With so many Grateful Dead tribute bands out there, there are surprisingly few devoted exclusively to the music of Jerry Garcia. A need to fill that void is the impetus behind Cats Under The Stars. Named after the late guitarist’s self-proclaimed favorite Jerry Garcia Band album, the Vermont-based quintet re-creates the various stages of his solo canon.
“It’s my desert island music, even more so than the Dead, and I played in a Dead cover band for a long time,” says Zach Nugent, who assumes the role of Captain Trips so thoroughly that it’s easy to forget he’s only 24. But it’s a lifelong fixation — Nugent remembers listening to Garcia songs as a toddler, and when he acquired his first guitar in his youth, he immediately set out to learn “Ripple.”
“I myself don’t understand the obsession, but I know that I am not the only one,” he says. “It feels like music made for me or us, and I feel different without it. If I can’t have my Jerry or my Dead, something is missing — and there are a lot of musicians I can go without.”
“Obsession” is an accurate word. In addition to capturing Garcia’s sound, Nugent has managed to assemble a cadre of gear that would make the late guitarist proud. He owns several genuine artifacts, each with a history. “The middle cone in my cabinet,” Nugent claims, “Jerry blew up at Shoreline in 1995 playing ‘Hell in a Bucket.’”
His guitar, a replica of the one Garcia played for most of the 1970s nicknamed The Wolf for the cartoon inlay in the body, was built to order by Denver luthier Chris Michas. The sound he coaxes from it is frighteningly accurate, as are his earthy vocals. “It’s a sickness,” Nugent says.
Nugent’s mates in the five-piece band — John Wakefield on bass, drummer Pete Rahn, keyboard player Nick Gendron and backing vocalist Greta Frost — are just as deeply immersed in the JGB sound as Nugent. More than one Dead archivist has marveled at how precisely they bring to life songs like “Deal,” “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” and the loping cover of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
“A lot of the musicians I like are no longer alive anymore,” says the 25-year-old Rahn. “From a drummer’s perspective, the JGB band is great because there are so many different styles of music. I get to play everything from Motown to rock & roll to blues to jazz and some reggae.”
Wakefield, the only group member older than 30, performed in bands with Nugent for five years before the pair recruited Rahn and Gendron through Craigslist ads. Frost was a last-minute addition to the band’s first show at a Burlington waterfront festival in 2010. Designing a set list for the gig proved challenging; the young singer’s input during the process ultimately won her a spot as the group’s Donna Jean Godchaux doppelganger.
“We asked her to sit in and sing a couple of tunes,” Rahn says. “She sang the entire night.”
Ultimately, the group found it was easier not trying to plan things.
“We don’t go into our show with a set list; we go with what people want to hear and play that,” Nugent says. So far, we have stuck with the Jerry Garcia Band repertoire, which is pretty big. But we have a pretty broad spectrum of the music that we play. I think we know about 50 songs. We know his Motown, jazz and upbeat rock songs as well. We mix them in.”
“After we do enough shows, we get the sense of what songs are good openers and closers,” Rahn says. “Then kind of feel out the audience. A lot of times we play a four-hour set, so there’s a lot of up and down in the tempo and in the music. We just feel it out, and it’s been really good for us.”
Each member has certain favorites.
“Pete likes playing Mystery Train,” Nugent says.
“It has fun rhythms for drums, the dynamics are all over the place,” explains Rahn. “But Zach hates that song.”
Nugent agrees it’s not at the top of his list, but won’t admit to hating anything — not for musical reasons, anyway. There are some he might avoid, but any Jerry song is a good one in his book. “Someone asked me, what are your least favorite songs to play, and I said ‘Uncle John’s Band’ — and they asked, ‘What don’t you like about it?’ My response was, I never said I didn’t like it. I don’t love playing ‘Mystery Train,’ it’s one of my least favorite songs. But it’s a great tune, and the crowd loves it no matter where we are.”
The Saturday, Jan. 14, show at Two Doors Down is the band’s first in Manchester. They also appear Saturday, Feb. 11, at Plymouth’s Flying Monkey with Phish cover band The Phreaks (more information at www.flyingmonkeynh.com)