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.

Grateful Dead

Books have been written on this topic, but since many will never read a whole book about the Grateful Dead, here’s my short article for the uninitiated.

The Grateful Dead (hereinafter referred to simply as ‘the Dead”) is a band that formed in 1965 and is associated with the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s. The great and recently deceased author Tom Wolfe wrote about that connection in his 1968 work, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

The band was originally called The Warlocks, but after discovering that another band also used that name, they had to find another one. According to the great book “Skeleton Key” by Blair Jackson, the band was together at the house of their bass player, Phil Lesh, when they randomly opened a dictionary and the first thing that stood out were the words: “Grateful Dead,” which refers to a story in which a traveler comes upon a crowd of people abusing a corpse because the deceased could not pay for his own funeral. The traveler gives the last money he has so that the crowd will stop abusing the corpse, and subsequently meets another traveler who turns out to be deceased, who then helps the traveler perform a monumental task.

Later, the band discovered this reference in the Egyptian Book of the Dead:

We now return our souls to the creator,
as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness.
Let our chant fill the void,
in order that others may know.
In the land of the night,
the ship of the sun,
is drawn by the grateful dead.

Pretty cool/creepy, huh? There’s a mysticism about the Dead that has always been part of their appeal.

I saw the Dead play live in concert dozens of times prior to the death of their leader, Jerry Garcia, in 1995. The first Dead show I attended was on July 17, 1982 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, in Ventura, CA. I know the date because there is a reference book called DeadBase that not only lists all of the Dead’s shows, but also the songs they played at each show. DeadBase also has statistical information, such as the number of times they played particular songs, the number of shows between the performance of particular songs, etc. Unlike most bands, the Dead would alter the song list each time they played, which explains why someone (like me) would go to see them so many times. The Dead were also notoriously uneven in their live performances, in part due to the different set lists, but primarily due to their reliance on ensemble improvisation. So, you could go see them a dozen times and maybe two or three of those shows would be mediocre, one or two would be flat-out disappointing, but the remainder would showcase not just the best live band at that moment, but arguably the best live band ever. If you happened to see one of those great shows, chances are you were hooked and would see them again and again in hopes of seeing another great show.

I had almost zero familiarity with the Dead’s material when I went to that first show, which I attended at the urging of my roommate at the time. My perception was that they played country music, of which I am not a big fan. What I discovered is that the Dead’s material spans every genre of American music, including rock, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, funk, reggae, orchestral, you name it. The stylistic breadth of their original material exceeds any other band I am aware of. They were also famous for playing covers of other people’s material, but whatever covers they played ended up sounding like the Dead. At that first show in Ventura, they played the following covers: 1) Big River (Johnny Cash), 2) Little Red Rooster (Rolling Stones), 3) Around and Around (Rolling Stones),  and 4), It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan). It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in retrospect the covers made the whole show more accessible to a neophyte like me, because there were at least a few songs they played with which I was already familiar. The good news is that I liked all of the original songs they played, even though I was hearing most of them for the first time.

Part of the reason I am writing this for the uninitiated is that the Dead tend to be somewhat polarizing in the sense that most people either love them or have no use for them at all. But there is another category of people who may have never considered whether they could be a fan or not, simply because they’ve never heard their original material except for the few songs that get played on FM radio (and those infrequently). In other words, there’s a good chance you could be a fan of the Grateful Dead (or, in Dead parlance, a “Deadhead”) without knowing it because you’ve never been exposed. So, as part of this post I’m going to make it easier for those who might like to find out if they’re a Deadhead by curating a list of seven original songs by the Dead, including the song title, genre, songwriter, lyricist (most of the Dead’s lyrics were not written by the band, but by their long-time lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow), including a snippet of the lyrics for each particular song.

  1. Scarlet Begonias; loping hippy rock; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; As I picked up my matches, and was closing the door; I had one of those flashes, I’d been there before
  2. Estimated Prophet; weird anthem about California in 7/4 time signature; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; California, a prophet on the burning shore; California, I’ll be knocking on the golden doorLike an angel, standing in a shaft of light; Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine.
  3. Dupree’s Diamond Blues; Blues/Honky Tonk; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; And down to this jewelry store packin’ a gun; Says, “Wrap it up. I think I’ll take this one.”; “A thousand dollars, please,” the jewelry man said; Dupree said, “I’ll pay this one off to you in lead.”
  4. The Music Never Stopped; Funky Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; There’s a band out on the highway, they’re high-steppin’ into town; It’s a rainbow full of sound, It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns.
  5. Black Peter; Bluesy Dirge; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Fever roll up, to a, hundred and five; Roll on up, gonna roll back down; One more day, I find myself alive; Tomorrow, maybe go, beneath the ground.
  6. I Need a Miracle; Rock; Bob Weir & John Perry Barlow; I need a woman ’bout twice my height; Statuesque, raven-dressed, a goddess of the night; Her secret incantations, a candle burning blue; We’ll consult the spirits, maybe they’ll know what to do.
  7. Crazy Fingers; Reggae; Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter; Gone are the days, we stopped to decide; where we should go, we just ride.

All Deadheads have their favorite Dead songs, and others they like less. If you listen to these seven and find three or four that you like, it would be worth your while to explore their catalogue further. Because their material is so diverse, chances are there are many songs you’ll discover that will quickly become favorites.

Many people reading this who are not familiar with the Dead may wonder why I’m writing this so many years after Garcia’s death. Two reasons: 1) the Dead subculture is still there and, in many ways, has only become more vibrant since Garcia’s death. There are many people who were not old enough to ever see the Dead in concert, but have become Deadheads; 2) About two years ago I discovered the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band, which I go to see on a regular basis. This post was the predicate for a post I’m going to write about that band, which I’ll publish tomorrow.