. I was transported back to the magic and wonder of the Grateful Dead live experience - and all the adventures that surrounded the culture of being a Deadhead and going to the Dead shows. I was, in fact, experiencing such fond and forgotten memories spurred on by the swirling Cubensis jam that at the very moment that my friend Al turned to me and shouted "this is making me feel HIGH," I was choking back tears. I should mention that our group of friends have left our drinking and partying days long behind us so I assure you that Cubensis alone gets credit for my emotional retrospection and Al's elated state of mind.

Cubensis - The Best Grateful Dead Cover Band

I've seen a few Grateful Dead cover bands in my day and Cubensis is hands down the best.

Cubensis has been playing Grateful Dead music for over twenty years and I have been seeing them infrequently since my friends first took me to one of their shows at Looney's Tavern in Torrance in 1993. We were avid young Deadheads who just couldn't get enough of Jerry's music and the wait in between Grateful Dead tours seemed like an eternity. Cubensis shows were a godsend for us to go hear the music we loved and spend time with like minded souls. I used to go to "21 and Over" Cubensis shows before I was even 21 and just hang out in the parking lot, talking to other heads and listening to the strains of the music coming from inside the venue. These are great memories.

Through the years, Cubensis has evolved and added a key member to their lineup and now I would say they are absolutely in their prime. If you live in Southern California and like the Grateful Dead then you should rejoice because you can show up and experience Cubensis in person as they take you back in time and evoke the spirit of the Dead.

Five Reasons to Love Cubensis

5. Nate LaPointe

I'm not sure when exactly they picked up Nate LaPointe, but I do know that a few years ago when I moved back down to Southern California from San Francisco, I went to a Cubensis show after a long hiatus and there was a younger guy on stage with them who intrigued me.

I noticed that Nate LaPointe is a great guitarist in his own right but nothing was to prepare me for the laughter and enjoyment that my friend Eric and I would experience when Nate LaPointe would do his Bobby Weir impression. Nate's voice is spot on and he honors Bobby's every signature falsetto yelp and it is extremely fun to hear Nate do so. Nate LaPointe also has been featured on an instructional DVD of how to play Grateful Dead Music.

4. They Play ALL of the Grateful Dead's Music

One night at a Cubensis show as I was listening to their Keyboardist Tom Ryan sing a great rendition of Tons of Steel (he does a great impression of Brent Mydland's voice) and I thought to myself "I love Cubensis for reminding me that this song exists!"

If you are a fan of the late era Grateful Dead then you will appreciate that Cubensis plays a lot of "unheralded" Grateful Dead songs - and plays them well. Cubensis will play the classics for sure but you will always get a revolving lineup of rare gems like Picasso Moon, My Brother Esau, and others. They also play songs from the JGB repertoire which is always a highlight for me.

In fact, in my younger years back in the 1990s when it wasn't so easy to amass tons of Grateful Dead music by sharing digital files, I was introduced to a lot of the Grateful Dead's music at Cubensis concerts before I was able to hear it on those infamous "tapes" that would circulate. The first introduction I had to some songs like Loser and Saint of Circumstance were at Cubensis shows. By the way, if this looks familiar to you then you remember the era that I'm talking about:

[Interesting note: at the very moment I am writing this blog entry, a friend just texted me to tell me that Cubensis played a Terrapin ->Let it Grow -> Terrapin yesterday at the same venue - sound intriguing? It does to me!]

3. Vince Welnick played with Cubensis

I write this blog because I love the Grateful Dead but above all I am a Jerry Garcia fan. Jerry liked playing with Vince. I have heard some disappointing things about the treatment that Vince received from the remaining members of the Dead after Jerry's passing and he was not included in any of the "post Jerry" permutations of the Dead.

Well, Vince played with Cubensis for a little bit and I am glad that I got to see him and meet him before his unfortunate passing. I am glad that Vince was able to be appreciated by Cubensis and their fans and I hope he had a great experience being a part of the Cubensis family before his untimely death.

Vince Welnick, R.I.P.

2. Cubensis is a Cool and Humble Group of Guys

Craig Marshall is the guitarist and de facto leader of Cubensis. He is very kind and approachable to chat with before and after shows. Craig sends out the Cubensis emails and he always responds if you give him a shout back. Cubensis' keyboardist and bassist are brothers (Tom and Larry) who are obviously devoted to delivering quality Dead. The drummers are also nice family guys who play Dead music for the love of Dead music.

