"Music: Improvisation keeps the spirit of the Dead alive for China Cats
Santa Cruz band to bring the loose, fun-loving tunes to Club Fox" - San Jose Mercury News, December 13, 2017
by Paul Freeman
The joy of the jam. Deadheads have always embraced it. And so they embrace the Grateful Dead tribute band, The China Cats. Each performance is a new, communal journey. There’s one coming up on Dec. 29 at Redwood City’s Club Fox.
The term “tribute band” can mean a lot of different things, from lookalikes to carbon copy sound to simply using the original artist’s work as a jumping off point. The China Cats fall more into that last category.
“Grateful Dead music has become a genre,” said lead guitarist/vocalist Matt Hartle, reached by phone at his home in Santa Cruz. “It’s like in jazz — there are standards. Grateful Dead has become the same way. There are certain roles with the instrumentation.
“The China Cats, we play straight Grateful Dead sets and in understanding the genre, there’s a real trick to knowing what is essential to making the song be that song. Then the rest of it, there’s so much room for improvisation.”
The China Cats started in 2008, with Hartle joining in 2010. Having studied jazz at the University of North Texas, he relishes the band’s proclivity for spontaneity. “It’s not just about one person taking a solo. It’s about a group improvisation and a group dynamic at all times.
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“On these tunes, anything can happen. There are certain things that are specific, and certain things that are wide open to interpretation. It’s never about going back. It’s always looking to the present moment that we’re having. Every time The China Cats play a song, it’s a new experience. We’re not playing the 1973 version of the song or the ’79 or the ’92 version. We’re playing the 2017 version of the song.”
The China Cats attract a wide age range. “At our shows, there’s people that were there for Grateful Dead concerts and people who are just getting into the band now. It’s a very universal type of music. Grateful Dead music has a timeless appeal.”
Hartle points to the songwriting as one reason for that appeal. “Grateful Dead music is not about anything immediately topical. It’s about age-old concepts, about just being a human being on planet Earth.”
Jerry Garcia’s inventive, eclectic playing was also key to the Dead’s allure. “He started off as a banjo player,” Hartle said. “That’s another timeless thing about it. He and David Grisman — picture a person with Spanish ancestry and a Jewish guy, both hippies, traveling in the Deep South, in like 1971, hunting down Appalachian music.
“So that kind of folk thing is there in the Dead’s music, too, but then completely psychedelicized. Grateful Dead captures the true spirit of Americana, because all types of music are represented, from folk to reggae to disco. It runs the gamut.”
Hartle, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, didn’t have to take a crash course on the Dead when he joined China Cats. “Throughout the course of my life, Deadheads have always just been there for me, teaching me these songs — and the music has seeped in organically.”
Hartle displays a knack for dazzling with Garcia-style riffs. And renowned Santa Cruz luthier Scott Walker helped Hartle match the purity of Garcia’s guitar tone.
Seeing the Dead play live for the first time was a revelation for Hartle. “From the moment they were tuning up their instruments, they were noodling around, and went into a little something from what was happening. And from that very first moment, I could see, ‘Oh, wow, these guys have been doing this so long, they’re instantly communicating with random notes that are coming out from just getting in tune.‘ It was apparent right from the get-go just how incredible this music was. It was shocking to me how amazing and beautiful it was.”
The China Cats have been joined on stage by Dead compadres Donna Jean Godchaux and Melvin Seals. When the band prepares a set list, the main goal is to make it diversified. In 2016, they played more than 120 different songs. “That keeps it fresh for us and for the people who see us over and over again,” Hartle said. One popular Dead tune is “China Cat Sunflower.”
Hartle, 46, is a busy musician, playing not only in The China Cats, but displaying various aspects of his skills in Shady Groove, Santa Cruz’s Dead, Spirit of ’76 (featuring Jerry Garcia Band music) and Painted Mandolin (focusing on Garcia’s acoustic side, with a lineup including Joe Craven of the Jerry Garcia/David Grisman band).
The China Cats bring the Dead’s music to life. “When you get enough people who were Deadheads and took LSD and danced to the band’s live music, they dance in a certain way that’s very free. And if there’s enough people that already know how to do that, then the people that haven’t really experienced it, it spreads, it rubs off, that freedom.
“There’s a sense of community and audience participation,” Hartle said. “It’s an energy loop. The people who are there feed us energy. We’re playing and feeding it back to them. If it goes well, then it explodes from there.”
Deadheads dig the Cats. “They are the most loving and appreciative fans you can imagine. It’s a very positive vibe at all times. It’s so rewarding, seeing the joy on people’s faces when we play and they cut loose.”
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"China Cats at Moe's Alley last night. There's about 300 or more very loyal fans at just about every one of their shows, and this is a fairly small community. No other local band draws like they do. We wouldn't let them leave till about 1:30 this morning. Matt Hartle was great as usual, as were Steven Sofranko and Scott Cooper. A terrific band, way too improvisational to be called a tribute band. They are inspired by the Grateful Dead, but their takes on this vast array of music is uniquely personal. These guys deserve national exposure."
"I want to THANK YOU, for a REALLY GOOD TIME!"
