At the beginning of 2016, Cubensis founding member Craig Marshall declared it “The Year of the Jam.” The last seven months have lived up to and greatly surpassed the sentiment, as it’s been a remarkable time in the history of the Grateful Dead, the Cubensis mission of “Keeping the Dead alive since 1987,” and the family that is the SoCal Deadheads. In between memorable Dead & Co. tours and community members taking turns going to festivals or following their favorite Jambands, Cubensis has been playing prolifically throughout Southern California, keeping this life-affirming music in a live setting and regularly available at an affordable price to whomever might need it.
August 1st is of course the year’s most hallowed and sacrosanct day on the Deadhead calendar. With this being “The Year of the Jam,” it serves beautifully that Cubensis would be playing a show at Saint Rocke on Monday night that’s being billed as “Jerry Garcia’s Birthday Bash.” During the course of the evening, these trailblazers of recreating the Grateful Dead experience have promised to honor Jerry with a set-list comprised entirely of Jerry Garcia Band songs. Cubensis has played so many compelling shows this year, and Saint Rocke has played home to some of the most resonate. The days in the run-up to Jerry’s Birthday show seemed like the ideal time to talk with Craig about forming SoCal’s first band to play all Grateful Dead music, and the journey between teaching himself by studying Jerry’s playing, all the way to and through “The Year of the Jam.” Edited slightly for length and clarity, here’s an especially insightful conversation I had with Craig about the nearly thirty-year evolution of Cubensis, how Saint Rocke became the ideal place for the Birthday show, and how Craig plans on honoring the life and legacy of Jerry Garcia.
Jackson Truax: For the younger generation of SoCal Deadheads, can you give us a look back at how you came to start Cubensis in 1987? How did you come to get Jerry’s blessing?
Craig Marshall: The problem was that the Grateful Dead did not play in Los Angeles enough to suit us. They were maybe here once a year or thereabouts. It just wasn’t enough. They played San Francisco a whole lot. And other parts of the country. But there was a need for the music to ring out. We decided we’d do it for our own amusement. We’d play Grateful Dead music; Play it at backyard parties and that sort of thing. Then folks started asking us to play at their event, or their club, or their anniversary, or whatever. Lo and behold, twenty-nine years later, we’re still doing it. We’re playing at festivals and peoples’ clubs and peoples’ anniversaries and birthday parties. It’s just gotten bigger and better and we’ve affected a lot more people… Meeting Jerry on the plane up to Eugene, Oregon…it was…probably, either ’90 or ’92. We had a stop over at San Francisco International. There he was at the gift shop. I had a chat with him. And told him that we played all Grateful Dead music. He replied, famously now, “Oh, yeah? So do we.” It was just a wonderful moment. We had a long talk about his effects. Which mostly went over my head. Because right about that time I got…star struck, I should say. I realized that I was talking to my favorite guitarist in the world. But hopefully I absorbed some of that, some of his wisdom that he was sharing at that point. But I did ask him, what I call – “The $64,000 Question” – How does he feel about us playing his music? He told me, “As long as you do a good job of it, go for it!” So we have been striving to do that ever since.
JT: Almost thirty years ago, did forming a band to play all Grateful Dead music seem like a radical thing or a potential novelty? Or were you confident that the gig and the band would endure another thirty years?
Marshall: We had no inkling or intent to do anything other than amuse ourselves and keep the Dead alive within our little community of friends… We were happy to accommodate when it did begin to spread and interest increased. I was unaware of any other bands doing that at the time. There were certainly other local bands playing. But nobody was playing Grateful Dead music where I could go see them. So it seemed prudent to start our own band. It was just culled from local friends. In fact, our bass player [Brian Lerman] we found because he had moved into an apartment in front of our rhythm players. And he was a skateboard kid with a Mohawk. And he played bass. So he joined the band. So we had a Skate-punk, Mohawk-wearing bass player for a long time. He eventually left us. He had an opportunity to tour with the opening band for the Beastie Boys in Money Mark’s band. They went on a world tour. He was going to be gone for about a year-and-a-half. Then we found Larry Ryan. Or Larry found us.
