Although the Grateful Dead effectively disbanded in 1995 following the death of founding member Jerry Garcia, a community that often refers to itself as the “SoCal Deadheads” was just getting started. After 21 years of sharing potlucks, carpools, charity benefits and live music experiences, the SoCal Deadheads are a diverse community gathering weekly throughout Southern California to celebrate jam band music.
The SoCal Deadhead “scene” began in earnest in 1987, when guitarist Craig Marshall and his friends felt that the Grateful Dead didn’t play enough in Southern California. Marshall formed Cubensis, a tribute band that has been “Keeping the Dead Alive” ever since.
Cubensis now frequently performs several nights a week throughout Southern California. As the band’s calendar and community grew over the years, annual gigs began celebrating April Fool’s Day, Garcia’s birthday (Aug. 1), Halloween and New Year’s Eve, among others.
The event now billed as the “Cubensis Annual Thanksgiving Feast and Concert” began in 2005 in Santa Monica at the now-defunct 14 Below. According to retired Universal Studios employee dining room chef Dan Marra, he and Cubensis graphic designer Darrin Brenner wanted to host a benefit for a friend with cancer.
“I did all of the cooking for it from home in the days leading up to it," says Marra, speaking at this year's Thanksgiving event, now held at the Mint. "I think I did eight or nine turkeys and side dishes. And a few people brought some side dishes as a potluck. We took over 14 Below. Completely occupied the place with the dinner. And we started something.”
Marra volunteered his time and talent every year, watching the event grow in size and eventually move to the Mint. It became a benefit for the Rex Foundation, an organization founded in 1983 as a charitable arm of “members of the Grateful Dead and friends,” which supports various social, artistic, indigenous and environmental causes.
Several years ago, Marra was diagnosed with a brain tumor, forcing him to dramatically cut back his involvement. A dedicated group of volunteers stepped up, organized by community pillar Steve Mark Ex. Ex leads a group of up to 40 volunteers to cook and prepare a communal meal for approximately 120 guests.
The SoCal Deadheads social circle includes engineers, scientists, ironworkers, business owners, medical professionals, teachers and artists of all stripes — busy people, but Ex never has trouble finding volunteers to donate their time, even on a holiday weekend. “It’s the one time that we really get together as a huge group," he says. "It’s over the holidays, which makes it special. It’s just a time to share warmth and be thankful for each other.”
During the concert portion of the event, attendees are invited to donate $20 to the Rex Foundation to “sit in” with Cubensis, singing and/or playing their instrument of choice on any song in the band’s nearly 4,000-song repertoire.
The show filled the Mint with a great mix of excitement, nerves and joy throughout the evening, as more than 30 guest musicians and singers took the stage. While each performer had different levels of experience, all of them were endearing in different ways. Fourth-grade teacher Cathy Hackett first sang “The Music Never Stopped” in 2007, and was met with such acclaim that she now sings lead vocals for SoCal bands Dead to the Core, Baked Not Fried and Family Tree. This year, in addition to volunteering her day and making marshmallow yams, she opted to sing Deadhead favorite “Brokedown Palace.”
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One of the most moving performances of the night was a cover of Warren Haynes' "Soulshine" played by commercial real estate broker Ben Karmelich on guitar and his girlfriend, Cyndi McGregor, on lead vocal. Karmelich has made a lifestyle out of forming bands and producing shows in the scene, ranging from acoustic campfire hootenannies in Hermosa Beach to marathon psychedelic rock shows in Reseda. When I asked Karmelich why it was important for him to be performing music in bars and restaurants with different bands so frequently, he said, “I love that I have these friends. And I want to see them play. It’s just a great time.”
In an act of immersion journalism, I took the stage to try my hand at “Werewolves of London,” the Warren Zevon hit that the Grateful Dead performed occasionally. While I was nervous to be performing in front of an audience of professional musicians and live-music devotees, I found the experience incredibly adrenaline-fueled and cathartic, and felt the profound and genuine support that courses through the Deadhead community.
For those interested in the Grateful Dead and the SoCal Deadheads community, Karmelich is one of several people, along with Cubensis manager Hugo Arias, who have earned reputations as being a sort of “welcome wagon” for those new to the scene. Laura Dennison and Aaron Taylor, married co-owners of the Holistic Natural Healing Dispensary in Wilmington, also enjoy welcoming newcomers. They spoke with me at length about the pride they take in knowing their employees, patients and friends all intermingle in their chosen community. Dennison said her favorite thing about the scene is “the smiles on everybody’s faces that the music brings.”
Cubensis is now in the middle of a prolific December, leading up to a New Year’s Eve show at the Best Western Golden Sails Hotel in Long Beach. With South Bay’s Grampas Grass opening, and Chazzy “The Funky Sax Man” Green and former Cubensis member Alex Jordan sitting in, it promises to be a fitting way to kick off the 30th anniversary of Cubensis and another music-filled year for the SoCal Deadheads.