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MUSIC : A Hot Ticket for Dead Heads : Stunt Road once struggled with its act of Grateful Dead covers. But the band's popularity surged as fans try to keep the scene going after Jerry Garcia's death.

August 31, 1995|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A few weeks ago, Stunt Road was just another bar band from the San Fernando Valley, scratching for gigs, struggling to build a following. The group was an oddity at that, playing only Grateful Dead tunes.

But since the death of Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead's leader, these unlikely musicians have become something of a hot commodity.

"After Jerry died, the crowd doubled," said Dave Politi, owner of the Cobalt Cafe in Canoga Park, where the band plays every Thursday night. "It's like a little Dead show. It's kind of scary."

The same thing has happened at Pelican's Retreat in Calabasas. On a recent Monday night, Dead Heads arrived by twos and threes to fill the room. A woman sold tie-dye from a bin in the corner while a man circulated petitions to legalize hemp.

"You want to hold onto that feeling of the live performances," said Brian Senior, 25, who stopped by after work. "If this is all that's left, you might as well savor it."

The show began with a jam in generous Dead style, inciting much of the crowd to its feet. An undeniable ambience blossomed amid the nightclub's nautical decorations.

"It's the music," a woman said.

But it was more than that. The transformation smelled of patchouli oil. It took the shape of smiling faces as acquaintances greeted and embraced. It showed in the exotic waving of hands above a sawdust-covered dance floor.

"Everyone wants to keep the scene going," said Mike Dwyer, the band's drummer. "The fans get very emotional."

A certain amount of nostalgia is certain to follow the death of any rock 'n' roll star. Record stores throughout the San Fernando Valley report an increased demand for Grateful Dead albums. Sales have improved at Captain Ed's H & H Shoppe in Van Nuys, too.

"Folks come by looking for shirts, hats and stickers, anything with Jerry or the Dead," said Dave Silverman, the store's manager. "It would be safe to say that we're doing business at five times our normal pace."

As one of perhaps a half-dozen Grateful Dead tribute bands in Southern California, Stunt Road has sliced itself a piece of the pie.

Thanks to increased attendance at the weekly Pelican's Retreat shows, the band has earned a more-desirable Wednesday night slot beginning this week. Sunday, it will appear at The Rock in Canoga Park.

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Mark Watson, who formed the band nine years ago, marvels at this relative burst in popularity. For much of its history, Stunt Road concentrated on Top 40 songs and some heavy metal, competing for gigs with hundreds if not thousands of similar bands on the Los Angeles music scene.

"We went through years of humility and frustration playing that music and trying to get people to come out to the show," Watson said.

The solution to this dilemma was not complicated. Watson had been a Grateful Dead fan since seeing the band open for the Who at the Oakland Coliseum in the mid-1970s. Gradually, Stunt Road switched to Dead material.

This choice carried inherent advantages and disadvantages. The band put itself in position to draw from a loyal fan base.

"You know that movie 'Field of Dreams'? It's the same with Dead music," Watson said. "If you play it, they will come."

At the same time, Dead bands and their long, improvisational sets do not neatly fit into weekend schedules, when club owners like to pack the bill with three or more bands playing short sets.

"And Dead Heads are not your big dollar spenders," Dwyer said. "That's another issue when it comes to playing weekends."

Stunt Road sufficed with weekly spots on less-desired nights, building its following to respectable levels.

Along the way, the musicians found that they enjoyed playing in their newly adopted style. Like the Grateful Dead, the band features a two- and sometimes three-man percussion section. Watson and guitarist Jim Shank trade off on rambling leads, sharing time with keyboardist Norman Maytag. There is no set list. The members decide what to play on a song-by-song basis.

"It's a different vibe when they play," says Egan Rice, the Cobalt's manager. "There's a lot more dancing, a lot more spinning around."

Garcia's death added urgency to the mix. On that day, as fans gathered to mourn at Valley head shops and at Griffith Park, many spoke of Stunt Road and another tribute band, Cubensis, which plays in Orange County. Fans said they would probably follow the bands more closely.

That night, Stunt Road played a hastily arranged show at Mancini's restaurant in Canoga Park. Not many people showed up. Watson described the night as eerie. But the following Monday, at Pelican's Retreat, the band got its first taste of post-mortem celebrity.

"That was the busiest Monday we've ever had here," said Dave Hewitt, the nightclub's booking agent.

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Since then, Stunt Road's following has grown large enough that Cobalt owner Politi now charges a cover. It keeps the crowd respectable, he says. He has also cleared a space for tie-dye vendors that were getting hassled by police for selling on the sidewalk outside the coffeehouse.

And Silverman, of the Captain Ed's shop, does not see this wave of nostalgia dissipating soon.

"We constantly sell Doors and [Led] Zeppelin and Beatles stuff. Jerry will be the same," he said. "It was a fun thing to be doing, the shows and the scene. Kids will always want this."

The members of Stunt Road agree.

"I don't think there's any way it could fade away," Dwyer said. "The hard-core fans are looking for continuity. All the fans that weren't on tour or hadn't seen the Dead in years, they're going to be breaking out their tie-dye and wanting to reminisce.

"And the best place to do that is at an event where the band is playing Dead tunes."

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