JT: What do you think has changed the most over the course of that time? Has “the scene” changed? Or if I go to the next Cubensis show at Golden Sails, do you think it feels the same as an evening there might have been twenty or thirty years ago?
Marshall: It doesn’t. I think the reason is that we have a lot of longtime fans. They’ve grown along with us. They’ve gotten older… A lot of the folks that started out as kids with us are now bringing their kids to the show. I think that’s just a wonderful thing. I think that’s the biggest difference. The aging of the audience. We get plenty of young people who have discovered the Dead. And it’s wonderful. We’ve been dragging the sixties along with us for a long time. At a certain point, when the Dead were no longer around, we served as a method to introduce people to the Grateful Dead. A lot of people learned what they know now about the Dead and their music from seeing Cubensis. They never had a chance to see the Grateful Dead with Jerry. We’ve heard from a lot of people…that we were their first exposure to the Dead. I’m very happy and feel privileged to be a part of that experience for them.
JT: For young people interested in live music, why should they come see Cubensis? What does the live Grateful Dead experience have to offer that’s singular?
Marshall: I would draw a parallel between the Grateful Dead and Phish. Phish is a great band. They’re technically very proficient. But I don’t get out of Phish or Widespread Panic or Moe what I used to get out of the Grateful Dead as far as spirit. That’s kind of an intangible thing and a personal thing to everybody. There’s something about the Grateful Dead and the spirit that they evoked when they played. And their songs. And their lyrics. And the guys that were in the band, the individuals. That really does it for me. I think a lot of other people, too. And now Dead & Co. is here, with some new individuals. They’re wonderful as technical players, and as musicians, and as people. But it is different. It’s way different from the Grateful Dead that I know and love. So I think that’s where we have some value. We’re more like the old Grateful Dead. The Jerry version of the Grateful Dead. I think more so than Dead & Co., or Furthur, or Phil and Friends. That’s the way we like it. That’s our intent. We’re not a soundalike band. But we try to play in the spirit of the Grateful Dead as they were back in the day.
JT: You taught yourself to play guitar by slowing down Grateful Dead albums and listening to what Jerry was playing. Of all the great guitarists whose work you could have studied, what drew you to Jerry? And what do you think his playing taught you that no one else’s would have?
Marshall: My folks bought me this cheap, old electric guitar and amplifier. And it came with free lessons. There was a hippie guy teaching the lessons… He introduced me to the Grateful Dead. He said, “Go get this album.” Their first album. And “Go see the Grateful Dead.” Then he skipped. He stopped teaching. And I stopped going to lessons. I had two lessons… I did what he suggested. I bought the album. I loved it. I listened to it until the wheels came off the thing. Back in those days you could slow down albums to half-speed. It would drop just about exactly one octave so your guitar would stay in tune. But the notes came out only half as fast. So I was able to understand what he was doing and comprehend it. And try to replicate it. And slowly worked on getting it up to speed… I was able to kind of emulate his style for a long time until I developed my own. I’m told all great musicians borrow from here and there and everywhere. Then that clumping of all those influences produces whatever the guitar player eventually does. Like [Eric] Clapton, drew heavily from old blues players. So it’s no surprise that he sounds like a lot of old blues players. But done his way. And hopefully that’s what you get when I play. I listen to a lot of players from back in the day. Steve Morse [founder of the Dixie Dregs]. Ritchie Blackmore was an influence. Clapton was an influence. There were many influences. But they eventually clump together and you have your own sound. So I don’t believe that I sound like Garcia anymore. But it’s almost like there’s a band now called Cubensis that is made up of a whole bunch of different guys… It’s the same music that the Grateful Dead did. But we’re playing it our way.
JT: How scripted is the average Cubensis show? Most the shows seem to start with a master list of several dozen songs you might play, and you call out selections from there throughout the night. How did you settle on that approach?