A year or so ago, Craig sent out an email announcing the change of Cubensis' name to "High Five." This kind of rubbed me the wrong way but of course he sent out a follow up e-mail a day later to announce that it was an April Fool's Joke. Most rock bands wouldn't joke around with a topic as serious as changing the band name. That is just one example of Cubensis' sense of humor - they don't take themselves too seriously.

On that note, when I point out to Craig that I prefer seeing Cubensis to the current various "post Jerry" Dead projects, he always acts incredulous and sheepishly deflects the compliment. He tells me "you're entitled to think whatever you want."

1. Cubensis Fans

Not only are the guys who play the music nice, but there is a great scene of Deadheads that surrounds Cubensis. Every time I go to a Cubensis concert I remember something I had forgotten about the Grateful Dead experience. Maybe it will be the way that someone is dancing, or maybe it will be a scent in the air that takes me back.

The Cubensis fan base likes to party and dance and have fun. By the time Cubensis was done playing their gig at the Lighthouse Cafe that recent Saturday, they had the venue completely packed full of people all dancing to Sugar Magnolia. When the audience made it clear that Cubensis was not getting away without an encore, Cubensis came back on stage and played Loose Lucy. How cool of a choice is that for an encore?

I like the Cubensis crowd because there are some really fun loving party people who wear what they want and act the way they want to - regardless of what society deems appropriate or acceptable. In Orange County where I live and work it seems like the culture is becoming increasingly superficial, homogenous, and boring. During my daily grind, I feel like I am a long way from the Grateful Dead tours stops at Shoreline and Las Vegas that I remember very fondly. So it is really nice to show up to a Cubensis show and seem some lady wearing a crazy purple high school dance outfit and boogie around for several hours straight.

Cubensis - Even Better Than the Real Thing?

When I convince a Deadhead friend to come with me to a Cubensis concert, they are usually agreeing to go because I speak of the Cubensis experience in the highest terms. I feel like Cubensis is very effective at evoking the true spirit of the Grateful Dead when it was at its peak. I think Cubensis' devotion to the Dead music is unequaled and I think that nothing I have seen since Jerry's death has really "taken me there" like Cubensis does regularly.

I would include in this comparison the current Dead incarnation with Warren Haynes and the various projects like Phil Lesh and Friends, Rat Dog, etc. These projects just don't really "do it" for me (the one exception would be The Other Ones Concert on 2/24/1998 at Shoreline with Steve Kimock - that show was pure magic).

Most people who come with me to see Cubensis for the first time seem doubtful that Cubensis can live up to the hyperbole I used to describe them. However, I've noticed that every person is utterly blown away by Cubensis and they always want to go again to see Cubensis and hear what they'll play next. People will always talk about "the experience of seeing Cubensis" because it is more than just the music.

When it comes down to it - if I want to feel the spirit of Jerry and the Grateful Dead's music, there's only one place I can find it and it is at a Cubensis show.

Summer is coming and Cubensis has a lot of great shows coming up including some outdoor festivals which should be especially fun.Visit their website at cubensis.com to find out when to see them play. I've included a video below for you to see a sample of Cubensis in action.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Concert Review - The Dead at the Los Angeles Forum on May 9th, 2009

If you have read this blog much you will know that I am a really big fan of Jerry Garcia and those are some large shoes for Warren Haynes to fill. Still, I had a pretty enjoyable time at the Forum last Saturday and The Dead brought some surprising highlights and a few disappointments as well.

Viola Lee Blues>
Viola Lee Blues>
Viola Lee Blues
Black Peter
Cosmic Charlie

Shakedown Street
New Speedway Boogie
Scarlet Begonias
Fire on the Mountain
Drums >
Dark Star
Wharf Rat
Dark Star

One More Saturday Night

First Set
The Forum still seemed somewhat empty when the lights went down. The highlight for me of the first set was the crowd screaming in anticipation of the first song and seeing the beautiful lighting the band employed (reminiscent of Candace Brightman's beautiful landscapes from the Grateful Dead tours of yore).

So I guess if those were the highlights that means I was disappointed in the first set. It really seems like The Dead now is a background band for Warren Haynes. That's the way this concert felt. Of course I always thought the Grateful Dead was somewhat of a backing band for Jerry Garcia anyway. I am a bit surprised at the choice of Warren Haynes for lead guitar as I would prefer to hear any of the other players in the post Jerry era to Warren: Steve Kimock, Jimmy Herring, and even Trey Anastasio.

