No Simple Highway
By Chris Ulep
One of the many amazing things about Skull & Roses is how it brought the Deadhead community together. I like to marvel how Chris Mitrovich had this vision and executed it, and especially how he united the NorCal and SoCal Dead scenes and how much cross-pollination there is now. It is halcyon times for the California Dead scene and our beloved festival continues to extend its national reach as well, with not only major touring acts like Phil Lesh & Friends, Dark Star Orchestra, Oteil and Friends, Melvin Seals and JGB, Leftover Salmon and more, but also some of the top regional Dead bands from all over the nation making their way to Ventura this year.
I’m pleased to have the honor here to not only share my view of the history to date of No Simple Highway, a band which has been leading the way in the Santa Barbara scene for almost ten years, but to also be part of this terrific band who will be gracing the 2023 Skull & Roses stage at high Noon on Saturday April 22nd, right after David Gans and before Brown Eyed Women.
A decade or so ago, a group of friends in Santa Barbara began getting together in living rooms and campouts to play and sing songs for hours. I’ll venture that all of us have these types of parties and friends. This group started off as a one-off project and called themselves “No Simple Highway” and played a benefit show in July 2014 at Soho Music Club in SB. They played live shows just a few times through 2015 and 2016 but quickly garnered attention locally for a group that deeply studied the Dead’s catalog, sang great harmonies, and brought an energetic and professional sound to their performances. Since then, aside from the requisite pandemic timeout, they’ve stepped up the pace and also performed in Northern California, most notably numerous times at the legendary Crazy Horse Saloon in Nevada City.
Let’s start w/ Chuck Hammel. I’ve known him the longest. We play together in the band Claude Hopper and he is the most versatile drummer I’ve ever played with. Chuck can bring a Dead groove from any era or, if you ask him to, he can provide any style you might ever want, from Jazz to Folk Rock to Crazy Horse to Zappa to Metallica. He can do it all, including high harmonies and lead vocals! He’s a Cleveland kid who made his way to Santa Barbara in 2010. As a teenager he was heavily influenced by the Grateful Dead through recordings and got to see Garcia and the Dead in the last few years before Jerry checked out. I asked Chuck if he has a favorite era and he gushes over Spring ’77. “I’m in awe of that entire tour and how the music bounces. The recordings are pristine, the band is firing on all cylinders. How do you not dance to that? Lots of four on the floor, I know it’s the disco era but it’s so good!”
I met the rest of the No Simple Highway band at the inaugural Skull & Roses in 2017, where they were one of a cadre of Dead bands playing on multiple stages around the Fairgrounds, often simultaneously. We hung around in a circle late at night in an empty hall and sang songs which bounced like reverb off the high ceilings. We’ve been friends ever since. The brothers Corey and David Linberg were founding members and are terrific singers and guitarists. Corey stepped out a while back and Dave, who lives up in Tahoe and is still very much devoted to all things Dead and Jerry, very recently left the group. Big props to both of them for what they did to help this band become the premier Dead tribute band in Santa Barbara. While it used to be that NSH were the only ones who did what they do in SB, that’s not the case anymore. But, when NSH plays, the local Heads turn out in droves.
One of the cool things about NSH is the players’ varied entry points, ages and interests in different eras. Lead guitarist and vocalist Zach Korth was born in South Florida on the day of the Giants Stadium Dylan/Dead show in 1987. Despite his relative youth, he brings an awareness and touch that is uncommonly smooth and tasteful. And, oh my, can he jam, taking you on long magic carpet rides around the cosmos and turning on a dime to drop you softly back to Earth to continue your sway.
I asked Zach what he loves most about Jerry and the Dead. He answered with a smile, “to begin with, everything. But, if you twisted my arm, I have to give a nod to ’72-’74. The exploding songbook, from the cowboy tunes to the driving ballads to the intergalactic jams; the lush harmonies and newly piano-fied sound of a band as tight as it had ever been, with a boost from Keith and Donna in their prime; Pigpen’s swan song and the legendary European tour; the WALL OF SOUND; the Winterland run captured so perfectly by the movie; Jerry on the Gator and the Wolf—his first custom build—and a bearded Phil dropping bombs from Mission Control; I could go on and on. Don’t get me wrong: I still love Mickey, Brent, and the rest of the lads, but these are my desert island years, hands down.”