Marshall: You might be aware of DeadBase, where somebody has carefully compiled all of the Dead shows and how many times the songs were played. We have a fellow, Scott Surfcity, who compiles the same data for all of our Golden Sails shows, which is where we primarily play. We, of course, used to play there weekly. Now we’re down to [twice] a month there. But the same still applies. I take the lists that he provides me. And I look at the end of the list. And I see songs that we haven’t played in a while. I might compile a list of those songs. Because we know that people come to see us week after week, month after month. And what we don’t want to be is repetitive. We want to give people a fresh show every time. That’s one way to do it. Eventually you’ll go through all of the 251 songs that we do play. And you’ll hear them all. There are always people yelling out for “Shakedown Street.” And always, people have a birthday request or something like that. We, of course, accommodate them when we can. But if we make a list at all, that’s what we do. I have a list of songs that are up for playing that we haven’t played in a while.
JT: Going into a show, do you think consciously about how to try and make various factions of the audience happy? Or do you think that if you set out to do your best show you’ll instinctively please everyone, regardless of the depth or breadth of their experience with the Dead?
Marshall: I’ve noticed that the Grateful Dead have such a variety of types of music that they play. Be it country, jazzy stuff, rock stuff, psychedelic stuff, within any given set that they played. Or, given any set of songs that you could name by the Grateful Dead. I think as we play in that same spirit, everybody gets satisfied. The newbies get satisfied because there’s something there for them. The people that are waiting around for the old nuggets are satisfied because we’ll play something in that realm. So the people that want to dance, they’ll get their songs. And the people that want to just sink into the music, they’ll get their stuff too. They’ll be some deep, deep stuff in there. Psychedelic songs that they can just melt into. It just happens organically as you play the music. Everybody gets what they need. Some people say it’s their church. Some people say that it gets them through the week. And it absolutely does. Us, too, as band members. We experience the same thing.
JT: You kicked off 2016 by declaring it, “The Year of the Jam.” What did that mean to you initially? And how has that evolved throughout the course of the last seven months?
Marshall: I just looked at the scene. The Jambands seemed to be exploding in popularity and peoples’ awareness of them. I think it’s fair to say that Grateful Dead music is also Jam music. Jam, to me, involves improvisation. There’s certainly a lot of improvisation in Grateful Dead music. It’s almost as if the Grateful Dead, in their wisdom, knew that other people would be playing their music. And they left plenty of room in there for another band to improvise and do their own thing within the context of the song… It just occurred to me that this could be “The Year of the Jam” if we played it right. So far it’s been. It’s been working.
JT: As part of “The Year of the Jam,” Cubensis has played some really great and interesting shows at Saint Rocke, including the “Built to Last” album show, “Dylan and the Dead” with Joel Gilbert, and you and Nate LaPointe opening for John Kadlecik. What do you like about the venue, and what made it a good place for Jerry’s Birthday show?
Marshall: Saint Rocke is ideally suited for live music, as far as their layout; and also the technical aspects. They’ve got a nice stage. They’ve got a great sound system. They’ve got good technicians that work there. The lights are wonderful. It’s by and large a friendly place where you can drink or eat. If you happen to be around the corner at the bar, you’ve got big screen HDTVs to watch the show if you don’t want to stand in front of the crowd and dance or fight for elbow room. There, too, it’s got something for everybody. It’s convenient. It’s by the beach… It seems like we do about ninety percent of our shows either on Pacific Coast Highway or very close to Pacific Coast Highway. It’s been a constant thread throughout our career, if you want to call it that… Back in the day, Saint Rocke was called The Pitcher House. We did shows there all the time, too. Then a fellow came and threw some money at the place and turned it into kind of an upscale music club. Now they feature a lot of live music, which is wonderful for the South Bay. I feel really good about playing Jerry’s Birthday show there.
JT: It seems that the pattern that’s emerged is that Golden Sails is the home of the regularly scheduled Cubensis weekly “church shows,” for lack of a better term, and Saint Rocke has become the venue of choice for album or special event shows. How did that evolve?
Marshall: As all of our fans know, we play regularly down at the Lighthouse. The Lighthouse is a friendly competitor of Saint Rocke. They’re proximate to each other. The shows we play at the Lighthouse – We rarely play anything but an organic, make-it-up-as-we-go type show there. So, just to make it different from that, Saint Rocke is where we put on our album shows, or special things like the Jerry show. It seems to keep both camps happy… So our Saint Rocke shows are always themed differently.
