The Dead Live On
Tribute band Cubensis joins other groups Saturday for a daylong jam session in Ojai (from Ventura County Star, reporter Bill Locey)

The Grateful Dead may have passed on, but Cubensis is not even sick and, in fact, has never felt better. The Grateful Dead tribute band will be making its first local appearance in a few years when it headlines Saturday's Jam Band Festival at Libbey Bowl in Ojai.

Cubensis' Tom Ryan, Craig Marshall, Steve Harris, Nate LaPointe and Larry Ryan, from left, will headline Saturday's Jam Band Festival at Libbey Bowl in Ojai. The show benefits the RageJax Foundation, which was formed in memory of sisters Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, who were killed last year in an automobile accident.

The festival will fete the legacy of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, two Ojai sisters who were killed in a car crash last fall near King City. During their short lives, both were involved in art projects in Costa Rica. To honor their spirit, their mother, Carol, has established the RageJax foundation to open a cultural arts center in Playa Negra in the Central American country.
Besides Cubensis, a host of bands will be kicking out the extended jams. Featured will be the Thousand Oaks-based Bob Dylan tribute band Highway 61 Revisited, led by Joel Gilbert, as well as Ventura bluegrass band Lily Water. Also on the bill: Grampa's Grass, the Eternal Break-ups (formerly Mr. Ectomy) and Reel Hard Duo.

Cubensis is still trucking after nearly two decades of long, strange trips or just a bit longer than a Jerry Garcia guitar solo back in the day. Cubensis is Justin Pacuska on rhythm guitar, Larry Ryan on bass, Tom Ryan on keyboards and Steve Harris is the drummer. To Craig Marshall, the lead guitar player, things have been far out, groovy and bitchen -- or maybe even better than that.

"We're doin' all right. We're playing more than ever. It's been awhile since we've been up there in the Ventura area-- last time was that venue that's upstairs in Santa Barbara, SOhO, so it's high time. We're looking forward to it. It's going to be a great time outdoors in the park, long as it doesn't rain."

While the Dead may have entered the past tense as well as the stuff of legend, the Deadheads themselves are still out there, perhaps spinning aimlessly to all those other jam bands or even -- gasp -- blending into society in general.

"They're still out there. They've gone into society and become doctors, lawyers and gas station attendants. They're putting on ties, some of them are sporting short hair these days and for some of them, their hair is falling out sometimes, like mine. Times are changing, and they're blending in, but they've kept their tie-dyes in the back of the closet, ready."

So the Grateful Dead after a lengthy career played hundreds of gigs, and as proof, there are thousands of bootleg tapes floating around, but for some, even that was not enough. Like the dudes in Cubensis.

"Actually, we started out of frustration. The Dead only played in L.A. about once a year, and that just wasn't enough, and in lieu of going up to San Fran, we started our own little backyard party band, and pretty soon, people wanted to pay money to see us, and Cubensis was born."

Obviously the boys in the band were Deadheads. Marshall stopped counting after seeing the Dead more than 200 times. Once, he even got to meet Jerry Garcia. He introduced himself to the round, bearded guitar player by saying that his band played Grateful Dead music. Garcia replied, in mock surprise, "Oh, yeah? So do we!"

"That was a hilarious comeback. He floored me with that one. It was just a wonderful thing for him to say."

But when Garcia died in 1995, thousands of Deadheads were left spinning aimlessly, their soundtrack of choice silenced. But not for long as Cubensis, among others, spun in there to fill the void.

"Strangely enough, Jerry's passing helped us due the nostalgia factor because people missed it -- missed the music. Listening to tapes is fine, but they wanted that live interaction -- to feel the music and dance to it. We've tried to become the new icons, I guess, but I don't wanna benefit from anyone else's death. I'd rather the Dead just live and play and play, and we'll be there with them."

At a Dead show, the fans were as big an attraction as the band ever was, just like the times they played at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in the '80s.

The Deadheads actually were perfect tourists in the Poinsettia City -- they showed up, spent all their money, then followed the band to another town and did not move here. The Ventura City Council at the time didn't see it that way and gonged the Dead after two or three shows. In any case, the whole Dead and Deadheads connection continues for Cubensis.

