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Not your typical tribute band

Kuli Loach pays homage to Grateful Dead, mixes take on classics with original material
Long-time Deadheads Members of Kuli Loach return to Whistler to play a blend of original material and Grateful Dead classics

Who: Kuli Loach

When: Saturday, June 7, 10 p.m.

Where: GLC

Tickets: $10

With Mick Lane on rhythm guitar, Ed Coke on percussion and harmonica, Ron Dickson on lead guitar, Larry Penoza on bass guitar, and all four on vocals, Kuli Loach seems to have the basics of The Grateful Dead down pat.

This Seattle-based band has been jamming together for over 20 years now, but they just began migrating north to perform in Whistler a few short years ago.

Their last show in Whistler was back in February, when they played to a packed house at Dusty’s.

“We tend to do our best when we can feed off a room like that,” said Dickson. “It kind of self-perpetuates the energy.”

Surprisingly, Deadheads come out of the woodwork, even when they play in small towns like Whistler.

“It seems everywhere you go, if you scratch a little beneath the surface, they’re there,” Dickson said with a laugh.

But Kuli Loach isn’t all about doing covers — they also throw some of their own material into the mix. They’re actually getting ready to head into the studio to record some of their tunes, and are working hard on polishing up some of their own songs.

“We do about a third Dead, about a third of our own stuff, and about a third of others, like Bob Dylan,” Dickson explained, adding that their first few shows in Whistler leaned heavily towards the Dead covers to allow people to get acquainted with the band.

If you missed the last few shows, and haven’t read between the lines yet, it kind of goes without saying that these guys are true Deadheads.

“There’s just a real personal quality to it, that going to a Grateful Dead show is like attending a huge house party with 10,000 of your best friends, and everybody’s friends with the band, and it just had that vibe to it. They were real people, they weren’t rock gods,” Dickson explained.

Hearing Dickson talk about the years before the Dead caught on in the mainstream makes you want to travel back in time, and join in the brotherhood and camaraderie that fans felt with the band.

“When you run into a Deadhead anywhere around, its just like you’ve immediately got this bond with this stranger, and it’s still out there,” Dickson said. “…For a long time, that was a great thing, because they remained our band. It was a secret that you had with your friends — you’d see stickers on cars and you’d pull up alongside and wave.”

The music of the Grateful Dead wasn’t just about cars and girlfriends, like other popular music of the time, and the lyrics and performances spoke to people on a much deeper level.

To this day, Dickson said members of Kuli Loach really feel a connection with their audience when they play shows in smaller communities like Whistler.

“Still, people come up just glowing and saying they just loved to hear the music again and really are appreciative,” he said.

One of their most memorable gigs took place back in 1998, when they traveled to Amsterdam to participate in a worldwide Grateful Dead celebration. It was held at the Paradiso, an old church that had been converted into a venue.

They played alongside a French band that did Dead covers they had translated into French, and a band out of New York that had put together complicated, big band arrangements of Dead classics. The experience really opened the eyes of Dickson and the band, and showed just how powerful the Grateful Dead’s music actually was.

“We’re all in it for the same reason, but everybody comes at it from so many different directions and they all have their own interpretation of it.”

When the members of Kuli Loach first got together their intention wasn’t to replicate the Dead — they wanted to make their own music. But they eventually found that people were requesting more Dead songs.

“It was really with Jerry (Garcia)’s passing in ’95 that shifted the focus where our crowds just overwhelmingly wanted to hear Grateful Dead and we started kind of taking the responsibility.”

It wasn’t a responsibility that they took lightly — the band wanted to make sure they did the songs they loved justice.

Now, they go into each performance with a “pick list” of songs they want to play, starting out with one song, letting it evolve naturally, and listening for the telltale segue into the next song.

“We just try to leave things open, but be prepared to go where the music might want to go,” Dickson explained.

While a lot of the Dead’s music is bluegrass and blues-based, Kuli Loach rehearses each song thoroughly before taking it out on stage.

“The audience knows when you’re going through the motions, and when the song is so emotionally charged, people either have a real intense relationship to the lyrics or they remember where they were when they heard this song last, and those are kind of memories you have to be really respectful of,” Dickson said. He added that they are trying to embody the spirit of the Dead’s music, not copy it note for note.

They also shied away from tackling some of their deeper ballads for a long time.

“It’s not so much that the song is technically difficult, but it was that this means so much to people that I don’t want to be stuck with the label of, ‘oh, you’re that band that butchered that song,’” said Dickson. “…We kind of respectfully approached a lot of these songs over time.”

The real beauty of playing music they truly love is that they will never get tired of it.

“I don’t know what the Dead’s songbook is — I mean, it’s gotta be over 500, 700 songs or something,” Dickson said, “so there’s still plenty we haven’t picked up yet.”