So my parents were both born and raised in Colorado, and they met in college, and my dad was an avid music lover, music fan. And a good friend of his that was a little bit older than him had started a record store in Greeley, Colorado. And my dad said, man, that’s a pretty cool job. That’s way better than being a farm hand, which he was currently doing at the time. So he said, hey, man, can I come work for free at your store and learn all the tools of the trade? And his friend said, yes. I will teach you everything I know, but you can’t open a store in the state of Colorado. It would be competition, right. So he said, all right.
So he moved the family to Rock Springs, Wyoming, when I was only six months old, started a store, eventually decided to move the store to Laramie, Wyoming, which is where we eventually settled. And my dad was involved in the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which was an environmental group in the 1980s. And John Barlow happened to be involved in that group as well. So it turned out that there were two Dead Heads in Wyoming at that time, which would have been John Barlow and my father. And so they became friends through that organization. And from time to time he would give my father backstage passes to Red Rocks shows, which would have been the closest place the Grateful Dead would have played to Laramie. So that was sort of our home base to see the Dead.
One year he threw in an extra one for me, so I got to experience a show backstage. I was nine and a half. I was only in the way for one song and it was the last song of the night, which is when I stood next to Jerry’s amp and probably gave Parish a heart attack but, regardless, I needed to meet Jerry. And stand near his amp.
So rewind 5 or 6 years prior, and my first Dead show was July 28, 1982, Red Rocks. And due to the fact that my father was in the music business, owning a record store and all there was always music playing around the house. On any given day, it could have been Stevie Wonder or Bach or Dwight Yoakum, King Crimson, Miles Davis, there was every genre and every style and every era of music represented in our household. But I still chose “Shakedown Street” as my favorite song. So, naturally, as the universe would have it, the Grateful Dead opened with “Shakedown Street” and and you know, I was four years old, and I said, well, that is pretty cool, I want to do that. How cool is that?
So for my fifth birthday a few months later, I got a guitar. And played, and played. When I was ten, I had some Dead Head buddies that were in a band that played about half Grateful Dead, I guess it would almost be considered a Grateful Dead tribute band. However the other half of their repertoire was classic rock and originals. They invited me to play with them when we would go to parties and picnics and eventually invited me on stage at the summer music festival in Laramie, Wyoming. So that would have been like my first band experience at about 10yearsold. By the time I was about 14, my father and I started a band together that played sort of a similar combination of some Grateful Dead songs, but also some originals that we had written and a few other bluesy, classic rocktype covers. And that band was called Somebody’s Mother. And I still use the name Somebody’s Mother for my publishing company.
During high school, we are having all this fun with this band. And I’m getting into bars with big old black X’s on my hands because my dad knows the club owner, and you know, they want us to play because we have a draw, but they certainly don’t want a 16yearold in there drinking. So I had the magic marker X’s on my hands and they wouldn’t serve me. But at one point he sat me down and asked, do you want to keep playing these dive bars? I was, like, what do you mean? He said, well, this will be your life, if you stay here and do this, you won’t go anywhere. You will turn into a Jimmy Buffet cover band and spend your life playing here in the dive bars in this small town of Wyoming. I said, Ooo, Jimmy Buffet covers, dive bars, no thanks.
I said, what should I do? He said, well, you have got to go to college. You have got to go study music somewhere else with people that are better than you. And that eventually landed me at the California Institute of the Arts, which is in Valencia, just north of Los Angeles. And I studied jazz there for four years. And was lucky enough to study with a lot of really great, legendary Jazz musicians, including Charlie Haden and Larry Koonse and Joe LaBarbara. And a lot of heavy musicians that happened to be really good teachers as well. I don’t think a day goes by in which something in my professional music world happens that isn’t tied to Cal Arts. Like somehow, some way, everyday, something happens that harkens back to 25 years ago when I was in college, so. I think I went to the right place.
So you get out of college, you don’t know what you’re going to do. So you just start pounding the pavement. I was out every night of the week going to jam sessions, going to open mic nights, going to rehearsals, trying to land a gig in whatever way possible. And I did a lot of different things with playing pop and was playing jazz and was playing blues and picking up any gig I could, because, you know, I could read music and so I could take these gigs that maybe some other cats couldn’t necessarily do.
And then one day I literally just had a night off, and I was so accustomed to going out every night, and I opened up the LA Weekly, which was the weekly entertainment newspaper in LA. And I look at the calendar section and my eye was captured by a singular Steal Your Face face which I know we’re not supposed to use. But it was in print anyways advertising a night of Grateful Dead music at a place called 14 Below in Santa Monica, California. So I looked at my watch, and I said, well, that’s starting in about two hours. So I drove down to 14 Below. This was like 2002.
I went down there and saw another friend of mine, who happened to be there and knew one or two of the guys in Cubensis and so he introduced me to Craig (the late Craig Marshall) at set break. And he said, oh, you play, oh, you’re a Dead Head, do you want to sit in on the next set? And I said, sure, but I didn’t bring my guitar, or my amp or anything. He said, oh, that’s no problem, man, you can just play mine, I will get off stage.
And that really struck me. I remember being struck by that in the sense that this man would give up his instrument and his stage time to an unknown, you know, a very wild card at this point, especially, being as young as I was. And just hand over the keys to the band for a couple songs. So I drove the band. I got to play in Cubensis for two songs and had a good time.
Maybe two or three weeks later, I think Craig was going back east for his son’s—his son was having a child, I think it was, so Craig called me to sub in the band, and so I went down and subbed. Then weeks later, the other guitar player had to be out of the town for something, so I subbed in the band for him. And then, eventually, I was doing more gigs than Justin was. And I guess that kind of meant that the ball was handed off to me. Here we are, it’s 2022, Dennis.
