Roger Sideman—China Cats

My first musical memories were at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, near where I grew up. My family would go several nights every summer from the time I was a newborn. Ravinia is a magical place. Most people picnic on a big lawn in the trees.  The stage and pavilion are out of view. The music is piped onto the lawn. Groups sit around in circles and really listen, especially on classical music nights. It is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  That’s mostly what I saw as a little kid.  

Roger Sideman—Photograph © Jay Blakesberg

I first connected with Grateful Dead music in junior high when a family friend loaned us a trove of his reject tapes – hundreds of bootlegs that he didn’t consider worthy enough to keep in his active rotation. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.  One of those shows (6/24/70 Port Chester) was recorded from the balcony with a handheld mic. This didn’t sound “good” by any objective measures, with the sound booming and echoing off all the walls of the Capitol Theater.  But to me it sounded kind of holy.  It was a portal that put me there in the balcony, entranced by the dark magic of it all.  Those eerie transitions with Mickey’s gongs and other weird sounds, the guy next to me clearly having a mystical experience, his jubilation when they leave “Attics of My Life” and go back into “Dark Star” for the third time!   

Right around this time my mom started taking me to Dead shows.  My first show was 1993, so this was a very different band from what’s on that old tape. But the freedom was still there, not just in the music but in the scene.  At my first show I remember looking up into the stands from the bottom of Soldier Field and seeing literally thousands of people dancing – like really boogying. I was blown away by the sight of it, by the energy of the crowd.   It definitely made an impression. 

I started to enjoy dancing at shows, and later at a Dead dance night in Santa Cruz.  Music serves all these important functions in our lives – joy, meaning, ritual, community – but I still see the Dead as a dance band, first.  Well, okay dance isn’t really separate from those things.  But I think dance greatly informs my style of playing the bass.  I probably gravitate towards playing what would make me dance in a given moment.  Or I might put out phrases that’ll encourage others in the band to “dance around” their expected parts. As drummers know best, performing and dancing are not all that different from each other. 

My beginnings as a player include a funny coincidence. My first real music teacher was the school teacher, Carol Lesh Mann, who is Phil’s first cousin. She went by Mrs. Mann when I had her; she later went back to being called Mrs. Lesh.   She was my trumpet and chorus teacher from 5th to 8th grade.  Playing trumpet, John Williams medleys were fun, I think we performed Star Wars->Jurassic Park.  Nice of them to throw the kids some red meat.  When asked about her famous cousin, Mrs. Mann would always give the same stock response:  “He doesn’t come to my concerts, I don’t go to his.”  First time I met Phil was in line at his book signing. This was years before China Cats.   I brought him a copy of Mrs. Mann’s retirement announcement in the school district newsletter.  He was fascinated to read about his musical cousin and to talk about the family tree. 

I picked up the bass when I was 15.  I loved feeling the sound in my chest, and the role bass plays in a band as a mediator between rhythm and harmony.  In high school and college, I wanted to carve out some time for music so I took a couple theory classes, and did an independent study course that ended with Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 3” transposed for electric bass.  My first band was after college with Charles Henry Paul, a great singer-songwriter based now in Marin County.  We played bars and house concerts with Devil Makes Three, who were just starting out in Santa Cruz.   In yet another case of incredible coincidence, Charley and I discovered after a year of playing together that our grandfathers were very good friends in Chicago.  I found a photo of myself hanging out with his grandpa when I was a kid!  

China Cats—Photograph © Jay Blakesberg

China Cats were originally called Dough Knees, a questionable wordplay on the song “Don’t Ease Me In.”    I first met (rhythm guitarist) Scott Cooper through a friend.  I think our mutual friend just wanted to help these two fanatics feel less lonely in their fandom. I don’t know if either of us were looking to start a cover band.  We started jamming in living rooms, eventually grew to a 5-piece, and shifted the personnel around.  We have had the same lineup since 2010.  The consistency is good.  In the Bay Area, the majority of GD shows feature rotating lineups from night to night, billed under the name of the leader “and Friends.”   I’ve done a lot of these shows and I absolutely love the spontaneity that comes from playing with new or different players. But there’s something special about playing these songs over time with the same crew. China Cats have a lot of energy and we can explore well-traveled places with confidence, and make things feel new.   Folks have told us they appreciate that we don’t muddle through the more constructed parts.  With the Dead’s reputation as a jam band it’s easy to forget how much of the music is really quite arranged.

Our best and worst shows? China Cats never had any calamities like the Dead at Woodstock or anything.  I think the worst night was an HVAC convention at the Metreon in San Francisco.   Not one soul listened – or even looked at us all night.  Some of the best nights have been the ones serving as the backup band for musical heroes like Melvin Seals.  Donna Jean Godchaux joined us for a show. That was a huge treat, even for just her stories alone.  Other highlights of mine include Jerry Day in San Francisco with Stu Allen, and performing with Joe Craven. Joe played several instruments on all the Garcia/Grisman stuff. I played for a couple years with him. He instills a lot more rigor and discipline than your average hippie musician. Then again, there’s nothing average about Joe. I grew a lot from playing with him. 

Another highlight was, honestly, last year’s Skull & Roses. where I was, thanks to the generosity of its current owner, able to play one of Phil Lesh’s basses. I was excited because this was Phil’s first Ken Smith bass, the one he played during the first half of 1990, the one heard on most of Without A Net.  The Dead was at one its absolute peaks during this period, and this album gave me another one of those epiphany moments when I was younger. I remember listening to the “Eyes of the World.”   In that recording you can hear in amazing detail all the interplay between members, Phil’s bottomless musical imagination, the unpredictability, and the freedom.   I said to myself, “That is something I need to try.”  

The bass was like a time capsule, it hadn’t been played since 1990. Even the strings hadn’t been changed.  I will say it’s a challenge when you put 30-year-old strings in the midday sun on a 90-degree day.  It was hard work keeping it in tune.   But even so, it was like a revelation. It sounded so familiar, and it’s just an incredibly fine, well-built instrument. It coaxes you into playing better. And maybe into dropping more bass bombs too!  That was a lot of fun.  After our set, the bass went back on display with a bunch of Jerry and Bob’s guitars.  The entire Dusty Strings exhibit at the festival was a beautiful thing. 

See China Cats at Skull & Roses Festival—Buy Passes here!