In the same way that the Grateful Dead operated outside of the traditional music industry, local Dead tribute band The China Cat Riders operate outside the traditional mould of a tribute band. In most cases, a tribute band member will assume the role of a specific player in the original group. But when the band you pay tribute to broke nearly every rule in the book on their long ascent to superstardom, you can basically do as you please.
“The singing duties are fairly randomized,” says Kevin Bowers, who is kind of the Jerry Garcia of the band, but not really. Bowers handles most of the lead guitar duties, as Garcia did, but he’s happy to hand off a lead to Dan Curtis if the music calls for it.
“I do 90 per cent of the leads, but Dan is too damn good to hold back sometimes,” says Bowers.
While the Grateful Dead officially disbanded after Garcia’s death in 1995, the Dead’s music has never really stopped. For over 20 years, the surviving members of the band have toured in a variety of lineups, keeping the songs and spirit alive. These bands, however, rarely visit Canada, so is there much of a Deadhead scene around here?
“I didn’t know there was that many Deadheads in Kingston,” says Bowers. “All these tie dyes started pouring into the Mansion patio (during our first show). I didn’t recognize these people.”
But it’s not just existing Grateful Dead fans that are checking out the China Cat Riders.
“If we get a critical mass of Deadheads… they can bring others into it,” explains Bowers. “There’s enough fandom there to sort of teach the uninitiated about the joy of the music.”
The China Cat Riders – named by bass player Adam Hodge for two songs the Dead often played as medley, China Cat Sunflower and I Know You Rider – rose out of the ashes of a one-off reunion with some original members of Hurricane Bob, a well-known Kingston bar band in the 90s. Hurricane Bob singer and guitarist Sam Stevens was in town for the first time in years and wanted to re-visit some of his Grateful Dead favourites. Unfortunately, Stevens couldn’t stick around for more than a weekend, despite the great gig.
“It was great,” gushes Bowers. “Man, it was so easy.”
Curtis, a life-long Deadhead, was brought on board to fill Stevens’ void in the reunion lineup, because the one-weekend-only Hurricane Bob gigs “were too much fun,” according to Bowers. With that, the China Cat Riders were born, with keyboardist Wes Garland and drummers Daniel Woods and Pete Bowers (Kevin’s brother).
“I’ve had more than one friend come up to me after a show and say ‘You guys make it clear to me what the appeal is. It makes me understand what the Deadheads are going on about,’” says Bowers. “To me, that’s a deeper compliment than (pleasing) the converted.”
Deadhead or not, check out The China Cat Riders this Sunday on The Mansion patio starting at 3 pm.
Where to see The China Cat Riders: Sunday, June 10 at The Mansion at 3 pm. Friday, June 15 at The General Wolfe Inn at 10:30 pm (part of the Wolfe Island Garden Party), and Saturday, June 30 at The Toucan.
Where to listen to The China Cat Riders: Mixcloud.