Regan McMahon, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, May 24, 2009
What if the Beatles had gotten off the road and moved to San
Francisco and started playing the Fillmore with Quicksilver and the
That's the fantasy scenario that Oakland singer-songwriter, guitarist
and radio host David Gans comes up with to describe the musical
approach of Rubber Souldiers, a Beatles jam band he formed with Marin
County folk-rock-pop-bluegrass stalwarts Chris and Lorin Rowan, who
with their brother Peter (a member of Jerry Garcia's bluegrass band
Old and in the Way) created the '70s pop band the Rowan Brothers.
Another way to look at it, Gans says, is "Beatles vocabulary with a
Grateful Dead syntax," where songs can intertwine and expand. "The
Beatles wrote all these kick-ass songs and these amazing grooves, and
then they quit 'em after three minutes. And so we're stretching them
out and stringing them together."
For example, the band will do a psychedelic medley that starts with a
spacey jam that goes into "Norwegian Wood," then switches gears into
"That Boy," then morphs back into "Norwegian Wood." At the end of
"All My Loving," they launch into an instrumental jam that downshifts
into a groove that goes back and forth between "Rain" and "Within You
and Without You." Their extended version of "Paperback Writer" slides
into the chorus of "With a Little Help From My Friends," which
evolves into a vocal improv.
The band features the core of Gans and Chris Rowan on guitar, Lorin
Rowan on guitar and mandolin, and all three of them on vocals, with
various musicians holding down the drums and bass at different gigs.
"The essence of Rubber Souldiers is the harmony singing, instrumental
jamming and the experimental approach," Chris Rowan says. "By
expanding on spontaneous things that happen, we're creating our sound."
It's not a Beatles tribute band, Gans says: "It's taking these songs
to a new level."
They're not the only ones who have recently opted for what Chris
Rowan calls "a fresh approach to hallowed ground." For Cirque du
Soleil's "Love," a show set to Beatles music, Beatles producer Sir
George Martin and his engineer son, Giles, took the original tapes
and remixed some of the songs, taking a groove from one and slapping
it onto another. And the 2007 movie "Across the Universe" offered
novel arrangements that introduced a new generation of teenagers to
the power of Beatles songs.
Rubber Souldiers share a similar spirit of experimentation.
"We've written our pieces around their pieces, our hooks around their
hooks. We take some of the more obscure songs and mix them with some
of the more familiar ones. We've opened it up so things flow within
you and without you - to coin a phrase," Lorin Rowan adds with a chuckle.
"It's not just a bar band," Lorin Rowan says, although during the
past few years Rubber Souldiers have played watering holes such as
the Sweetwater in Mill Valley and the Iron Springs Brew Pub in
Fairfax. They plan to record.
The band plays next Sunday at the Larkspur Flower and Food Festival.
The origins of the band date to a moment in July 2004, when Gans
invited the Rowans to appear on his KPFA radio show, "Dead to the
World," to play live songs from their just-released double CD, "Now &
Then," on BOS Music. They came as a quartet, with Dick Bright on
fiddle and Doug Harman on cello. When, as a sound check, they did the
Beatles' "Baby's in Black," Gans says he couldn't help himself and
spontaneously added a third harmony part underneath the Rowans. They
liked it so much they asked him to sing it with them live on the air.
"And when we got off the air, we just kept singing more Beatles
songs," Gans says. "After that, I just got the bug."
A couple of months later, Gans' dear friend and business manager,
Goldie Rush, was dying of cancer and inviting friends - many of them
longtime Bay Area musicians - to visit her at the house in Stinson
Beach where she was staying. Gans invited the Rowans to go out and
play Beatles songs all day in her living room, and they brought with
them jam-band guitarist and pedal-steel player Barry Sless, who plays
with Moon Alice and occasionally with Phil Lesh and Friends.
50 Beatles songs
"We must have played 50 Beatles songs that day," Gans recalls, "and
we had the time of our lives."
