The second annual Skull and Roses Festival brought Deadheads from all over California, to the Ventura Fairgrounds, for three days of music inspired by The Grateful Dead. The campground area was nearly full by the time the music started early on Friday afternoon, April 6th. Festival publicist Dennis McNally, who was the publicist for the Grateful Dead from 1984-95 choose the spot because of its significance in the history of the Dead. The iconic band played the Ventura fairgrounds 11 times from 1982-87, making it one of their most regular stops in Southern California during that period. The festival began under cloudy skies with chilly blustery winds blowing dust across the venue. But much like most of the storms to approach southern California this year, the threat of rain proved uneventful. Music fans were in good spirits swarming the concert area by the time David Gans played a solo sunset set. Gans, who wrote a book on The Grateful Dead, brought his original tunes and a few Dead covers to an appreciative crowd.
By the time sunset gave way to twilight, the clouds had begun to part and a starry night sky appeared. The classic Dead cover band Cubensis proceed two extended sets. The main stage featured a replica of The Wall of Sound, the famous speaker stack that the Dead toured with in the 70’s. Lit with led and laser lights, it created a spectacular backdrop for the extended jam. The band played until nearly midnight, but the tunes continued in the campground on impromptu stages until early Saturday morning.
Day two of the festival dawned brightly with beautiful high clouds rolling across the nearby mountains. The fairgrounds are poised on Ventura point, one of the most popular surf spots in Southern California. Many concert-goers brought their surfboards and other watercraft and were treated to a fun wind swell, followed by a building groundswell the final afternoon. The music started early on the second day. By early afternoon the venue was full of multiple generations of music fans dancing and lounging in the sun. Miami pedal steel guitar jammer legend, Roosevelt Collier, turned up the heat with a smoking set of blues-drenched Dead covers and even a Rolling Stones gem was thrown in for good measure. The master musician is well known in the Miami area playing with a host of jam bands and made a big splash at the Okeechobee music festival.
Circles Around The Sun played what was probably the most intense set of the festival next. The band led by guitar veteran Neal Casal, from the Chris Robinson Brother band, is a consummate jam band. The group was created to produce a soundtrack for the intermission of the Fare Thee Well final tour of The Grateful Dead. The set featured some of the most brilliant jam band music to be found today.
Stu Allen, another veteran of the JGB group, brought his band Mars Hotel to the festival for two extended sets to close Saturday evening. The band is a mainstay at Dead head festivals and channels the spirit of the band perfectly.
Sunday morning brought a beautiful spring day to the festival grounds. The strong winds subsided and the sun shined brightly. From the grandstands, a spectacular view surrounded the festival. A 360-degree vista offered up a view of the surrounding mountains turning green for the first time since the devastating fires of last December. The mountains ran all the way to the Pacific Ocean, glistening in the sun, with frothy white waves rolling in.
Another veteran of the original Jerry Garcia Band, Melvin Seals brought his current version of the JGB band to the festival for the second year in a row. The band played classic covers of Aint’t No Bread in the Breadbox and Lay Down Sally that got the sleepy crowd dancing. The master musician, with dual Leslie speakers attached to his keyboards, led the band through a bluesy dance inspiring set.
The festival ended with yet another dual set of jam tunes by the Golden Gate Wingmen. The band features players from side projects of Dead members that are still touring. The band opened with a psychedelic jam. That was followed by It Takes a Lot to Laugh, a Dylan tune that The Grateful Dead liked to cover. The band also played another Dylan tune, Queen Jane Approximately. But it was the Dead tunes that got the crowd most excited including, Sugaree, Mexicali Blues, Lazy River Road, Cassidy, Dark Star, Terrapin Station, Ripple, and Brokedown Palace. The festival ended on a beautiful upbeat Sunday afternoon and hopefully will become an annual Mecca for Deadheads young and old.