"Without the fans, we would be nothing because they bring at least half the energy to the show, and the reciprocal exchange of energy begins. There's an unusual and wonderful give-and-take when we're playing Dead music, and it can really make or break the performance. But if the fans aren't into it, no matter how good we do our job, it's not going to go anywhere. So we have a very co-dependent relationship with our fans."

And there's not a whole lot of standing and staring at a Cubensis show. Grateful Dead music gives a direct order to the feet: Dance!

"Oh, yes, they dance. The spinners are out there and the regular dancers, too. Many people have observed that people dance with the band and they don't necessarily dance with each other, as in the usual situation.

"The typical songs get people going -- 'Scarlet Begonias,' 'Fire on the Mountain' and 'Sugar Magnolia.' We get requests for those songs every single time we play. We're making people happy, making them dance. Bring your dancing shoes when you see Cubensis-- that's all you need, and that's very cool. It works for us."

So what is the continuing attraction of this music? A memorable bumper sticker made it all as clear as that cloud of smoke over a Dead gig: "There's nothing like a Grateful Dead show."

"Not only is it timeless music, but the Dead were one helluva cover band themselves. They played songs by Ry Cooder, by Dylan and a lot of old traditional favorites as well. It's great American music. It doesn't ask you to do anything except feel good and look out for your friends and neighbors.

"It's almost a religion -- religion without the religion."

While there are Deadheads from sea to shining sea and way beyond that as well, Cubensis is pretty much a SoCal thing plus a few extra miles.

"We do play in what we call the Southwest -- we'll go down to Arizona or Vegas or the Bay area-- so that's our sphere of influence. If you do an Internet search for Dead cover bands, you'll find that every major metropolitan area has their own Dead cover band -- all except, strangely enough, San Francisco. They do not have a Deadhead cover band."

There are other options, however, when it comes to dancing. There are a lot of jam bands out there. In addition to the Cubensis, national touring acts such as the Dave Matthews Band, the String Cheese Incident, the Spin Doctors, Leftover Salmon and all those other jam bands helped to fill the void left by the dearly departed Dead. It's not quite the same to Marshall.

"They're doing something a little different. Let me say this about that: Nothing does it for me like Dead music. I'll see people dancing their butts off at a Phish show or a String Cheese show, but sometimes I don't understand it. With the Dead, there was a spirit to it that I don't see in those other bands. I have a good time at those shows, but there's just something missing, and I kinda feel bad for the people that were never exposed -- never exposed to a live Dead concert and, say, Phish was their first musical experience."

Soon to celebrate their Big 2-0, as in two decades of night work, Cubensis still plays a lot and has a rare knack for taking nights that are generally dead and turning them Dead!

"We still play at least three times a week, and two of those are residency gigs.

"One is at 14 Below in Santa Monica on Sunday night -- almost six years now. A lot of people call it their church. We also play at the Marlin in Huntington Beach every Tuesday. We've been playing on Tuesday nights for 10 years and at 14 Below for six years. People have re-arranged their schedules, believe it or not, to join us on Tuesday nights. I'm grateful for it when people go out of their way to have their day off on Wednesday. That's pretty cool."

Rhino has just re-issued 10 Dead albums in a massive box set, "Beyond Description (1973-1989)," with not one booklet of exposition, but two. Reading those things would take as long as listening to all those songs. This thing is so lavish that any self-respecting Deadhead would probably like their ashes placed in said box once their long, strange trip has ended.

Marshall agreed. "Yeah, exactly. They should've suggested that on the package."

And there's more. Since all that dancing can dehydrate even the most dynamic Deadhead and because alcohol is not allowed in Libbey Park, several local elbow-bending establishments are banding together to sponsor a bar crawl after the music ends. All the joints are within a hundred yards of the event -- Ojai Brew Pub, the Hub and Movino Wine Bar.

So to Marshall and his musical pals, and thousands more of Jerry's Kids, the Dead will never die.

"Not if I can help it. I believe in eternal life."

Cubensis, Grandpa's Grass, Highway 61 Revisited, the Eternal Break-ups, Hot Buttered Bread, Lily Water and Reel Hard Duo perform from noon to 10 p.m. March 19 at Libbey Bowl, Ojai Avenue at Signal Street, Ojai. Tickets are $12.50 general, free for children 12 and younger. For more information, call 368-2659. Written by Bill Locey, Ventura County Star (edited for clarity).

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