EASY READER article by Ryan McDonald
There will be no elaborate wigs for any Cubensis performance at Saint Rocke, no putty noses nor period costumes. Any physical resemblance to the Grateful Dead is purely coincidental.
“We call ourselves a tribute band, but that’s just for lack of a better word,” says guitarist Craig Marshall. “We try to play in the spirit of the Grateful Dead, using our own God-given talents, and I think that’s what draws folks to us.”
Cubensis played Sunday July 5 at Saint Rocke’s “Day of the Dead” celebration, in advance of the supposed last-show-ever from jam band forefathers The Grateful Dead. (Phish’s Trey Anastasio will be filling in for Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995). A broadcast of the Dead’s performance streamed from Chicago, followed on the venue’s 20-foot screen.
And while Cubensis readily advertises their connection to the Dead, mimicry is not the goal. Unlike Dark Star Orchestra, which reproduces sets from past Grateful Dead shows, Cubensis is doesn’t try to reproduce songs note-for-note.
“We were never really interested in that; for one thing, it's very difficult,” Marshall says. “We take those songs and use them as a plotline for our own inspiration.”
For Cubensis then, Dead songs are a bit like the strictures of a sonnet: they provide for the kind of artistic creativity that is unlocked through self-imposed limits.
Search for “Cubensis band” on YouTube and you will start to see what I mean. (A simple search of “Cubensis,” is more likely to lead to results about the species of psychedelic mushroom from which the band draws their name). Videos of recorded performances capture both knowing smiles and poorly masked puzzlement on the face of the band members as they listen to one another.
Watch a few jams in a row, and you start to realize what those looks are all about: It’s not that a song was taken in a particular musical direction, but that after all the years of playing, the members are still capable of surprising one another!
The July 5 Cubensis show almost didn’t happen. Like others in the Grateful Dead fan universe, Marshall and the band wanted to attend the July 5 Dead Fare Thee Well show in person, but couldn't score tickets.
“It was a circus trying to get tickets,” Marshall says. “We were disappointed along with millions of others. But the big thing is that they are having the show and getting together.”
It is a fitting result, though, for a band that came together 28 years ago out of frustration wtih the lack of Grateful Dead tour dates in Southern California. The highly improvisational nature of the music made getting together to play Grateful Dead songs a redemptive experience —one that filled the void left by seeing the band infrequently.
The band has since stayed true to its California roots. The first practice session took place in Redondo Beach. And all current members—Marshall, guitarist Nate LaPointe, keyboardist Tom Ryan, bassist Larry Ryan, and drummers Ed Fletcher and Brad Rhodus—live in Southern California.
And most of their shows happen within a few blocks of the Pacific Coast Highway.
“There’s a significance there, I’m not sure how to explain it,” Marshall muses. “I don’t know if that’s because Deadheads congregate on the coast, or because we just like cooler weather.”
Either way, it hasn’t slowed down the band’s schedule. They have played over 3,000 shows, more than the Grateful Dead itself.
“There is something energizing about playing and hearing Grateful Dead music,” Marshall said. “If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand."
That slightly paradoxical approach to music—soaring ecstasy and mystical impenetrability—is characteristic of jam-bands. Fandom is polarizing; very few people hew to the middle of the road when it comes to the Dead or their progeny like Phish. People say it’s either pointless “noodling” or the only thing worth hearing.
All of which makes Cubensis’ audience-centered attitude rather refreshing. For their frequent shows at Long Beach’s Golden Sails Hotel (their performances there number in the hundreds since the early 90's), the band keeps track of the songs they have played each date, and simply recycles those that they haven’t broken out in a while.
By contrast, when the band plays the Lighthouse, another Cubensis haunt, they tend to take more audience requests. But even old favorites like “Scarlet Begonias” won’t sound the same way twice, as the band modifies it to suit their mood.
“We can play a given song jazzy or more harder-edged, or throw in a little reggae,” Marshall said. “No one would get more bored with a song than us, playing it over and over again.”
Asked to describe the Grateful Dead’s music, Garcia is reported to have quipped, “We were great for seconds on end.”
Those seconds, of course, set the rhythm for a segment of hippie counterculture, and made fans of everybody from Jimmy Buffet to Greg Ginn. As the Grateful Dead prepare to call it quits, grouping their final five shows under the banner “Fare thee Well,” Marshall is circumspect about the end of the band that inspired Cubensis.
“We’re steeped in the Grateful Dead,” he says. “It’s a big part of our lives, day in and day out.”
Asked to select his favorite Grateful Dead “tape”—fan-made recordings of concerts that propelled the band’s roving legion of acolytes—Marshall gives a response that belies his tie-dye credentials.
“Whatever I’ve heard last will usually be my current favorite,” he asserts. “I’m always looking for stuff I haven’t heard before.”
A sense of looking forward, a hopeful tone, is one of the few things that can be consistently found in live Dead performances, which vary immensely in quality as the band members cycle through addiction and sobriety. And though this Sunday may mark the final show for the Grateful Dead, it won’t be the end of Cubensis. The band has a full schedule in the month to follow.
“If you stay open to it, the music plays the band,” Marshall says. “That’s the space we try to stay in, listening to each other, responding to each other. It’s magic sometimes.”