The music of the Grateful Dead returned to the Ventura Fairgrounds en masse as 48 bands played on three stages for three days, all playing Dead related covers. The Skull and Roses Festival was organized partially to celebrate the legendary concerts by the original Grateful Dead, back in the 1980’s. The band played five concerts in six years between 1982 and 1987 at the venue, before the local political pendulum took a swing away from the communal nature of Dead shows, towards a more mainstream offering of music at the ocean side fairgrounds.
Many in the crowd for the April 7 to 9 festival shared memories of the original Dead shows with a much younger group of Dead fans that made up the communal group of multi-generational music lovers. The music began on a drizzly Friday afternoon, but luckily, one of the stages was inside a fairground building offering respite from the first cold, wet evening. Everyone gathered at the inside expo stage for nearly 10 hours of music. Many of the bands playing the festival were local, including Shaky Feelin’, 9 Mile Skid, Unkle Monkey, Mars Hall, Sheldon & Cunnane, Rachel Sedacca’s Scarlet Fire, the Deal and Greatest Story.
The Saturday festivities began just after dawn with the first set of the morning just after 630 am. A cold brisk wind blew away the rain clouds and left the rest of the weekend bright and sunny. Sleepy campers slowly awoke on the bright sunny Saturday, and a few surfing music fans were treated to consistent head high waves just across the street at the world-famous surfer's point. How many music festivals can boast of their own pumping surfing point just next door? The music Saturday went all day until after midnight, culminating with a 30th birthday party set by Cubensis. The group is one of the most successful Grateful Dead tribute bands, fronted by Jerry Garcia recreator, Craig Marshall, who boasts of surviving over 200 Dead shows.
By Sunday morning the energy of the crowd and the drum circle was beginning to dwindle, but with the most anticipated sets of the festival still to come, many found their second wind. The masterful electric organ player Melvin Seals led a jam-infused early afternoon set by his band JGB. The group continues the legacy that began with Seals playing in the original Jerry Garcia Band. The band played Dead songs and classic American music covers that were part of the Jerry Garcia Band songbook. The high-energy set turned up another notch when the legendary guitarist from the Meters, Leo Nocentelli brought the Funk to the stage. A founding member of the band that was the harbinger of New Orleans Funk music, Nocentelli is truly an American treasure. He led the group in several jaw-dropping jams including a couple of Meters songs, some covered by The Dead years ago.
The final jam of the festival was a fitting tribute to the Grateful Dead, featuring another keyboard legend, Tom Constanten. The keyboardist in the Grateful Dead band from 1968 to 1970, Constanten worked on three pf the most famous albums that the band produced. The experimental keyboardist rooted in jazz training has an incredible musical history. His amazing adventures included a stint in the US army in the 1960s. While he was there working as a computer specialist, he would take LSD and compose music on military mainframe computers, including the IBM 1401. RatDog guitarist Mark Karan joined the master keyboardist. His bandmate, drummer Jay Lane, who also played with the Further band and Primus played thundering rhythms. RatDog ’s bassist Robin Sylvester brought his incredible skills to the mix. Jefferson Starship Guitarist Slick Aguilar rounded out the group with superb vocal and guitar skills. The band played a near two hour set of psychedelic guitars drenched jams that harkened back to early Grateful Dead jams. David Gans even came out to sing a few classic Dead tunes. The set which included some classic Dead covers had the whole crowd singing the chorus lines. A 9-year-old girl and her mother shouted the lyrics near the front of the stage, while a couple of long gray haired men smiled and repeated the words dancing behind them. The magic of the music of the Grateful Dead seems like it will continue to be handed down from generation to generation long after the band has completely gone.