Stu Allen and Mars Hotel

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Like I said in my previous post, about two years ago I discovered what I consider to be the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band: Stu Allen and Mars Hotel. Stu Allen is the guy on the right side of the frame.

I’ve seen a few Grateful Dead tribute bands, of which there are dozens all around the United States. Strictly speaking, I can’t attest that Stu is the best because I haven’t seen all of the other tribute bands. But I know a lot of other Dead Heads who have seen many of the other tribute bands, and there is general agreement that Stu is head and shoulders better than any of them.

“Mars Hotel” is the name of a Grateful Dead studio album. Stu adopted that name in reference to his back-up band because there is no set lineup for the back-up band. Instead, Stu invites different musicians that rotate through the line-up, so when you go to see him he’ll have a different set of musicians playing with him each time. Thus: Mars Hotel. Get it? The back-up musicians check in and out of Mars Hotel, but no one is a permanent resident, except for Stu. I’ve seen Stu many times and have become familiar with most of the back-up musicians. Me and my Stu Allen buddies all have our favorite line-ups. My dream line-up is Ezra Lipp on drums, Alex Jordan on rhythm guitar and vocals (i.e., the Bob Weir role), Danny Eisenberg on keyboards, and Steve Adams on bass. I’ve only seen this configuration a couple of times.

So, how good is he? Well, I know a woman who moved from the Bay Area to Hawaii. After six months she moved back to the Bay Area because she needed her Stu Allen fix. My close friend, who is also a Dead Head and saw many Dead shows with me back in the day, lives in Tennessee and he came out to the Bay Area for a visit. My friend works concert security, so he’s seen just about every major act that tours. During his visit, I suggested going to see Stu. He said something along the lines of, “Dude, you know how many concerts I see? And this guy is a cover band? Not interested.” After some prodding he agreed to go and was totally blown away. I’ve also seen most of the post-Dead iterations featuring some of the original band members, sans Jerry Garcia. The current iteration, Dead & Company, featuring John Mayer in the Jerry role, is the best one so far, in my opinion. Stu is so good that I actually enjoy seeing him as much as I enjoy seeing Dead & Company. But the best way to convey the quality is to admit that I have resisted writing about Stu on my blog because I am concerned that if Bay Area Dead Heads knew how good he is the shows would become overcrowded. In other words, I’ve avoided writing about him for selfish reasons.

Stu lives in the Bay Area and the vast majority of the shows he plays are in San Rafael (at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads) and in Berkeley at the Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center. I live near Berkeley, so I see most of my Stu shows at Ashkenaz. I could write a whole separate post about Ashkenaz, which is a medium-sized dance hall housed in a barn-like structure on San Pablo Avenue. It is the perfect place to see Stu Allen because it’s perfect for dancing and, being located in Berkeley, it’s a sort of Mecca for hippies, and, by extension, Dead Heads. I see many of the same people each time I go to see Stu at Ashkenaz and have befriended many of them. It’s the Dead Head community in miniature.

So, you may ask, if Stu is so good why isn’t he out touring the country? I’ve heard various reasons. He used to tour the country with the post-Garcia version of the Jerry Garcia Band, led by keyboardist Melvin Seals, but that ended several years ago. For the uninitiated, Jerry had his own side project outside the Grateful Dead. He would play covers spanning the range of American popular music, along with some of his original material. Funny story: I read an article after Jerry passed by a guy who saw the Jerry Garcia Band play in Rodeo, California. After the show he asked Jerry why he never takes a vacation. Garcia replied, simply, “From what?” Frankly, the reason Stu is more or less a homebody these days is none of my business and I’d rather not look a gift horse in the mouth. I’m just thankful that I get to see him on a regular basis right near home.

Stu usually plays at Ashkenaz the first Friday of the month, then every Wednesday for the rest of the month. In fact, he’s playing at Ashkenaz tonight and I’m going. All the October shows will be Jerry Garcia Band shows, so if you want to see him do a Grateful Dead show you’ll have to wait until November.

I’m letting others know about Stu because I felt guilty keeping this to myself. Since he usually plays on Wednesdays that will be a limiting factor for a lot of people. Hopefully it won’t get too crowded. If you’re a Dead Head and you live in the Bay Area, you should check it out. If you’re not a Dead Head and you want to see what it’s like via a live concert, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic experience.

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