Scott Gillan—Garcia Birthday Band
I was born at the University of Illinois in Urbana and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, then moved here (Portland, Oregon) in July of 1993 when I was 23. So I actually lived in Portland longer than I have lived anywhere else.
My first musical memory is probably playing my mom and dad’s really scratched up copy of Revolver. They also had Rubber Soul in the same sleeve, so I didn’t realize back then, this would have been when I was probably 6 or 7, but I didn’t realize that those were two different albums. I thought it was a two record set. Listening to “Taxman” kind of blew my mind. As far as seeing a performance, I want to say seeing Maynard Ferguson with my dad at a jazz festival when I was probably 8 or 9 was incredible.
Photograph by Stu Levy
My dad played trombone and was an avid and very voracious music listener. He listened to all kinds of different stuff, and was really into horns, obviously, as a trombonist. But going to see Maynard Ferguson play with the Elmhurst High School jazz band blew my mind, I didn’t realize that people could do that. That students could do that.
Those are probably the main two big impacts. From there, I just kind of devolved into a total music nerd, full on just listening to everything. It started out in the ‘80s, so everybody was obsessed with metal, like Eddie Van Halen. I didn’t have an older brother whose record collection I could pilfer. But my friend’s older brother was instrumental in kind of guiding us, my friend Chris and I, growing up and listening to Rush, Van Halen of course, all that stuff, Ozzy. Just kind of getting into the whole metal thing in the ‘80s.
That was kind of how I came to be a musician. I bought a guitar for $50 and plugged it into the head phone jack in my stereo and taught myself how to play guitar. Eventually I got an amp and eventually got like a wah wah petal, that kind of thing. But yeah, I taught myself how to play guitar and would sit in front of MTV and watch Head Bangers Ball every Friday, try to figure this stuff out. Hitting stop and rewind on Metallica albums, just thousands of hours of that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until I moved to Portland—well, in college and stuff, I played in various bands and you know, party bands and that kind of thing…
When I graduated from college some friends of mine had worked in the forest service two years prior to that and had moved out here before. There was a recession in 1993, so it was kind of like I could live at home with my parents and wait tables at a TGI Fridays, or move out here. The deal was you can live rent free until you find a job, then we will eventually find a house that we can rent. And back then, you could do that. So I loaded up my car with all of my worldly possessions and drove out here. We found a house that we rented for, I think it was like $1200 a month.
It wasn’t until I got to Portland that I saw the breadth of the music scene. The grunge thing was huge, but there was also like a whole separate ecosystem of what would now be called jam bands. But that term didn’t exist back then. It was just seeing people, you know, getting up there and improvising and playing bluegrassy stuff or playing Dead covers, that sort of thing. It made a huge impression.
Photograph by Stu Levy
We were rehearsing in the garage at the house of dudes where I lived, and our bass player at the time wasn’t up to snuff, so we fired him and placed an ad in the local music paper looking for bass players. I think we tried out about 10, and it was the extremes; either they didn’t know where E flat was or they wanted to do Jaco Pastorius solos all over everything. And neither option was going to work.
This was in 1995, and that is the year that the Beatles threepart documentary Anthology was on ABC and the first one, I think, was on Thanksgiving night. A big chunk of that first episode was Paul McCartney talking about how Stu Sutcliffe stayed in Hamburg and he switched to bass, and he never looked back. I turned to everybody—and I said, well, that’s what I’m going to do. And I switched to bass, and it was one of the smartest moves I’ve ever done in my life. Because there are a thousand guitar players who are far superior to me. But there are only 10 bass players and there are only three of those bass players who can sing. So immediately things kind of opened up once I switched to bass. That is how it’s been ever since.
As far as getting into the Grateful Dead, I was in college at Valparaiso University, still playing guitar, and mom suggested that I sell my guitar and amp before I went to college. I basically said, that’s not going to happen. I have to have the guitar with me and, you know, I met the musicians there. And there was one that was basically the stoner fraternity, and I went over there to jam.
They played blues stuff and all of that, but nobody spoke metal, which was kind of my specialty, metal rhythm guitar, like the James Hetfield things that I was focused on. Fortunately, at the fraternity house there was a really excellent Dead cover band, the first time I had ever seen one, called Glass Camel, which is a really great name for a Dead cover band, because it’s super obscure, and you have got to kind of know what that refers to.
When I went to see them there were some things that really struck me. One was that the fans and the Dead Heads followed the stats, like people who follow basketball or baseball do. And the other thing was that I just immediately recognized them as my people. I’d never run into people like that. There were no Dead Heads and no hippies at my high school. So I didn’t know from that.
