VISTA CRUISING

By Ron Lancia

Vista Cruising Volume XI: Grateful Shred’s Zephaniah OHora

Ernest Hemingway’s advice to a writer is clear—start with the truest sentence you know—so here goes: 

Grateful Shred are very serious about their craft. 

As a devotee of Jehovah’s favorite choir for 35 years, I’ve seen every incarnation imaginable when it comes to this music of ours post-Garcia: each Dead redux, various side projects from the remaining members of the quintessential quintet, tribute acts, cover bands, ad infinitum. I haven’t been this all-in on a band reinterpreting the Grateful Dead in quite some time, if ever. 

I caught up with one of this group of musician’s musicians, Grateful Shred guitarist and vocalist “Zeph” OHora. 

You have one of the most original names I’ve ever heard—

My name originates from the book of Zephaniah in the Bible. Zephaniah was an Old Testament Minor Prophet who wrote about the end times. And, my last name is Irish, so it’s a very unusual combo.

It is a very unusual combo, and take this as a compliment, but you look too young to have seen Jerry Garcia. Is that safe to assume?

Yeah, totally. And I hate to say it, but that’s the truth.

Zeph OHora

No, it’s an age thing, which is a good thing. Do you remember the first time you saw one of the original band members, like a Phil or Bobby project?

I saw Further a bunch of times around 2009. They might have been The Dead before that, but that was pretty awesome. I saw them a handful of times in the Philly area where my older brother lives and my older brother basically is the person…it’s the classic setup of your older brother getting you into the Dead and that’s exactly what happened. So, he used to send me CDs in the very early 2000s…and actually, the first one he sent me was Ladies and Gentlemen… the Grateful Dead, that [4/29/71] Fillmore East show, the “Alligator” > “Drums” >”Jam” Sandwich in there and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” That was my first moment of being like, “Oh, shit. I like whatever this is.”

I’m also from Philadelphia and GD music was a hand-me-down from older people as well. That seems to be a common theme there.

Yeah, that’s a big theme in Philly, and my older brother actually lived in San Francisco at the turn of the ’80s into the ’90s, and he was there for about a decade. So, he actually saw The Grateful Dead a bunch of times and saw Jerry Band all the time at the Warfield and all the way up until the end. He was actually at Jerry’s memorial in Golden Gate Park. So, he’s got some crazy stories. I was always hearing those stories once I became of age and…then the first footage I ever really saw was probably the closing of Winterland. He had gotten that maybe when it first came out or something, and he lived in Brooklyn, New York where I had just moved. 

Is Brooklyn where your music career started?

I was booking a place called Skinny Dennis, which is a bar that’s been open for about a decade in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and it just became really popular and a lot of live music was happening every night of the week there. I was the guy in charge of the music so I just started to meet a lot of musicians. Some of the best New York musicians were hanging out playing jazz, but they could also play country and other things like that. So, I eventually talked a few of those guys into letting me front a band with them, and then I started playing with Jim Campilongo. I was a big fan of his, once I started seeing him in New York. So, from there, long story short, I started playing more seriously because I was with such serious players.

And obviously, you weren’t playing Grateful Dead Music at that point?

No, it was all country, and I was really deep into country. I’d gotten introduced to it by Neil Young and Bob Dylan, hearing pedal steel stuff on their recordings, and then naturally getting into Gram Parsons and The Byrds, but I was always trying to find that country music sound. I wanted to find more of that, and then I realized I just needed to go listen to actual country music and not just ’60s rock bands, which I love. I was also getting pretty heavily into The Dead, and that’s also why I think I really was drawn to Jim[Campilongo]’s playing, because he’s from San Francisco. He’s a guitar player, and something about people from there or whatever, I don’t know what it is. I mean, [Grateful Shred bassist extraordinaire and founding member] Dan Horne’s from the Bay Area too. So, the way Jim plays is in the universe, in the realm of Jerry. It’s hard to explain. So, I think that was some kind of connection to it. At that time period, I was just playing straight covers of old ’60s country stuff.

Austin McCutchen and Zeph Ohora

Do you handle the country material when it comes to Grateful Shred? Or do you and [Grateful Shred guitarist and vocalist and founding member] Austin [McCutchen] split it up?

Me and Austin split it up because I knew Austin from the Skinny Dennis days when he lived in New York, and he also worked at another bar that was like a sister bar of Skinny Dennis. So, I knew him all the way back in 2008 or 2009, somewhere around there. He was always fronting killer country bands and had his own band The Velvet Bone Breakers that I used to book at Skinny Dennis, before he moved out to LA. 

And then we decided to make this record, my second record, and so by that point, me and [Shred lead guitarist] John [Shannon] had been playing. We’d been playing for years at the bar that I booked and various other places. So, we had hundreds of hours logged playing music together. He was just like my right-hand man as far as coming up with great guitar parts and stuff for my songs. And we co-wrote some of the tunes together as well. So, then we all just became really tight with [guitarist and founding member of Circles Around the Sun] Neal [Casal] making that record, and then, of course, Neal passed away a short time after we finished that record. So, we’ve been through a lot together and played a lot together. And John through his connection with Neal and those guys went on to join Circles. 