Keyboardist Scott Foreman is the youngest member of the band, born just a few days before Brent’s passing in 1990. Scott used to live in Santa Barbara but now resides in Sonoma County where he grew up. To say that Scott is a keyboard master and vocal phenom would be an understatement. He brings one of the most powerful voices you’ll ever hear and can make a birdsong soar to new heights while emphatically convincing you to leave that lovelight on and he can supercharge any tune with funk and jam grooves that has everybody dancing. And you should see him when he gets rolling with the JGB gospel numbers—magnificent!
Scott was a key part of the young and highly touted Retro Rock resurgence in Santa Barbara County over a decade ago as part of the immensely talented band Sprout. There’s no doubt in my mind that the current strong state of the Dead scene in Santa Barbara owes greatly to this new generation with old creative souls who simply get what it’s all about musically and spiritually and are loaded with talent.
Geoff Levy on bass and vocals, aka Geoffunkel, was also a member of Sprout and now plays in the cosmic American blues rock original outfit Spoonful as well as No Simple Highway. Born in 1989, hailing from the San Bernadino mountains, Geoff seems to have Phil Lesh in his DNA and you can feel it in your bones when he’s dropping bombs and holding down the bottom end with just the right pace and tone. Geoff’s favorite era is the bluesy psychedelic early 70’s. His thoughts on Lesh: “I wouldn’t really describe him as a traditional bass player. He has a very unique way of playing counterpoint melodies yet still holding it all together. I love the Phil bombs. Some of what he plays is so unusual, it sounds amazing when you listen to it but, when you try to play it, proves difficult to emulate. I’ve had to train myself differently to play this music. In the beginning it was like breaking all the rules. Eventually I got it, that feeling of playing like Phil.”
With the departure of Dave Linberg, No Simple Highway has turned to a veteran Deadhead from the SB music scene, David Cowan, for the rhythm guitar spot. Another Cleveland native, Cowan has been on the West Coast since the late ‘80s and has a dream resume of Brent-era Dead shows, beginning at Cleveland Public Hall in 1979. He also has many an epic story from his days in Athens, OH, running around the country following the Dead and selling tie-dyes on tour. DC is the leader of the original Americana band, Claude Hopper, and brings a lifetime of devotion to Bobby rhythms and passion for this music. He finds something special in every era and digs it all but particularly likes the rootsy Americana psychedelia and instrumentation of the early 70’s.
Lastly, yours truly, Chris Ulep, is sitting in the second keyboard seat for No Simple Highway, part of a double keys approach as influenced by the band beyond description themselves in various eras. I have loved this music since I was a kid growing up in Bala Cynwyd, PA, and my first show, Philly Civic Center 4/20/84, has since been memorialized with pristine sound as a recent Dave’s Pick.
Safe to say I have unlimited devotion to all of the eras and uniqueness of each, but I really love and miss Brent—his era is the soundtrack to many magic moments from my early years. I love the way he played and sang, how he and Jerry connected on stage, how he could whip the crowd into a frenzy. From the mid-‘80s through summer ’90 I was fortunate to get out on the road, seeing as many shows as possibl. Lke so many of us, regardless of when we came of age, I am beyond grateful for the experience and the chance for adventure, mind expansion, and the opportunity to make lifelong loves, friendships and connections. It is a remarkable and, honestly, unexpected gift that this many years down the road we still have these opportunities to live and breathe with such high-level Dead & Jerry music brought to us not only by newer generations but also by the original legends themselves.
My family and I have been thrilled to attend every Skull & Roses, it is our favorite time on the calendar each year. Like many of you, we’d be willing to travel far and wide to make it to this festival with its incredible lineup and thoughtful and unparalleled experience, yet here it is right down the road for all of us in the Santa Barbara scene. That said, we’ll be camped in the lot for the duration with family and friends old and new, enjoying the music, the sun, and that cool ocean breeze. Special thanks to Chris Mitrovich and his amazing team for conceiving of and executing this festival. It is not lost on most of us how much work is involved, how much passion, patience, and resolve is needed to pull this off with all of the attention to detail to provide an authentic, safe and elevated experience. Whether you are a Deadhead or consider yourself a casual or curious fan, this is the one and only place on the planet to be April 19-23
It is certainly one of the great pleasures of my musical life to play with my talented friends in No Simple Highway and take a ride on that revolving stage at this year’s Skull & Roses. Not going to let the cat down under the stars out the bag just yet but we have some very special guests joining us on stage in our set. Let’s just say that if you’re a Deadhead it is almost a certainty you’ve seen at least one of them perform in your home state no matter where you call home. And one is a voice everyone knows as one of the most prominent leaders of the national scene. You’re going to have to make it into the speedway by high Noon on Saturday April 22 to check us out. See you there!