I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly what you would call a “Deadhead.” I missed out on the Grateful Dead growing up, electing instead to become a “metalhead.” I was always aware of the Dead’s music to a certain degree but, other than the standard greatest hits collection, I really didn’t pay the band much attention. I can now say without a doubt that I certainly missed out.
On Friday, March 2, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with the members of Cubensis before their show at the Golden Sails Hotel in Long Beach, California. Cubensis is a Grateful Dead tribute band; at least that’s what I had thought going into the interview. It turns out that they’re much more than just a tribute band. They are passionate and knowledgeable musicians who bring the spirit of the 1960’s and the Grateful Dead to life.
My interview began with lead guitarist, Craig Marshall, who started the band back in 1987. A long time “Deadhead,” Craig attended his first show on November 11, 1967 at the Shrine Exposition Hall. Craig initially went to see Blue Cheer who was on the bill along with Buffalo Springfield, but it was the impact of the Grateful Dead that would forever change his life.
As a kid, Craig got his first guitar and amp for $400. He took 2 guitar lessons from a school which taught him simple stuff like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” but was advised by an old-school hippie instructor to check out the Dead. Abandoning lessons, Craig then took things into his own hands learning to play along with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead by slowing down his LPs and listening to Jerry’s leads. Craig has always been in a band of some sort. One of his first was Green Mourning, which was a jam band that would just groove out and have fun. When I asked Craig why he chose to form Cubensis, he told me that the Grateful Dead did not play enough in Los Angeles so he and some friends decided to start their own Dead cover band. In Craig’s words, “If I didn’t do this, I would be going to see a similar band. The music is so unique, it must be preserved.”
Craig sees Cubensis as a people’s band with the lofty ideal of dragging the culture of the 60’s into the 21st century. Craig had the once in a lifetime opportunity to ask none other than Jerry Garcia how he felt about Cubensis covering the Dead’s music. Jerry responded by saying, “As long as you do a good job, go for it.”
They must be doing something right because, almost a quarter of a century later, Cubensis is as relative as ever. In fact, Cubensis has the distinct honor of being recognized as a part of the Dead Covers Project with their rendition of “Sugaree.” For more information on this project, check out www.dead.net.
Nate LaPointe plays rhythm guitar with Cubensis and also handles vocal duties. Nate has been with Cubensis for ten years and has been playing in various bands since he was nine years old. Nate’s father owned a record store when Nate was growing up and their family vacations consisted of going to Grateful Dead shows. Nate grew up with the Dead, hanging around Jerry Garcia backstage as a kid and learning from the source. Nate ventured into the Los Angeles jazz scene before making his way to Cubensis and, when you speak to Nate, you can easily tell that you’re dealing with a professional.
Nate is indeed the consummate musician, not only connecting with the music, but with the fans and music scene as well. When I asked him how much of a role improvisation factored into his playing Nate said, “If you can imagine the Grateful Dead, we are like the plain canvas. We are drawing on the canvas with its own color. We don’t want to clone anybody. We’re very free and experimental and play in the spirit of the Dead.”
Tom Ryan plays keyboards for Cubensis and also shares in the singing responsibilities. Much like me, Tom was very much into the hard rock/metal scene of the 1970’s. Montrose was a particular favorite of Tom’s and it’s easy to hear the Hagar-esq intensity in his voice when he sings. His friends back in high school first introduced Tom to the Grateful Dead. Tom wasn’t sure what the fuss over the Dead was all about or why they were arriving at the concert hours before it even started. Just as with Craig, something hit him at his first Dead show and the band’s music resonated deep within his soul. Tom has been in Cubensis for eleven years and his passion for what he does is absolutely contagious. His brother, Larry Ryan, plays bass in the band and, although I didn’t get a chance to speak with Larry, he was an absolute joy to watch play. He was bouncing around in and out of the pocket with a giant smile on his face completely in sync with his musical brothers in Cubensis.
Steve Harris and Ed Fletcher are the drummers for Cubensis. Steve also contributes vocally which is no easy task if you’ve ever tried to drum and sing at the same time. As with the others, Steve was completely tuned in to the band which is quite a feat considering that they don’t rehearse or do set lists. Ed was not on hand to play due to prior engagements.
When I asked Craig and Nate about the difficultly of playing to such a high standard of musicianship with no rehearsals or planned out set lists, they shrugged and said that no rehearsals equals no meetings and no meetings means no fighting over trivial issues such as creative control or finances. In fact, the only time they meet or rehearse is in preparation for their annual Halloween show where they pick an album by an artist other than the Grateful Dead and play it front to back, or “Cubensisize” the album as the band would say. This is a tradition that is going on twelve years strong. Some past selections have included Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and Bob Marley’s Legend.
Christine “CeCe” Sherman is a singer in a league of her own. She sings with Cubensis as well as with her various other projects. Her voice is both haunting and soulful at the same time. The power of CeCe’s voice cannot be overstated. When she grabs the mic something special happens. It’s something I’ve only witnessed with Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star. To be quite frank, I didn’t think I’d ever see someone be able to captivate an audience the way Hope did. I was wrong. CeCe can make an entire crowd go dead (no pun intended) silent within the first few words she sings. I liken it to that scene from Oliver Stone’s movie The Doors where Morrison sings The Endfor the first time and the crowd becomes hypnotized. She has that commanding presence that is found once every ten to twenty years, if you’re lucky enough to find it at all.
I’d be doing a huge injustice to Cubensis if I didn’t mention the audience. Cubensis has created the closest thing to a real Dead show that you’re ever going to see. A large part of this is the open and communal vibe to be found in the crowd, whether in the parking lot or inside the venue. These are not just fans, they are real “Deadheads.” Many of them have seen the Grateful dead during their heyday and they’ll be the first to attest to the fact that Cubensis has brought that 60’s vibe into 2012. Some have traveled as far as 150 miles just to catch them on this particular Friday night. The audience is a vast array of characters ranging from people dressed in tie-dye from head to toe to people in Slayer shirts. While the crowd may be diverse, everyone shares a common love of music (the Grateful Dead in particular) and humanity. You can strike up a conversation with anyone and they will greet you with a smile and a story.
To say that Cubensis is down to earth would be a gross understatement. They have no egos or rock star pretentiousness about them. The members of Cubensis can be found hanging out in the parking lot with their fans before the show and in between their sets. In the end, what impressed me the most was the unspoken vibe they had on stage. They would segue into songs without even looking at each other; add to this the fact that they have no set list and it makes things all the more impressive. The musicians in Cubensis literally feel the music and this translates into their fans that dance the night away without a care in the world. Cubensis is in it for the love of the music and the Golden Sails Hotel at Long Beach seems to be a perfect Friday night residence for them. I cannot imagine this band existing with any other members. It’s very rare that a whole band can be so in tune with each other where they can twist and turn into any song at any time without so much as even looking away from their instruments.
As for me, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be back soon. I’ve missed out on a long, strange trip and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Cubensis just may have created another “Deadhead.”