Joe Shannon and Dan Horne

So the core of Grateful Shred was Austin McCutchen and Dan Horne?

I think Austin Beade who plays drums as well was drumming for them pretty much since day one or very early on. And Alex Koford came in about a year and a half before I did.

I first saw you guys at one of your earlier gigs, the Pappy and Harriet’s gig in Joshua Tree.

We did one spring tour before that. It was still pretty early on because we did two weeks or whatever in April, and then we took a week or so off, and then we came back and did Pappy’s. So, it was probably my 20th show.

I’ve been seeing Jerry and The Dead since 1990 and all of Phil and Bobby’s projects since, and about 30 seconds into the first song, I look over at my friends and we’re all grinning from ear-to-ear, and I knew that there was something special about Grateful Shred. After two nights at Pappy’s, I’m a lifetime fan. And since then, I’ve noticed the impact of John as your new guitarist.

Well, I’ve known John for almost as long as I’ve known Austin [McCutchen], maybe as long. So, I knew John from a mutual job that we had together back in basically 2009 or 2010, and then we became pals, but he wasn’t really playing much music, but I knew he was a great guitar player because we’d hang out and play guitars while we were partying or whatever late at night. Then once I started getting more serious with my music, I had him play on my first record, but he just played acoustic rhythm, country style, like ’60s, ’70s country style acoustic guitar that’s just like a texture over everything. And then we made my second record, and that was produced by Neal Casal. So, I had met Neal before that and became friendly with him, and I was a fan.

So, then John’s been with [Shred’s virtuoso keyboardist Adam MacDougal’s and Dan Horne’s] Circles Around the Sun ever since that, and then we were still just trying to find the right lineup for Shred and naturally it just made sense. I’ve shared the stage with John many, many times and he is now playing in Circles with Adam and Dan and they’re all tight, and it’s like me and Austin [McCutchen] are longtime friends, and then I love Alex Koford. We really get along well and I love Austin [Beade]. It’s like we’re actually all friends and have a lot of hours logged playing together in separate things. So, that’s why I feel like that’s why the chemistry’s really good.

Adam MacDougal

The chemistry is amazing and as a fan, that’s what it feels like when you see Shred. We don’t see behind the scenes.

It’s authentic because we’ve actually all been playing together. So, it’s like the more you play with someone, the more you understand their body language and there’re little cues, visual cues that are subconscious. It’s not the same as the Dead where they all lived in the same house together and were all in their early 20s and grew up together, but it’s as close as you might be able to get to that in this day and age. 

I have never seen a more humble and unassuming group of guys. There just doesn’t seem to be a hint of ego—I mean, obviously, everybody has an ego and you’re playing music—–but it just seems like the way you guys share the stage, I’ve never really seen anything like it.

It’s very professional and everyone I think understands their role. I’ve had my own career on some level, like pretty substantially in my own little world. So, I’ve done many of those shows where John’s playing guitar and I’ve got my band I’m paying, and it’s just naturally the dynamic of that is I’m the guy in charge and I’m not really good at being in charge because I don’t really like to have conflict and I like to just everything to work well together. But that creates a different dynamic and it’s a different kind of music where you’re not stretching it out. It’s just a whole different thing. 

Zeph OHora

I’ve loved what I’ve heard from you as a singer/songwriter. You have two of your own records.

I released one in 2017, and that was produced by Jim Campilongo, and he played all the guitar on that. So, that’s my first professional thing put out into the world, and the second one Neal produced, that came out in 2020, so it was supposed to come out, and then the pandemic revved up, but I just thought, “Let’s just put it out anyway.” So, we didn’t want to wait any longer and it got a little delayed because it was like we finished the record and then all those things just take a long time and cost a lot of money, and I’m paying for it out of my own pocket mostly or crowdfunding, and then Neal passed away. So, for a little while, I didn’t even know if I was going to release this thing because it was just too hard to deal with, but then we felt, “We have to release it.”

So, on that second album, Casal is producing it and you’re playing on it, and is Casal playing on it too or is he just producing?

Neal plays on a couple songs. He plays acoustic guitar on the title track called “Listening to the Music” and a couple other songs and he’s sang on a lot of the songs, like backgrounds, harmonies—-which he’s amazing at—-and he played some electric guitar and a couple things, just like overdub and cool rhythms. But all the lead stuff John Shannon played because it was his moment to show and present himself as the lead guitar guy in this project. So, he had all this stuff, really great parts, just really dialed in, so it was a pretty great experience doing that.

I know when I bumped into you the other night, you mentioned it was a one-off kind of a thing, but do you have any comment at all on that version of “France” [from the 1978 LP Shakedown Street] that you guys pulled off at the Troubadour in LA a couple months back?

