Gary James' Interview With Tom Wright Of
the Jerry Garcia tribute band
Cats Under The Stars
There are Grateful Dead tribute bands and then there are Jerry Garcia tribute bands. Cats Under The Stars is a Jerry Garcia tribute band. Tom Wright portrays Jerry Garcia in that band.
Q - Tom, how much of a demand is there for a Jerry Garcia tribute band?
A - Well, you know we don't specialize as much as we did. We kind of carved a niche with that. But then, it was really fun and it's still fun to do the songs. I find that there is a pretty good demand for it. It's not as familiar as the name The Grateful Dead. When you shout that or put an ad out with that, it might just go past a lot of people's heads, but the really hard core, dedicated fan, they're intrigued by it. They want to see something other than just the standard Grateful Dead.
Q - But, when it comes to advertising a gig for Cats Under The Stars, they will put Jerry Garcia tribute band underneath that, right?
A - Exactly. The thing that happened is after doing that for about four years and just a really rewarding experience, really getting to dig in. While being a little more obscure, at the same time the music is a little more accessible. If someone was just a random person walking by outside the venue, hearing some of it, it'd be like, "Oh, yeah. I remember this song from growing up." They'd hear more of a conventional R&B grooves and Reggae grooves as opposed to the melting your face off Grateful Dead psychedelia.
Q - I recall seeing The Grateful Dead in 1978 and they did a great rendition of of Martha And The Vandellas' "Dancing In The Streets".
A - Oh, right. That when they were doing that Disco arrangement.
Q - Jerry Garcia really did a nice job with his rhythm guitar playing.
A - Yeah. That had like that whole breakdown thing at the end. In the late '70s they had this arrangement that had this funky Disco beat to it and they added this really complicated jam at the end, but people love it, yeah. (laughs) We've done that arrangement a couple of times.
Q - How many people in your group?
A - There's five. There were four and then when we decided about a year ago to get back into doing Grateful Dead, we added on the second guitar and singer to do the Bob Weir stuff.
Q - How often do you work?
A - We play on average about twice a month, something like that. There's quite a bit of competition in our market which is Portland (Oregon), which in not really that huge of a market, (laughs) but there's a lot of musicians who are doing music.
Q - So, you almost have to travel then, don't you?
A - Yes. We tend to try and get down to Eugene and southern Oregon just to get a fresh audience. It's much easier to get a packed room without wondering how many other bands are sharing basically the same market on the same night.
Q - How long have you been active in Cats Under The Stars?
A - Well, Cats Under The Stars started as kind of a side project of an earlier Grateful Dead tribute group which was called Ramblin' Rose. That went from about 2001 to 2010. And 2010 is when Cats Under The Stars started as kind of, "You know what? Nobody is doing a Jerry Garcia band." You'd see people throw in one song out of fifteen in the night. So Ramblin' Rose had just gone through a bunch of personal changes. I was basically the only original one left at that point, so I kind of just decided it's time for a re-do.
Q - Is there a conscious attempt to go on stage looking like the people you're portraying?
A - We don't. That's something I don't really see happening in Grateful Dead tributes, maybe 'cause there's so many of them. Maybe part of it was The Dead themselves didn't have much of an on stage persona going on. They'd come out there in their street clothes. Jerry would be in like a black t-shirt. Bill would be in a flannel shirt. (laughs) Bobby would look like he just came from jogging. (laughs) I've seen a couple of guys that vaguely resembled Jerry who happen to play in groups. My silvery beard is actually starting to grow out pretty well and I started wearing glasses two years ago. I'm starting to morph a little bit (laughs)
Q - Have you always been in Portland?
A - No. I came out of Chicago, which is where I spent about the first thirty years of my life. One of my first performing bands was in a band with John Kadlecik, who was the former guitarist of Further and Dark Star Orchestra. We were in about three different groups together for ten years and then when our last group split up we both went off without knowing each other's plans, went off to form Dead tributes. He pretty much got to all the guys I wanted before I did and formed Dark Star Orchestra. I got my group together about six months later I think, but by that time they had become a really overnight, explosive success story, like the real kings of Grateful Dead tributes. So, at that point I started thinking maybe I should start a band in a different city somewhere. (laughs) My wife at the time had been wanting to move to the West Coast. So we just decided to do it, to pull up our roots and start again in Portland. I wound up forming a band within a few weeks, just meeting many more great musicians who were into doing the same thing.
Q - Did you ever meet Jerry Garcia?
A - I never met Jerry Garcia. I met Phil Lesh once and I met Mickey Hart once. We played with Jerry's keyboardist Melvin Seals. We did three shows with him in 2012 and three shows in 2013 and I've got plans to get him back up here (Portland) again. I've just been too busy with family, house and stuff like that.
Q - Have you shared the bill with Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart?
A - No. I have not shared the bill with any of the actual Grateful Dead members. We had Melvin Seals play with us. We've shared a bill with the David Nelson Band.
Q - Did you tell Phil Lesh you portray Jerry Garcia in a Jerry Garcia tribute band?
A - When I met Phil Lesh it was back during The Grateful Dead tour. It was during the Summer tour of 1989. It was on a day off between the shows in Manhattan and I was with my girlfriend and her mother at the Museum Of Modern Art. We were in the Impressionistic exhibit and in walks Phil in his jogging shorts and a white t-shirt. (laughs) I'm just standing there and he just kind of sidles up next to me in front of a Monet. So, I just kind of said, "Phil!" I was kind of like the standard star struck fan. "I love your music, thank you so much. I'll leave you alone now because you obviously weren't planning on running into any fans at the museum."
Q - It just goes to show you never know who you'll run into around the corner!
A - Yeah.
Q - Some tribute groups will seek out an official stamp of approval from the artist whose music they're playing. Have you tried to do that and what would it mean for Cats Under The Stars?
A - I've never actually sought it out. I'm Facebook friends with Jerry's Daughter, Trixie. I'm sure she's got hundreds of fan friends that she doesn't know personally. Her mother, Mountain Girl, was Jerry's wife and actually heard our group, an early version of our group at a festival near Portland. It was after the official stage had ended. We were kind of a side stage. She was leading I think kind of a yoga group, maybe a hundred yards away. She had her own like P.A. going, talking to the people she was leading through these exercises. She heard our group start up and someone reported this to me later; they said, "Oh yeah, Mountain Girl said over the microphone 'You hear that sound? I sure miss that sound!'" We were close enough to make her feel like it sounded like Jerry.
Q - That's kind of like an un-official endorsement.
A - (laughs) Yeah. I took it as such. When Melvin's manager got in touch with me to tell me he was interested in playing some shows with us, that was really the big moment! Wow! That's Jerry's right-hand man, the guy who actually played the keyboards on dozens of songs they were doing. So, that was kind of my high moment in my career. I plan on having Melvin Seals come back and do some shows with us probably this Fall (2015).