Viola>Bertha>Viola>Caution>Viola sounds like it would be a dream come true on paper, but it was just a little... flat. They jammed the parts out a really long time and while extended jamming also sounds like a dream come true, it was just too much Warren Haynes' bluesy repetitive noodling. Bertha is a tune that I've written about on the blog and I've stated its a rocker live, but a bit repetitive to hear on a tape. Well, this live version was also a bit trying.

Caution had some real highlights where the band started to really swell and use dynamics well together. This was the musical highlight of the first set. Phil played a short repetitive jazzy bassline that drove the song and the entire band started to really get humming. The jam had some of the energy of the old "freak out" Caution acid rock jams of old, but with all the new sounds and sophistication of the modern Dead.

As amazing as that intertwined opener looks: Viola>Bertha>Viola>Caution>Viola, The Dead did not really interconnect the songs musically by jamming them into one another but rather would kind of fade out of one and one player would forcefully lead into another.

Since that opening medley took about 40 minutes the set ended with a nice Black Peter and an anemic Cosmic Charlie. The slide guitar on Black Peter by Warren was nice I guess. Cosmic Charlie suffered from a lack of low end or it just seemed like the band wanted to get off the stage.

So yes the first set was a bit of a disappointment. I was kind of shocked that The Dead played so many songs that a lot of the audience didn't know. However, some of the best Grateful Dead shows I've ever been to started with a first set that was a snore, so I tried to keep an open mind.

During the set break, I walked around in the most crowded hallway I've ever been in and while it took me about 30 minutes to get a pretzel and a water, it was nice to feel the energy of all the people - many of whom seemed to have been partying all day in anticipation for the concert.

Second Set

The 2nd set opened with a Shakedown Street including the "built in intro jam" that the "post Jerry" Phil projects seem to always do. This was pretty good and I could feel that the band was going to try and make up for the lackluster first set.

New Speedway Boogie was not very good. It lacked the main lick that Jerry would always play. The band was merely shuffling along in a blues motif (like it seemed that they had for most of the entire night) and then Bobby started singing the lines:

Please don't dominate the rap jack...

When I heard that, instead of being excited, I was kind of disappointed to know that I would be listening to that same bluesy shuffle for another 10 minutes as they would inevitably extend the jamming as they were doing in all the songs.

Finally, at what seemed to be a "make or break" moment in the show Bobby teased the intro to Scarlet Begonias for a minute and then the band joined him gradually. It was nice to hear a Scarlet, but the way that the band gradually joined in started the song off without any power and it was also kind of anemic (like Cosmic Charlie had been). I couldn't really feel the drums on this slow version of Scarlet.

Fire on the Mountain had all the pre-requisite guitar licks from the classic Jerry versions and Warren had just been using such a heavily effects laden sound I was getting tired of all the filters and wah sounds. I was glad to be hearing a classic Grateful Dead tune even though I was still not used to the way Warren Haynes would sing Jerry's parts with a lot of extra ornamentation at the end of the phrases.

The one truly awesome part of the concert was Mickey and Billy's drums section. They incorporated nature sounds, modern sounds, classic sounds, and of course The Beast made an appearance. There was a lot of world percussion that sounded indigenous that would be juxtaposed with sounds that were modern and futuristic. "Future Primitive" is a way that I would describe the Rhythm Devils section. I have a lot of respect and love for Mickey and his passion for music and also have always greatly respected Billy Kreutzmann who has been a key player in the Grateful Dead since the very beginning.

Phil started hinting at Dark Star and just like everything else on this night it took the band an achingly long time to finally get into it. Dark Star was great though, a nice mellow slow version with Phil, Bobby, and Warren all taking turns singing. This was the best part of the concert as they jammed Dark Star (I could have sworn I heard Bobby hint at Hell in a Bucket) and they wound down into Wharf Rat.

Wharf Rat used to be a song I loved to hear although there were many other Jerry ballads I would have preferred. This song tonight was a good rendition with the guys taking turns singing the verses.

The Satisfaction closer didn't do anything for me. Maybe they were trying to play a familiar tune to make up for not playing any songs like Truckin' or Casey Jones for the LA audience with their notoriously short attention span.

The One More Saturday Night encore was another highlight. It was great to see the same song that closed my very first Dead Show -16 years ago. We boogied to this great Bobby tune and afterward everyone who I went to the show with was raving about how much fun they had. That put a smile on my face.

