April 21 – 23 2023 Ventura California. By Andy J. Gordon

The Grateful Dead performed eleven noteworthy shows at The Ventura County Fairgrounds from 1982 to 1987. That sacred ground reverted back to the Dead vibe this weekend as thousands of original and retro-hippies, dressed in tie dye, ratty jeans, feathers and psychedelia, converged for the multi-day Skull & Roses festival. The event has become an April tradition over the past several years, except when the pandemic stopped all live shows. The 2023 affair featured several bands whose members have connections to the original lineup as well as talented musicians who developed an appreciation and expertise in interpreting the Dead’s music. The highly anticipated headliners Oteil & Friends and Phil & Friends were the highlights of the weekend.

With a huge catalog of Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir tunes to choose from, the various band performances went deep and took interesting turns. Latin Dead, with John Kadlecik on guitar, added Hispanic infused percussion and a three part horn section to create an appealing twist on the music. Big Steve & The Assbites were led by Steve Parish (Jerry Garcia’s guitar tech, Dead roadie and JGB manager). Jay Lane (who will likely replace drummer Bill Kreutzmann on the Dead & Company final tour) was like a utility infielder at S&R, sitting in with multiple bands, including on drums and keys with the Assbites.

Full Gallery of Photos by Andy J. Gordon here.

Grateful Shred featured Adam MacDougall on keys and Dan Horne on bass. Their versions of “Alabama Getaway” and “Dancing in the Street,” which were covered a few times by bands during the festival, were the best of the weekend. Both MacDougall and Horne also played a satisfying, all instrumental set with Circles Around the Sun. Electric Waste Band had the distinction of having the world’s tallest percussionist on stage with them. Legendary NBA Hall of Famer and well known deadhead Bill Walton sat in on congas.

Oteil Burbridge (bassist for Dead & Company and Allman Brothers Band) gathered friends Duane Betts, Steve Kimock, John Morgan Kimock, Melvin Seals and Lamar Williams Jr. to perform an eclectic Thursday night closing show. Unlike most of the bands at S&R, Oteil & Friends ventured away from the purely Dead catalog and played other tunes with a similar vibe. Their version of the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s “Garden of Eden” was excellent, particularly the interplay on guitar between Steve Kimock and Duane Betts. The band also played “Blue Sky,” the Allman Brothers Band song written by Dickie Betts and sung at S&R by his son Duane.

Phil Lesh put together an all-star lineup for the Saturday and Sunday night headlining shows. Grahame Lesh, Duane Betts, Jason Crosby, John Molo, Jennifer Hartswick, James Casey and Natalie Cressman delivered fantastic versions of the storied Dead catalog. With six vocalists including the Trey Anastasio Band horn players, the performances were sensational. Lesh is 83, but he looked vibrant, played with energy and his stamina to perform three hour shows was shocking.

Grahame Lesh and Duane Betts traded impressive, Garcia-like guitar solos. Jason Crosby was wonderful on keys and broke out his violin for a foot stomping rendition of “Cumberland Blues.” The band also produced exceptional interpretations of “Terrapin Station,” “Jack Straw” and Franklin’s Tower.” The harmonizing during Jack Straw was outstanding. Hartswick, Grahame and Phil Lesh each sang verses on Franklin’s Tower.

Skull & Roses brought together throngs of hippies, twirlers, toddlers, Gen-Xers, Millennials and Social Security eligible Baby Boomers who all enjoyed the classic music. The festival recreated a community vibe of beautiful music, peace and love that is a rare thing in today’s world. We cannot wait for next year’s edition to enjoy a celebration of all things Grateful Dead.

April 22 Phil Lesh and Friends

Set 1:
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo

Liberty

Althea

Cassidy

Bird Song

Deal

Set 2:
Help on the Way

Playing in the Band
(>) Terrapin Station

Cumberland Blues

Jack Straw

Slipknot!
(>) Franklin’s Tower

Encore:
Ripple

Note: With Duane Betts, Jason Crosby, John Molo, Grahame Lesh, James Casey, Jennifer Hartswick, and Natalie Cressman

April 23 Phil Lesh and Friends:

Jessica
Mason’s Children
St. Stephen
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed
China Cat Sunflower
(>) Shakedown Street
(>) New Speedway Boogie
Viola Lee Blues (Cannon’s Jug Stompers cover)
Blue Sky
Encore Set
The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)
Brokedown Palace
I Know You Rider ([traditional] cover)
Sugar Magnolia

Photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon ©2023

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