After that, he kept inviting the Rowans and other musicians to join
him onstage to play Beatles songs. Sometimes on bass would be Robin
Sylvester, who plays with Bob Weir's band RatDog. He's English and
grew up on Beatles music.
"When Lorin and I would get into arguments about chord changes, Robin
became the adjudicator of Beatle court," Gans says. "He's an absolute
encyclopedia of Beatles music."
Gans has many musical irons in the fire at all times. He hosts his
nationally syndicated radio show "The Grateful Dead Hour" and is
programming consultant to Sirius Radio's Grateful Dead channel and
co-hosts its Sunday afternoon talk show, "Tales From the Golden
Road." And he's often on the road himself, playing clubs and music
festivals, such as Florida's Magnolia Fest, where Rubber Souldiers
played in October and were invited back for the Suwannee Springfest
in March. Gans' latest self-released solo CD is "The Ones That Look
the Weirdest Taste the Best," produced by Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth.
"The more I was out on the road playing solo, the more I wanted to
break things up by doing things with other musicians," Gans says.
"Musicians of a certain age grew up with Beatles music, and it's in
our DNA. Anybody I can imagine who's in their 40s, 50s or 60s,
without even thinking about it, can find their way into a Beatles
song. And, with a little study, we can work them up and do something
At a recent Ashkenaz gig, Bay Area folk favorites Eric and Suzy
Thompson sat in.
"They're like old-time bluegrass-zydeco people, and it was a little
like fish out of water to have them do Beatles songs with us," Gans
says. "But even if your specialty is something else, you know Beatles
songs. They got up onstage with us and stayed for the whole night and
it was fantastic."
Backstage, before they went on that night, Gans suggested they do
"All Together Now" from the end of the movie "Yellow Submarine."
"Lorin counted it down at this absurd, super-fast tempo, and it
turned out to be the perfect hoedown song for Suzy to go wild on the
fiddle, Eric on the mandolin," Gans says. "So it turned out to be an
Lorin Rowan sees the genre bending and blending as a natural evolution.
"You see what the Beatles took from American music, and now we're
taking that and adding everything from our American musical
traditions and throwing it back at them," he says. " 'I've Just Seen
a Face': that's bluegrass. We do an a cappella 'Yesterday' that's
almost the Beach Boys meets the Beatles. We're using all the
influences we grew up with."
Chris Rowan has been a die-hard Beatles fan forever and played in a
Beatles cover band called Lonely Hearts off and on for 15 years,
before it "slid into oblivion" about 10 years ago, he says. In 1969,
at age 20, he flew to England to pursue his dream of "getting
involved with the Beatles and Apple records." He even tried to meet
Paul McCartney at his home in St. John's Wood.
At Paul's door
"I had a frame pack on my back with all my clothes in it," he
recalls. "I had an acoustic guitar in one hand and an electric guitar
in the other. And I went up to the house, where there was an
intercom. I rang the bell and his wife, Linda Eastman, answered and
said hello. And I said, 'I'm Chris Rowan and I'm a singer-songwriter
from America and I'd like to sing Paul a few songs.' There was dead
silence on the other end. Then, finally, she came on and said, 'Paul
doesn't want to see anyone right now.' So I left, dejected."
He did connect with someone at Apple Records who liked his demo, but
the Beatles' fledgling label was in the process of imploding, so that
didn't work out. He scored a publishing deal elsewhere, and an agent,
but after two months returned to Boston, where he, Lorin and Peter
Rowan got involved with David Grisman, which led them to California
and a record deal as the Rowan Brothers.
"I compare my love of the Beatles to my older brother Peter's love of
bluegrass and his mentor, Bill Monroe - having that love and wanting
to share that with other people," Chris Rowan says. With Rubber
Souldiers, "we're honoring the Beatles' music but also making it our
Rubber Souldiers play at 2:15 p.m. next Sun. at the Larkspur Flower
and Food Festival, Magnolia Avenue between Ward and King streets,
Larkspur, (415) 924-3808. For more information, go to rubbersouldiers.com.
Regan McMahon is a freelance writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.