Following recent performances by the Deadbeats and Jerry Duty, Stu Allen’s two-night stand at the Crazy Horse Saloon completed a dazzling trifecta of Grateful Dead tributes. Our venue has established lofty standards when it comes to strolling down that golden road of primal nostalgia. The guitarist/vocalist is one of those guys who exists slightly under the mainstream radar, but his reputation amongst the faithful is unparalleled. This is largely due to his previous contributions to bands such as Melvin Seals’ JGB and Dark Star Orchestra. These days in the Bay Area, Mars Hotel gigs are a weekly fixture. For anyone who really loves Jerry Garcia, seeing Stu Allen play is something of a sacred experience.
If you’re going to have a Grateful Dead cover band, you’re off to a damn good start calling it Mars Hotel. Named after the Dead’s 1974 album, excellence is a given. The overriding factor making Mars Hotel unique is its revolving cast of collaborators. The same lineup is rarely ever repeated. But you can guarantee that whoever lands onstage with Allen is ready to rise to the occasion. When bassist Murph Murphy flowed through the front door, it was apparent we were in for even more than we bargained for. Murphy made his Crazy Horse debut several months before with a jazz, funk-fusion trio called High Beamz, and left a smoking crater of an impression. Looking like he could play a role in the Bourne Identity series, the dude is a bass assassin for hire.
On drums was another familiar rainmaker in Erin Cassidy who has played the Horse a couple times with Americana rock band Lonesome Locomotive. Donning his signature top hat, Bay Area keyboard veteran, Jordan Feinstein, was an integral component; both musically and personality-wise. To categorize Mars Hotel as a “Dead Cover Band” is a bit of a cop out. Technically it’s true, but what they do is anything but a rehashing of the past. From the moment they exploded into “Shakedown Street” to open the show, this was readily apparent. Here we had a Steal-Your-Face Ferrari red-lining it around a race track. A pack of alpha wolves not content to let dinner come to them. A laser-focused unit, tempered by a playful swagger.
Feinstein’s leads smoldered in the mix. His brazen, funky approach separating Mars Hotel from the norm. His vocals also served as a welcome change of pace at various points on rockers like “Hard to Handle” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy;” the latter informed with obvious reverence for Brent Mydland. Through every song, Murphy dominated the bottom end with that freeform Phil Lesh type of soloing Deadheads covet. Yet his grooves were so compact and aggressive, they stretched the boundaries of sonic physics. Cassidy gave everything he had to keep the pocket intact, while having fun hanging loose. He was beaming with infectious joy.
The sold out saloon was cozy, but never seemed too crowded because so many people were dancing and melding their movements synchronistically. The vibe was oozing with gratitude as Allen and Co. busted out one favorite after the next. A first set highlight was “Althea” which perfectly encapsulated the guitarist/vocalist’s X-factor for interpreting the hardcore Garcia nuggets with his incendiary gifts. The ultimate heart-stopping moments came deep in the second set as one would expect. Many have covered “Eyes of the World,” but few are bold enough to challenge themselves with the “Stronger than Dirt” coda section which the Dead only played in ’73 and ’74. One would expect nothing less from Allen. He pushed his intrepid bandmates further and further toward the edge of the cliff; glancing fearlessly into the abyss while maintaining total control. This was double black diamond territory and super commendable for the quartet to tackle.
Even with seasoned Dead cover bands, many don’t dare tread on Garcia ballads. They know there’s a good chance they are just setting themselves and the crowd up for a let-down. It’s an all or none proposition. Quite simply, very few have the talent to pull it off. Surely there wasn’t a single doubt in the room that Allen was confident as a hero gunslinger at high noon. When it comes to all the Garcia ballads, “Morning Dew” is the fifth element. With the bar chatter faded into the periphery, the crowd stood mesmerized as the Crazy Horse was transformed into a sanctuary. At no time over the two nights did Allen tap in more directly to the Garcia pipeline of raw emotion. One could taste the impending pain of the apocalypse the song alludes to, the heavy burden the singer carries and his desire to convince himself (and us), “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.” The final solo arrived and we all got hosed clean with those fanning torrents of notes which distinguish a transcendent “Dew.”
Capping off the ride with the quintessential “let’s bring it home and unite as one” Deadhead anthem, “Not Fade Away,” the Crazy Horse audience was given the opportunity to express decisively just how moved they really were. Exactly like some of us used to do in arenas and stadiums, we clapped in rhythm, emphatically chanting the refrain well after the band left the stage: “You know our love will not fade away!” Those fortunate enough to have seen the Dead realized this was as close as one could hope to get at this given time and space. There’s something really special about carrying the torch of glories long past, while doing it with such vibrancy, freshness and conviction.