I also played for Bobby Womack (who wrote “It’s All Over Now”) for about ten years. My friend from college, Woody Aplanalp, had been Bobby’s guitarist for a while, and went to join Trilock Gurtu. So Woody said, well, I have got to take this six week tour with Trilok, can you sub for me on these hand full of Womack dates this summer. I said, yeah, no problem. So I ended up subbing that summer. And, eventually, Woody got busy with, he was with Lauren Hill for a while, he was with Salvador Santana for a while. So I kind of just took over the Womack gig, and played the last four or five years as the steady, consistent regular guitar player. So it was a 10year run in which about half was subbing and half I was the regular, consistent guy. It was a good gig. Bobby was a true improvisor, unlike many R&B acts. He sometimes wanted an extra solo section, and so he would call for a guitar solo or a trumpet solo or he would call for a bridge in a place where we didn’t usually put the bridge in the song. He was super creative that way and so, even though it wasn’t by nature jam, jazz, improv.
But of course Cubensis was always home. First and foremost, I think we all trust each other. We are all loyal to one another. Like, we just don’t have all that much conflict in the band, if any. It’s pretty rare. Any minor conflict that does come up is usually resolved fairly quickly and efficiently. We used to joke that the reason Cubensis was as successful as it was was because we didn’t have rehearsals and we didn’t have meetings. So if you are not fighting about artistic stuff or financial stuff, well, you are not fighting. And even though sometimes we do have rehearsals and sometimes we do have meetings, they usually go pretty, pretty smoothly, because we all trust each other, and we are all loyal to each other. I would start there.
Expanding upon that I think, I think our goal from the beginning was always to play in the spirit of the Grateful Dead. Which meant, we are not trying to you know duplicate something that already happened. We are not trying recreate or copy something per se. We are trying to create something new in the moment that involves those individuals on stage and those individuals that are in the audience and that should be a unique one of a kind experience, just like every single time the Grateful Dead took the stage, it was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. So that spirit, I think we try and carry with us. Which means we make a lot of mistake and sometimes we don’t all even sound that tight sometimes, but –
Dennis: They didn’t.
Nate: They didn’t, right. I think that sometimes as they say, the blind squirrel even finds an acorn. Sometimes we have that moment of magic because that spirit is there and we are kind of always looking forward and listening to each other.
So in addition to playing with Cubensis, I teach guitar lessons. Half of my students come to my house for lessons and the other half are on Zoom, so a lot of them on Zoom are in geographical locations where it’s not practical to come to my house. For instance, Detroit or Philadelphia or North Carolina or northern California, even the San Fernando valley, it’s an hour drive.
So yeah, I teach guitar, I do recording sessions. And mostly I just record from my home. People will send me a track that they need guitar for and they will send me the sheet music and then I will record that track, and I’ll send it back to them. And sometimes they’ll give me notes and sometimes I will fix it. I also do random other gigs, I’ll play jazz gigs, sometimes I will play some bluegrass gigs. I will play a little bit of pedal steel, I was playing pedal steel the other night on a show. It is like any musician, we’re piecing it together. It’s a big puzzle that you’re just trying to fill in with for whatever might work for what you’re doing at the time.
We’ve been part of Skull and Roses from the beginning, and if there’s a better scene for the Grateful Dead music experience as a whole festival, I don’t know about it. And that’s part of the reason that I love doing my column for the Wall of News—I’ll confess to a nerdy streak. It started at fouryearsold when I said, this weird counterculture, notpopmusic thing is happening, and I am really into it. You know that was probably my first, I’m a nerd, let’s do this kind of a thing.
And progressed into the first time I learned how to play a Jerry Garcia solo note for note, which would have been around 10 years old. You know, learning exactly what he played on the Dead Set version of “Fire on the Mountain,” and be able to sit in my basement for hours and figure out what notes he was playing, where he was playing them, how he was playing them, and trying to get that sound out of my instrument. That would have been the next sort of step.
And then, okay, you become more educated, you start taking more lessons, you go to college. Now you can analyze this music in a way that is different as you might as a casual listener. You can say, here’s a 5 of 5 or here’s a chromatic leading tone. You know, you can talk about it in ways that a musician would talk about it. Instead of, oh, I like the 1978 version of “Scarlet Begonias.” You can say, well, actually they played it differently in ’77 and in ’78, and in ’89. You can hear the differences between them, maybe it’s in tempo, maybe they changed a chord change here or there. And then that opens up so many doors for you because it’s improvised music. And the Grateful Dead were scholars and students of music themselves. So you can go as deep into that as you want to go.
I mean, every time I sit down to write an article for the Wall of News, I learn more about this music than I ever thought I would, every single time. Because we’re not a tribute band. We’re not trying to duplicate something. We don’t have to play it the same every time. It’s a blank canvas that we have already been given the brushes, and the color palette and we can paint any picture that we want to. I would venture to say that in almost every other tribute or cover band you are expected to play it the same every time. Like, if you are playing “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, if you don’t do it the same way, then you are not doing your job for that particular style of music. In this music if you do duplicate an exact solo, you’re not doing your job.
I’m a I’m a Jazz musician at heart. That’s what I grew up and studied playing. And so were they, actually. Jazz musicians interpret pop standards via improvisation, which sometimes leads them down roads that they never would have expected. And that is what we do with Grateful Dead’s music, is we end up somewhere we didn’t know we were going to end up. And it’s all because of their songs, their writing, and the path that they set forth for us. So that’s what makes it fun, we’re making them our own.
See Nate LaPointe and Cubensis at Skull & Roses Festival—Buy Passes here!