Neil Hendricks, 9/6/15
"One of the premier tribute bands in Northern California. The group has spent years infusing the classic sensibilities of the Dead's catalog with their own flair and energy" -- Good Times, Santa Cruz
"The China Cats aren’t a cover band," says Nicholas Meriwether, archivist of the Grateful Dead collection at UC Santa Cruz. "They approach the Dead’s work with same kind of reverence and sophistication that the Dead themselves showed in their own forays into American roots music.""When you listen the Cats," Meriweather adds, "old favorites take on new lives, revealing facets that will delight and amaze even jaded listeners. These guys aren’t copycats — their sets demonstrate how the Dead’s music now is a part of the great American songbook, alongside the giants who first inspired the Dead."
"I had a fine time and enjoyed the music very much."
— Rock Scully, former manager, Grateful Dead
"A spot-on, outstanding Grateful Dead tribute band"
— Tom Miller, booking agent, Don Quixote's, Felton, CA
"If you noticed a couple of ol' greyhairs threading through the dancers in front of the stage just before your closing song, by dancing themselves, that was me and my friend :) Loved your rendition of the music of the GD. Keep on keepin'"
— Alan Trist, Ice Nine Publishing
"While the China Cats are able to accurately recreate the sound and energy of the legendary band, they nonetheless infuse their renditions of classic songs with their own flavor. "
"Any tribute band can turn out rote performances of the songs of bygone bands, but to truly capture the spirit of another band—that’s a rare talent. Santa Cruz-based China Cats are unabashedly a Grateful Dead tribute band, but instead of attempting to perform note-perfect renditions of the band’s chestnuts, they attempt to capture that most intangible yet compelling aspect of the Dead’s live shows: the endless jam session. This is no small undertaking, but the China Cats pull it off with an impressive command of their instruments and a symbiotic musical interplay that befits the Grateful Dead’s legacy." -- Santa Cruz Weekly
"The China Cats are widely recognized as the top Dead tribute band in the state and for good reason. The band captures the spirit and detailed music of the Dead while adding their own subtle touch. Not just a a great tribute band, but a great band in general."
-- Sacramento 365
"... reviving the spirit of the legendary band than recreating each tune note for note. Using the Dead's catalog as a launching pad, China Cats then heads off into swirling, uncharted longform jams. "
"The Bay Area's leading Grateful Dead tribute band... Instead of attempting note-for-note re-enactments, the China Cats try to re-create the spirit of the Dead with creative jam sessions. This Bay Area tribute band performs the songs of the Grateful Dead with spirited jams that carry their own genuine personality while paying homage to their musical forefathers."
-- Modesto Bee
"There’s nothing like a good Grateful Dead tribute band. The China Cats uphold the roots-based jams that Garcia, Weir, Hart, Lesh, Godchaux and Kreutzmann invented. Covers of timeless tunes like “Eyes of the World,” “Here Comes Sunshine” and “Morning Dew,” keep Jerry’s legend shining as bright as a fire. The Santa Cruz quintet is made up of true Deadheads."
-- Monterey County Weekly
"... Here's a band you need to catch... As the old saying goes, 'There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert' — and members of Santa Cruz-based band The China Cats take that to heart. The group — beautifully captures the improvisational spirit and psychedelic sound of a Grateful Dead concert, drawing from the legendary band's vast repertoire, with faithful interpretations of songs such as 'Truckin',' 'Eyes of the World,' 'Jack Straw,' 'Terrapin Station' and 'Bertha.' Close your eyes and you'll think you're back at the fabled Fillmore West!"
-- Monterey Herald
"A Grateful Dead tribute band comprised of accomplished veterans and young talents too young to have ever seen the Dead without their Deadhead parents."
-- KGO Radio
"I want to thank you for the terrific performance on the Church Street Stage! You were great and the crowd thoroughly enjoyed your performance. It was all we hoped for."
-- Ellen Primick, Cabrillo Music Festival
"One of the Bay's most esteemed Dead cover bands. Their ability to recreate the sounds of the Grateful Dead is uncanny...just wait for the first three notes of Shakedown Street and you'll feel like you're at Winterland in '78."
-- Cafe du Nord
"The authenticity's in the sound for this local band that plays the music of the Grateful Dead. (They) cover songs from across the Dead's spectrum with extended jams and a sense of spontaneity that ensures every show offers something different."-- Santa Cruz Sentinel, Best Bets, 8/29/08
"At Fernwood, the China Cats will pay homage to an immortal cultural phenomenon. Santa Cruz – the future home of the Grateful Dead Archive at UC Santa Cruz – is the perfect breeding ground for the Dead cover band. Singer/guitarist Scott Cooper experienced his first Dead show in college. “The rest was history,” he says. Cooper says his favorite Dead songs feature Bob Weir’s distinct guitar riffs – “Cassidy,” “Casey Jones” and “Here Comes Sunshine.” Like the Dead, the Cats can play well into the wee hours; at recent show in the Central Valley, they played four encores. Cooper – who teaches guitar at UCSC – is ecstatic about the archive opening on the welcoming campus. “All the Santa Cruz people are honored that it’s here,” he says.
-- Monterey Weekly, May 2010
"Grateful Dead tribute bands are a dime a dozen, rarely capturing any of the Dead's actual appeal or virtuosic jamming, but (The China Cats) actually do the legacy proud. What became a one-off tribute last year among self-professed Deadheads has grown into a primary concern, and for good reason: instead of trying to attempt note-for-note re-enactments, (The China Cats) evoke the spirit of the Dead through limber jams potent enough to give even the sober a contact high."
— Good Times, Santa Cruz
"An excellent Santa Cruz-based Grateful Dead tribute band."
-- Monterey Herald
"... one of the Bay Area's best new Grateful Dead cover bands." 7x7.com