Three Stages. Three Days. 48 Bands. All of it celebrating the music of the Grateful Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band. Although it’s so obvious it’s shocking that a festival featuring three days of Dead music isn’t more commonplace, the SoCal Deadheads are enthusiastically preparing for the Skull & Roses Festival, an innovative gathering taking place from “Dawn to Dusk” (literally) this weekend, April 7-9 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. With music starting as early as 6:30 in the morning and going until as late as midnight, Grateful Dead-themed musical options will be as resplendent as they are diverse, with various bands offering bluegrass, punk, blues and reggae takes on the band’s songbook. And that’s before you visit the advertised 55-hour drum circle. As everyone is packing up the RVs and making their schedules for the weekend, here, listed in chronological order of appearance, are the five bands that I’m most excited to be seeing. Please keep in mind that everything here is based on past performances and might not be entirely predictive of the sets being performed.
Rachel Sedacca’s Scarlet Fire
What would the Grateful Dead have sounded like if Janis Joplin had been their lead vocalist? The answer lies in Rachel Sedacca’s Scarlet Fire, whose youtube videos could justifiably be confused with footage of Janis sitting in with the Dead at a post-Woodstock jam session. With Scarlet Fire, the Ventura-based singer-songwriter showcases her unique ability to blend the “soulful, bluesy Americana” of her solo work with her profound love of the Grateful Dead to create a singular jamband experience. Sedecca is known for her desire to make her shows feel like intimate, friendly gatherings, as well as for being an outspoken activist in service of those with disabilities such as Multiple Sclerosis and for safe access to medical cannabis. Much of this is manifest in this being the only set I’ve seen this weekend with ASL interpretation. Quactus’ drummer, Matthew McDuffee will be behind the drum kit. At the Expo Stage at Noon on Saturday.
Punk is Dead
A bold approach to the Grateful Dead’s body of work interpreted in the punk music style. Don’t over think it…just check it out. It’s worth it.
Melvin Seals & JGB
w/ Special Guest Leo Nocentelli (The Meters)
One of the festival highlights, MELVIN SEALS AND JGB w/ special guest Leo Nocentelli of The Meters, have been a powerful presence in the music industry for over 18 years, with Melvin’s long-established reputation as a performer, recording artist and producer. Melvin is most revered for his powerful, high-spirited Hammond B-3 organ and keyboards in the Jerry Garcia Band. Melvin spun his magic with the Jerry for 18 years and in doing so helped pioneer and define what has now become “Jam Band Music”.
From blues to funk to rock to jazz, Melvin Seals serves up a tasty mix with a little R&B and gospel thrown in to spice things up. Joining Melvin on this special show will be Leo Nocentelli of The Meters. Melvin and JGB brings an intuitive, expressive style, soul, spontaneity and remarkable chops to the table. With acoustic and electric ingredients and unique combinations of Zach Nugent on guitar and vocals, Pete Lavezzoli’s hearty drums and, of course, a heapin’ helpin’ of the wizard’s magic on Hammond B-3 Organ and keyboards. Along with backing vocals, the result is a most satisfying blend of natural organic grooves that challenges genre boundaries. Their chemistry is the focus from which they create a spontaneous and high art, where the sky is the limit musically. They offer an exciting, often psychedelic musical journey that changes nightly and keeps the audience dancing and smiling (and some staring in amazement) for hours.
In addition to the often-played staples, the band has recently been exploring the back catalog and performing a ton of super rare tunes, some of which The Jerry Garcia Band played only a few times over all those years. Adding his rock-gospel-soul-rhythm and blues touch with his funky style of playing, no wonder Jerry nicknamed him “Master of the Universe”. Melvin continues to treat music lovers to his unique brand of melodic flavor with JGB. Come see and hear for yourself on Sunday!
Marcus Rezak’s Shred is Dead
Mr. Shredder himself, Marcus Rezak (Cosmik Playground, Stratosphere All Stars, Digital Tape Machine) and his hand picked All-Star Band will perform an all jam instrumental set of Grateful Dead music full of extended jams.
