Till the Morning Comes: Waking the (Grateful) Dead

Till the Morning Comes: Waking the (Grateful) Dead
Venues & Businesses
Hangar 9

Who: Till the Morning Comes
What: Grateful Dead tribute
When: 2015-11-27 - 2015-12-03
On Friday, November 27 and Thursday, December 3, long-time local audio engineer and local-music lege
Brett Haynes

On Friday, November 27 and Thursday, December 3, long-time local audio engineer and local-music legend Robbie Stokes will perform with his new band Till the Morning Comes at the Hangar 9.

Till the Morning Comes, as you may have guessed, are a Grateful Dead tribute band taking their name from a classic Dead track written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia for the album American Beauty.

The band is Robbie Stokes on guitar; Tom Hensold on drums, percussion, and vocals; Nate Blew on bass; Roger Fliege on keys and vocals; Darwin Shane Koch on guitar and vocals; and Troy Hutchens on drums.

Stokes’s musical career goes way back to the golden era of psychedelic rock music. Back in the late sixties, he was in a local band called Devil’s Kitchen. That group moved to San Francisco, where they performed with a plethora of influential legends, and Stokes did session work for Dead drummer Mickey Hart and lyricist Robert Hunter, among others. As one might imagine, playing on that scene at its peak is an amazing footing from which to cast a tribute band— of which the band in tribute pretty much led the whole scene.

Nightlife caught up with Stokes to talk about the past, the present, and of course, the Grateful Dead.

It looks like you have had the opportunity to play with a handful of legendary artists. Can you tell us about that? Some highlights from that time period that heavily influenced your career?

Yes, Devil’s Kitchen performed with many San Francisco psychedelic pioneers back in the day. I’ve been slowly working on a book about those days, lot of guys could write something interesting there. We played bills with Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother [and the Holding Company], Taj Mahal. If you count all the interesting jams and stuff, the list is long. You can get a feel for it at my website [at] <http//www.RobcoAudio.com> or the Robco Audio Facebook page, as I have an ever-growing list on those pages. The [San Francisco] scene was very free and open and extremely diverse. Devil’s Kitchen were fledgling upstarts from Carbondale, and coulda been a contender, but the usual shite got in the way.

I sat in with a lot of people— John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with [future] Rolling Stones’ guitarist Mick Taylor, Carlos Santana at the Fillmore West, It’s a Beautiful Day, Bill Champlin of Chicago, and played guitar backup on shows with blues legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Mama Thornton. All of that influenced my style. Seeing the Velvet Underground at the Avalon Ballroom was a seminal kick!

That whole roiling cauldron of music gradually led me into some serious adventures with CCR, the “Spirit in the Sky” man Norman Greenbaum, and solo projects with Dead members, among many others. Long jams were and are part of that bit, but so are concise rock tunes.

In what way did the Grateful Dead influence you as a musician and why did you decide to start up this group?

My son Robby Clark-Stokes and I went in halfsies on a Fender Twin Reverb, a nice one, from Bill Carter. The North Mississippi Allstars used it at Black Diamond Harley-Davidson. I took it to Rustle Hill Winery and sat in on some Dead tunes with Shane’s band Moving Mary [at] Shane’s fiftieth birthday bash. That was nice, so Till the Morning Comes has just evolved from there.

What other groups have you been in since the psychedelic heyday?

As has been documented in these pages previously, I was in Coal Kitchen, Saint Stephen’s Blues, Rolls Hardly, Vision, Doctor Bombay, and Four on the Floor, among others, and a frequent guest with Shawn Colvin, the Skid City Blues Band, and Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows.

What is your favorite era of live Dead music, if you had to pick?

I don’t really have a favorite Grateful Dead era, though in general terms I prefer the earlier to the later stuff. I was very pleased when they had some mainstream success around the time of “Touch of Gray.”

How do you feel about the Dead performing with Trey Anastasio and with John Mayer now?

I’ve been hearing good things about the Mayer shows. John Mayer can play. The Trey thing— let Trey sing!— was good. We watched from Hangar and had it tuned through my P.A. there— that was some fun. Shane and I watched the entire Sunday-night gig together.

I actually think that some recent comments by John Mayer have succinctly nailed the [Grateful Dead] musical ethos and how it can be approached. Look it up.

Why did you choose the song title Till the Morning comes as the band name?

We picked Till the Morning Comes because it hasn’t been used yet. “Without a Net” would more aptly describe us, but there are, like, eighteen Dead tribute bands with that name already!

What would you say is the most difficult part about emulating the Dead?

The music is quite flexible, and striking a balance between emulating it and letting your own style in is the trick.

Do you have a dedicated sound engineer for your sets? As I imagine you must be very particular.

Yeah, we always use a sound tech, typically Robco Audio A1 Gary Griffith. We’re sound veterans of many gigs with Jake’s Leg, Uncle John’s Band, and the Schwag, too, as it happens.

In your interview on PsychedelicBaby’s blog about Devil’s Kitchen, you mentioned being influenced by some of the sound engineers of the time, such as “Bear” Owsley and others. Do you think that standards for live sound today have changed for better or worse? The gear?

Other than a penchant for using a bit too much bass, I would say that sound systems and operation have steadily improved. Embracing digital-mixing technology where appropriate and line-array speaker concepts haven’t hurt, as long as you let the dog wag the tail. Owlsley was a big influence on me in that way, along with Lee Brenkman, speaker designer/builder John Meyer, and original Dead live sound guy Dan Healy. A lot of those guys treated me really nicely when I was young and innocent, which actually didn’t last long! We are very particular about audio.

What is your least-favorite Grateful Dead song and why?

I can’t say that I have a least or most favorite Grateful Dead tune, they all have their merits. I generally prefer their original compositions to the covers, though. I like records like Aoxomoxoa and Shakedown Street, but was floored by Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. I like the tune “Loser” and “Stella Blue.” I really liked the cover art on Rolling Thunder and Tales of the Great Rum Runners, the two Dead recordings that I worked on.

I thought that all of the Dead keyboardists had their particular charms; I worked with Vince Welnick at a Schwagstock show, which was really kinda cool, as Vince was in the Tubes, yet another famous band that Devil’s Kitchen opened up for. That gig was at the San Francisco Art Institute, where, incidentally, one of my friends, the director Kathryn Bigelow, studied painting. That place was fertile ground for art and [San Francisco] music; it seems that art schools and rock music always go hand-in-hand.

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

Music is fun but you better really love it. Many people wish to express themselves through music, and in addition to having the innate gift you have to be very dedicated in order to get anywhere professionally.

Till the Morning Comes hopes to learn more tunes and play more shows. I don’t have nearly the time to put into as I’d like, as my audio company is always busy, but it’s fun and that’s about what you can hope for!

who: Till the Morning Comes

what: Grateful Dead tribute

where: Hangar 9


when: Friday, November 27; Thursday, December 3