I just thought the timing of it was very fitting because they were in the World Cup. Part of it was also just having [vocalist and harpist] Mikaela [Davis] in town. We did a bunch of songs that are Donna-centric and having someone singing the female parts made it possible to do songs like that. So, I think that was just the other drive to do that. We have this person who is amazing involved at these shows, so let’s do that song because I don’t think they’ve ever done that live?

I have personally never heard it covered by anyone and I went back and listened to it later and I was just astonished at how well that you guys pulled that off. Is that something you sit down and you rehearse all together? How many times had you played it before you played it live?

Not many times, and we definitely have to have some rehearsals, but they’re loose. I really like rehearsing and I really like working stuff out, but everybody’s different with that. So, it’s like you only have everyone’s attention and energy on so many things that it might be, “Alright, we’ve got the idea of that,” but it’s probably going to take a couple shows of playing it before we really even get into that space. So, that just happens a lot with this band because there’s such a large catalog. For example, I think the first time we did “Here Comes Sunshine” was at the Troubadour, which actually was really good. So, this last time we played at Belly Up, it was only the second time. So, it’s just the kind of thing where by the 10th time we play it, everyone will feel like, “Yeah, we got it.” It’s always like you never really know what to expect and this might be great, and it might be challenging and we get through it.

The other song that really struck me from the Belly Up was when Dan Horne channeled Pigpen and did a version of “Operator.” It feels like you guys bring a really solid Pigpen vibe to the table, that’s for sure.

Oh, for sure, and that’s good to do because there’s obviously some of us that lean more towards Bobby tunes or a mix of Jerry and Bobby, but it’s cool to break out stuff like that. 

And [keyboardist] Adam [MacDougal] is brilliant as well. 

I’ve only known Adam since the early Circles days, and first getting to know Neal. Adam’s just a really interesting guy and just an incredible musician. So, he has something going on that not a lot of people I meet do. It’s interesting to be near that and right next to him, obviously, on stage.I always get along really well with him too. He’s got a really good, funny personality, good sense of humor. But musically, I’ve…found he has a really magical way of playing music, like the way he puts things together that you find yourself playing stuff and somehow that’s locking with what he’s doing and is he hearing me or is he listening? It’s like this thing where I’m wondering, “Am I also driving this thing too with him or something?”

So, I really enjoy when he solos because I’m right next to him and it naturally changes the dynamic of what I’m doing. He’s just such an incredible musician and it’s a little bit intimidating because I’m not that kind of musician. I’m a songwriter and I’ve gotten a lot better at guitar in this band because I’ve really been working at it. So, it’s just cool to be around that. So, I guess that’s all I’ll say about Adam is that he’s got such a musicality and energy to him that it naturally just makes you more musical.

Even when he steps over to the drums!

It’s just a kind of thing where when you have people like that playing and people like Dan Horne, and [Austin] Beade is like that too, it’s just like a serious drummer where when you have that, they raise the bar. Like everything musically, the bar is raised. So, it almost just makes everyone play better because I don’t know what that is. It’s almost like a mysterious thing, but it makes you perform better overall and so that’s a really special thing that we have a couple people in the band that are like that, but Adam does have a unique thing about him that I feel like that stands out on some level.

I’m really excited about Grateful Shred. They’re the thing I’m most excited about on the scene right now. I’ve done a ton of Wolf Brothers and I love Phil and I enjoy JRAD, and I’m sure I’ll pay my respects at Dead & Company, but ultimately, going forward, I’m a Grateful Shred guy and I’ll put my chip, my marker down on the table.

I mean, that’s the thing. They were my favorite Dead cover band before I was in The Dead, you know what I mean? So, that’s how it was when I joined, and the Solana Beach shows felt different than any of the previous shows we’ve done where I felt, “Something’s moving up a notch.” I can’t really pinpoint what that is. I don’t know if it’s just the audience, like a collective buzz or excitement around it. It seems to be moving in a trajectory upwards.

Truer words were never spoken. 

Do yourself a favor and check out the upcoming Grateful Shred tour which kicks off down South in Atlanta on February 23rd and makes its way up through the Northeast and Zeph’s old stomping grounds in Philly and Brooklyn before landing on April 20th in Ventura at Skull & Roses. 

If you would like to go Vista Cruising through previous articles, check out:

Volume I: Elliptic Windows: A historical piece with rare material from Robert Hunter

Volume II: A Vulcanized Constitution: A timeless tale involving Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady

Volume III: Feast of Diamonds: An interview 11 years after Jerry’s passing with David Gans

Volume IV: I Still Believe in Santa Claus:  A holiday message as 2023 comes into view

Volume V: Scrap of Moonlight: Robert Hunter’s post-GD additions to the canon

Volume VI & VII: Miles Invents Fusion Music and Jerry and Ornette Out of Space

Volume VIII: The Day the 60’s Died: Remembering David Crosby

Volumes IX and X: 100 Years of Grateful Dead History

Ron Lancia is a school teacher in the San Diego area—as a matter of fact, he was Schoolteacher of the Year recently—and he knows stuff. He’ll be one of WON’s regular contributors.