I saw the setlist for the next night at Shoreline and while it looks amazing (on paper)... I have to wonder if the audience had to sit through endless jams at the beginning and closing of each song and hear Warren Haynes "over sing" Jerry's lines.

Something tells me this is the last time I'll see the Dead play together and it's probably not a matter of choice anyway considering that Phil is 69 years old and on his second liver. I would like to see the band tour with another choice of guitarist. I may be in the minority but I found Warren Haynes' singing and playing to be a letdown.

Also, I think the band did too much jamming (I can't believe I just said that). During the "Jerry Years" the jams are what I would live for, but they just don't seem to be explorative or interesting in this incarnation of the band.
Disclaimer: This is just one man's opinion on the Grateful Dead experience. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so please feel free to join the dialogue and leave a comment if you disagree (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Aoxomoxoa - Grateful Dead Album Review

While it seems that American Beauty and Workingman's Dead seem to be considered the pinnacle of the Grateful Dead's studio output, as I listen to Aoxomoxoa again right now, I'm thinking I like this album even better than both of those.

Aoxomoxoa is such a "Grateful Dead" album - filled with great songs that are very original in their structures and chords. These songs run the gamut of lyrical content - from mystical psychedelia to Americana.

Also, I think Aoxomoxoa is a triumph of production. While many of the Dead's studio albums (like Workingman's Dead and American Beauty) are really traditional in their delivery of rock songs that fit into the existing realm of popular music at the time, Aoxomoxoa has tracks that are creatively recorded with unintelligible lyrics (like Rosemary) and sparse open arrangements (like What's Become of the Baby).

Obviously the opening track St. Stephen is one of the most beloved Grateful Dead songs of all time and this studio version is really fantastic. A favorite part of mine has always been the slow section:

Lady finger, dipped in moonlight...

This section has beautiful sounding chimes in it and an odd sounding bowed instrument in the background. These effects were forsaken live, so I always appreciate the studio version for these sounds.

Dupree's Diamond Blues, Doin' That Rag, and Cosmic Charlie are all interesting rock songs that have somewhat traditional "old timey" lyrics but the song structures are really pretty unique and untraditional. They are kind of a hodge podge of what the Grateful Dead were all about and therefore very unique and original tunes.

I have previously reviewed the song China Cat Sunflower and pointed out that the studio version has some elements to it that are really cool and make it stand apart from any of the live versions. Just like St. Stephen, I find myself often wanting to hear the studio version of China Cat Sunflower because of its excellent production and sound effects.

Mountains of the Moon is a very beloved Jerry acoustic song but in my opinion still totally underrated because I think the song has some magic in it that transports the listener to another dimension. The choice of harpsichord - an outdated archaic instrument - is surprisingly perfect in Mountains of the Moon. This is a great example of how Aoxomoxoa is "all over the place" but still works perfectly (just like the Dead which always bridged current and futuristic music with classic sounds).

As mentioned before What's Become of the Baby and Rosemary are the songs that I find to be very creative and untraditional. This makes me like them all the more and I really think Rosemary is one of the prettiest songs the Dead ever recorded.

Aoxomoxoa is the perfect Dead album from their early years.

Album Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 10.0

Monday, May 4, 2009

Cryptical Envelopment - Grateful Dead Song Review

"Cryptical" is a cool song that I think someone told me was completely written by Garcia (words and lyrics) - interestingly the very last song reviewed (Cream Puff War) is the only other GD song that I know of that falls into this category. Here is the memorable opening line:

The other day they waited, the sky was dark and faded,
Solemnly they stated, "He has to die, you know he has to die."

Cryptical Envelopment is probably thought by most people to be part of The Other One - and it most definitely is, but of all the various parts of The Other One that were listed on the original track listing for Anthem of the Sun, Cryptical Envelopment is the only one I consider to really stand on it's own (as opposed to sections like Quadliblet for Tender Feet which were merely named as separate tracks as part of a ploy to increase royalties).

Cryptical has a circular feel to it and otherworldly lyrics. It is a really cool song fragment and I think it could have been a song that stood on its own although it does provide a great intro to The Other One. The song was played well over a hundred tunes between 1967 and 1972 and then dropped from the repertoire until it made a reappearance in 1985 for several shows.

Also don't forget that when they finish the other one it returns to the Cryptical theme:

And when the day had ended, with rainbow colors blended,
Their minds remained unbended,
He had to die, oh, you know he had to die.