“We have some really great instrumental arrangements worked out for this show. I think the crowd will enjoy it,” Rezak told Shakedown News.
They play Saturday on Main Stage right before Cubensis.
As much as the Skull & Roses Festival is anything, it’s a celebration of a band that formed thirty years ago in an attempt to keep the Grateful Dead’s music “Live” in Southern California. And while the SoCal Deadheads might be inclined to take Cubensis for granted, their impassioned versions of “New Speedway Boogie”, “The Music Never Stopped”, “Terrapin Station” and “Throwing Stones” remain the undeniably monumental jamband showstoppers that have become the almost weekly pleasure of devoted locals. This also stands as the Skull & Roses set that likely holds the greatest potential for special guests to “sit in”, as members of Cubensis have prolifically jammed with musicians ranging from beloved local stalwarts to former members of the Grateful Dead. Whether you’re new to the scene or a thirty-year veteran, come celebrate the impact Cubensis has had on your life. At the Main Stage at 8:00pm on Saturday.
David Gans Electric Brunch
In addition to being a truly beloved figure of the global Deadhead community, David Gans is one of its great Renaissance figures, having worked as a prolific music journalist, record producer, radio producer, Sirius-XM host, and singer-songwriter. For his “solo electric” shows, Gans prides himself in making no setlist and taking all audience requests. These gigs often feature especially sing-a-long friendly versions of Grateful Dead favorites while also shining a light on some lesser-played gems. Gans’ sets also include original songs from his handful of acclaimed solo albums, including 2008’s, “The Ones That Look the Weirdest Taste the Best”. Gans’ music is always intelligently, thoughtfully, and lovingly crafted, and his shows never fail to foster and ultimately rejoice in the meaningful connection between audience and performer that serves as the foundation of the Deadhead ethos. At the Main Stage at 11:00am on Sunday, and worth getting up for.
David Gans Electric Brunch is Gans joined by Craig Marshall, Larry Ryan and Brad Rhodus from Cubensis.
LIVE DEAD ‘69
This is both the official “headliner” of the Skull & Roses Festival and the only band with a real, live, former member of the Grateful Dead. This recently formed supergroup, featuring former Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten, attempts to celebrate the band’s early “experimental, psychedelic” years by using the track list from the seminal live release to create a set in the spirit of the Dead’s shows at the Fillmore West in late 1969. In addition to the presence of one of the musicians who helped define that era of the Dead’s music, the lineup includes Mark Karan of The Other Ones and Ratdog, Slick Aguilar of Jefferson Starship, Jay Lane of Furthur and the Golden Gate Wingmen and Robin Sylvester of Ratdog. Their version of “St. Stephen” promises to be one of the highlights of the weekend. At the Main Stage at 5:30pm on Sunday.
Dead to the Core
Among an endless sea of “Grateful Dead bands”, Dead to the Core deservedly stands out as being among the most compelling. Since the addition of co-lead singer Tanya Peterson and bassist Robert “Fish” Fisher, Dead to the Core has been making some of the most jubilant music in the SoCal jamband scene. The guiding, albeit subconscious, muse of the band seems to be that they’re all active parents, and many of them also teachers of various kinds. As a result, the band presents Grateful Dead music in a way that feels superlatively warm, inviting, embracing, and universally approachable. Their sets, filled with laugher and dancing on stage and off, serve as a genuinely beautiful celebration of family, music, the Grateful Dead, and the places where they intersect. Dead to the Core also manages to get a staggering number of songs in per set, without ever making the audience feel like the jams are being given short shrift. At the Expo Stage at 5:15pm on Saturday.
Other hot picks: Shaky Feelin’, Scott Gruberman and Sheldon & Cunnane (both acoustic and full band).
There are literally 48 bands performing over the weekend. If you’re not on this list, it doesn’t mean you don’t rock. So little time, so much music.