But then the other thing was watching them jam and improvise, watching the guitar player, a guy named Adam Barrent, watching him basically take the crowd with him in the solos. I had never seen anybody do that before. And watching him do that at a frat party while ‘shrooming was significant. I realized, oh, man, this is something really cool. That did it. And after that it was like, okay, I need to go see a Dead show. So my first show was 4/6/89 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Then in 1993 I got to Portland, and I was playing with guys, all kinds of different stuff. But once we kind of figured out that we could do that, and you know, do Dead songs and various other things, just kind of jam on them, that was sort of the impetus of it. About two weeks after I moved here, the Jerry Band played at the Seattle Center and then played at Portland Meadows, and that Seattle Center show was the very first show that Jerry played Lightning Bolt, which blew our minds. My friend was like, Jerry has got a new guitar and we all looked up, and just thought, oh, no, it’s the same guitar. Then, you know, getting out the binoculars it’s like, no, no that’s actually a new guitar!
I got a job at Edgefield [which had been the county poor farm in Portland and was taken over by the McMenamen brothers, who were Dead Head guys who liked to refurbish old buildings like the poor farm and schools that had been closed, and turn them into cool places to eat, drink, and stay. They also re-opened the classic Crystal Ballroom, Portland’s answer to the Fillmore and the Avalon in the ‘60s.]. I worked in the kitchen at the hotel at Edgefield, and the kitchen was all Dead Heads and hippies.
I was working there in 1998 and I was doing a catering event, a wedding or something. The same day they dedicated the Jerry statue that is there by a sculptor named Lyle Haine and they had a jam—it was dudes, really loose, maybe playing Dead songs, set up in what is now the winery at the top of the hill there. Well, even though I was working I got a break, and I knew all the musicians who were in this jam. So I turned to my coworker and I said, hey, I’m going to go jam with these guys. He was like, on the clock? I was like, yeah, don’t tell anybody. But, yeah, I’m going to go play. So walked up there and I knew all of them. And we played “Cassidy” and “Bird Song” and then I went back to work.
I didn’t think that was even going to happen again, I thought it was just a dedication of the statue that is that. But then every year they had that same Jerry Garcia birthday celebration. And it wasn’t always the same band. It was almost always different musicians, and sometimes they wouldn’t really even play any Dead songs. It would just be almost like a drum circle with guitar.
Fast forward to 2004, and friends of mine who I played with in a band called the Buds of May were asked to be part of event. I went out there and ended up playing like an entire set with them, and guided the band through a bunch of different stuff.
Then the McMenamens wanted the band to open for a different band for a Halloween gig. So then it was, okay, if we are going to do that, we obviously need a name. So that’s where the Garcia Birthday Band name came from. That’s where it started. I’m the only member that has been there since the beginning. I am the tenured elder, so that’s why I’m talking to you, actually.
Photograph by Stu Levy
It went through a lot of different permutations. Then we played a monthly gig at the White Eagle, which is another McMenamens place. When we started it was basically the bartender, us, and maybe two or three people, some ash trays, and that was it. And it kind of slowly built over time. We found the right people that wanted to play the music and give it the respect that it deserves, you know. As it happens there is way more Dead Heads now than there were in 1995, way more.
There were already Dead cover bands in Portland then, but they weren’t playing with great frequency and there wasn’t really a community established. So it just so happened when we started doing that, and started with the assistance and support of the McMenamens people.
We even did our own little festivals, summer weekends out at a place near Portland called Pekin Ferry (Washington). Kind of miniature versions of Skull and Roses but with just one or two bands. But it encouraged me to go to Skull and Roses, which I did last year. I gotta say, I just loved it. It was such a huge celebratory vibe, particularly after—I mean, we bought our tickets back in 2019 before COVID happened. The vibe was palpable. I mean, just being in a group of Dead Heads who are that into it and celebratory. It was a huge emotional release. It’s kind of indescribable. I mean, it helped, going to Ventura from Portland in April, because it’s pretty gray and rainy and cold up here.
So going down there and actually going to the sun and going to the beach was fantastic. It was an epic four days. The energy was really, really joyous and ebullient because of the fact that it had been postponed for two years. And now we get to be part of it, and we’re stoked. We are definitely excited to represent. And we are going to level that place.
See Scott Gillan with Garcia Birthday Band at Skull & Roses Festival—Buy Passes here!