Then Jerry goes off and wails: "You know he had to dieeeeeeeee....." This is one of the earliest examples of him taking a phrase and repeating it several times with more and more emphasis, so I always enjoy hearing it.

Envelopment Song Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 7.5

Disclaimer: This is part of my review of every Grateful Dead song from A-Z. Music is a beautiful thing because it is so personal and subjective, so keep in mind that this is one man's opinion (and be sure to read my blog manifesto to understand a little more about where I'm coming from).

Friday, May 1, 2009

Garcia: An American Life Book Review

Blair Jackson is probably my favorite Grateful Dead historian because he is so knowledgeable, thoroughly published, writes about the music with nice detail, and was credited for the book
Grateful Dead Gear: The Band's Instruments, Sound Systems, and Recording Sessions from 1965 to 1995 (review coming soon). That book is truly encyclopedic in it's scope and so is Garcia: An American Life.

This book is a godsend for Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead fanatics. I would couple it with the (more controversial and tabloid-ish Living with the Dead - review coming soon) as mandatory reading for someone who wants to understand what life was like inside the Dead organization while they were creating the monstrous cultural movement that we were all affected by.

The detail is staggering, and the insights into Jerry Garcia and his demons are numerous. this book lays it out and provides a much needed expose into Jerry's life - even chronicling his drug use and his checkered love life.

Blair Jackson has provides great insight into the music itself (better than the the other notable Grateful Dead authors), take for example Blair Jackson's take on Days Between's structure:

The song did not have a conventional pop structure. There was no chorus, no bridge; just four long verses that started with spare and simple accompaniment and then built in intensity as the instruments played increasingly grand ornamental fills. Vince Welnick described it nicely: "It would go from this poignant but intense space to this big, majestic thing that would just pour out. That song and 'So Many Roads' really meant a lot to Jerry, you could tell." In it's early versions, the song had no solo break between the verses, but it had a moody and unusual open-ended instrumental coda that wasn't tied to the melody of the song, but rather spilled off in other more musically abstract directions.

In another excerpt Blair Jackson talks about the lyrics and then gets a great quote from Steve Silberman that gives insight into the climate of serious Deadheads' opinions about the music when Days Between came about and how it was received:

... Days Between is painted in an emotional chiaroscuro, at once fond and foreboding, filled with promise and dread. In one verse, "Summer flies and August dies / The world grwos dark and mean." But in another "a hopeful candle flickers / in the land of lullabies." One part of the final verse has "Hearts of summer held in trust / still tender young and green," then immediately offsets that with "left on shelves collecting dust / not knowing what they mean."

" 'Days Between' joined the Grateful Dead oeuvre right at the time - 1993 - when old-time Deadheads were asking themselves if Garcia and Hunter were still capable of creating art that had a primordial, frightening intensity: the beauty at the edge of terror that Rilke described," comments Steve Silberman. "As the other songs written roughtly in the same period seemed to mine well-worn images and attitudes - almost reveling in their seasoned facility to created and archetypal mood, like 'Lazy river Road' - 'Days Between slipped between your clothes and your skin like a chill wind out of a grave. I think it's the most uncompromisingly adult lyric Hunter ever wrote."
So that's the kind of stuff that I live to read, and passages like that kept me glued to this book when it first came out in 1999. I re-purchased it recently and re-read it, happily having forgotten enough of the incredible amount of information to make it very informative to read again.

There is information about every album Jerry made, every musical endeavor, and every tour the Dead went on. The book describes the "ups and downs" of maintaining the world's most successful touring rock band and the pressures that come with it (for instance - the Grateful Dead wanted New Years Eve off to spend R&R time with their families but for many years played the concerts out of a sense of obligation).

There is a ton of other great info in the book about Jerry's musical and non musical relationships, activities, and personality traits. There is information in this book that you will not find anywhere else (like for instance, insight into John Kahn's life - a subject rarely written about buut of great interest to me).

I highly recommend Garcia: An American Life to anyone who likes the Grateful Dead enough to read this blog. The book will not disappoint and you will feel like you understand the life of Jerry Garcia more than you previously did. You may find yourself feeling sympathy for him because of his drug addiction and pressures of being the leader of the Grateful Dead. During other parts of the book you may experience anger at the irresponsible and insensitive actions of the man who's unhealthy lifestyle caused him to die prematurely at age 53.

I once e-mailed Blair Jackson about something and he emailed back too, which was really cool.

Garcia: An American Life Book Rating on a Scale of 1-10: 10.0