Stu Allen holds down one of the most consistent gigs in Berkeley. For the past three years the guitarist has led Mars Hotel, which is less a band than a revolving cast of accomplished players dedicated to the music of the Grateful Dead. While Allen and his merry crew perform around the region, his homebase is Ashkenaz, where he’s held down a weekly gig that now serves as the hub of the Deadhead community. He closes out 2014 next week with a three-night Ashkenaz engagment, exploring different facets of the Dead constellation.
The run opens Wednesday with Stu Allen and the Spike Drivers featuring Sandy Rothman, Brian Godchaux and Murph Murphy. The band formed in January to “explore the old-timey music that the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band was doing,” Allen says. “We branch out from there a little bit and bring that sound to some other tunes.”
On Thursday, he performs with the Reflections, a group that plays plugged in Garcia Band material, and on Friday he returns to the Dead with Mars Hotel.
“Spike Drivers is the only one with a consistent line up,” Allen said. “I put the Reflections and Mars Hotel line ups together from the same pool of guys on the scene. There are about 20 bass players,” including Robin Sylvester, a longtime member of Bob Weir’s RatDog, and Reed Mathis, who gained renown as a member of Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and now plays with Tea Leaf Green.
“Some guys really into the Dead thing, and some guys are really good players and who also like the Dead,” Allen said. “There are nights where a guy like Reed Mathis comes in he’s blowing lead over the changes while I’m singing. It’s all in service of the music.”
Hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, Allen saw his first Dead show as a high school student in 1989 (April 9 at Freedom Hall). By the time the band closed down in 1995 following Garcia’s death, he had taken in 99 shows. His first experience in a band devoted to the Dead’s music was in Minneapolis, where he spent four years with The Jones Gang.
A stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston gave him a firm foundation in music theory, and when he got a call in 2004 to tour with former Jerry Garcia Band organist Melvin Seals he was ready. The gig paved the way for his move to the Bay Area, and Allen spent seven years on the road with the Seals, which opened up the door to the Dead’s world and showed him the ropes of how a touring band works.
These days his various Dead configurations keep him mostly in the Bay Area. When Mars Hotel included two drummers Allen usually used the Dead’s concert template, with a percussion interlude transitioning into ethereal free form improvisation by the band (known to Heads as “Drums” and “Space”).
He’s dropped that format since Mars Hotel mostly features one drummer these days (“After a while with one drummer it seemed more like a drum solo than a drum jam,” Allen says) but he still borrows the band’s approach to constructing a set, opening and closing with songs the Dead usually opened and closed with, and reserving an early slot for a blues. He even parcels out certain tunes that became famous in Dead circles rarely being played.
“I used to do it for that effect, withholding songs,” Allen says. “If there’s a really difficult tune I’ve got to make sure everybody playing in the band that night knows it, and knows the same version. Sometimes if I have a group together that I know can pull it off we’ll do it. I do pay a lot of attention to what we’re playing show to show. Someone can come every week and won’t hear a repeat for four weeks. You’ve got to have some songs you withhold, so that on a given night you drop something really rare, and that becomes the gem.”
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