JT: It’s been announced that the birthday show will be all Jerry Garcia Band songs. How much preparation or pre-planning are you doing for the evening beyond that?
Marshall: Essentially none. We don’t rehearse. Cubensis doesn’t rehearse. We laughingly say after a show, “You just saw our rehearsal. You just attended it.” We’ve got the music together. Everybody loves the music… The musicians in the band have been listening to it, usually during the week. Just enjoying the Grateful Dead music, as we have been for years. There’s no real other preparation. We’re probably going to do a set list there, of Jerry songs… That would be the extent of it.
JT: When talking about Jerry Garcia’s work outside the Grateful Dead, some people immediately think of the amazing run of albums throughout the seventies. Others might think of the double live album recorded in 1990, because that seems to represent “The Jerry Garcia Band” in peoples’ minds. Is there any specific aspect of Jerry’s musicianship or life that you’ll be thinking about prior to the birthday show?
Marshall: I may be an odd bird in that regard. Because I don’t have a favorite space or time for the Dead or Jerry. I just listen to anything that happens to come along…that happens to come to my attention… Somebody will post something [on Facebook], and I’ll just stop and listen to it… So at least for me personally, there’s no plan going into it to soak in Jerry Garcia tunes prior to the show. I already do. That’s how I live my musical life. By listening to Sirius radio, the Dead channel. That’s practically all I listen to in the car. When I’m home, I listen to the Dead. So I’m pretty steeped in it already. So nothing additional needs to be done.
JT: This past weekend, many of the SoCal Deadheads were at Saint Rocke for the fantastic Rum Runners show. They share a drummer (Brad Rhodus) with Cubensis, and are known for playing Jerry Garcia Band music. Do you foresee anyone else from Rum Runners sitting in for the Birthday show?
Marshall: I hadn’t envisioned it. I wouldn’t be against it at all… Keyboardist Ed Lyon was in Cubensis for ten years. So we’re old, old partners in crime. We became aware of Brad through his playing through Rum Runners and enjoying what he was doing. That’s how he ended up sitting in with us. And now he’s a solid member of the band. But that would be nothing but an extra added attraction… It’ll happen, spur of the moment. You catch eyes with somebody. You’re launching into a song that we know that they could wail on. The finger is pointed and say, “You, get up here.” And off we go. A lot of times it’s best left to spontaneity.
JT: Looking past the birthday show, that weekend is the Jerry Daze festival on Mount Baldy, followed by the monthly “Cubensis Acoustic Duo” show at Salvage Sunday. I would imagine that playing that Sunday would be a charged undertaking, as it’s the eve of such a potentially painful and emotional day for our community. As far as putting together a set list or producing a show, is there a fine line between playing on Jerry’s Birthday and then on the eve of the anniversary of his death? Or does preparing the two shows feel similar to you?
Marshall: I would say it is emotionally similar. But the keyword is “emotional.” It’s a bittersweet time; when you’re celebrating the man’s music, but also realizing that he’s not making it anymore. There’s always a chance of a tear dropping during certain songs when we’re playing. It will happen again. I’m quite sure. It seems like the acoustic songs have more of a tendency to bring out that emotional aspect… As I contemplate that question I realize that, we are possibly, probably more mindful of the audiences’ needs at a time like that. We know how we’re feeling. We realize…everybody’s feeling the same way… We will be reverent. And hopefully play the music lovingly, and technically well. It’ll be more about celebrating his life. And everything that he meant to us. And continues to mean to us… It demands nothing from you, except that you have a good time. That’s one of the main things that I like about the music. It’s not political. It’s not religious. It’s not anything but what it is. Just damn good music. And a damn good time. It’s there for all of us. Whoever wants to partake of it. Thank God plenty of people do.
JT: Looking ahead in “The Year of the Jam,” what else is on the Cubensis calendar that you’re especially excited about?
Marshall: Anytime we can play outdoors in a concert setting, we’re extremely happy. So the Jerry Daze show on Mount Baldy is one of the gems that we’re looking at. And also, September 10th, the June Lake event up at Gull Lake with so many great bands. It’s such a beautiful place to play. So those are highlights. They’re both all ages shows… Those would be the two highlights that I’m really looking forward to.