By Michele Murphy
The magic happens on stages and dance floors where Santa Cruz’s favorite Grateful Dead tribute band plays to reveling, twirling, cavorting fans.
What makes these cats different? For starters, they seem to have more than the usual allotted nine lives. This improvisational partnership between the same five members has been delighting “deadicated” dancers and toe-tappers alike for over a decade. Matt Hartle shreds on lead guitar, adding soulful vocals that conjure the lofty, lilting, bone-tingling notes of the late, great Jerry Garcia. Mike Owens artfully beats a primal drum, forming the foundation upon which towers of music can be built. Roger Sideman holds down a steady driving bass line with the determination of someone totally committed to the music. Scott Cooper keeps time and everybody spinning with his rhythm guitar and vocals. Steven Sofranko embellishes all the other instrumentation with his improvisational and whimsical prowess on the keys. It’s never just another show, it’s a pulsating, undulating, melodic, dramatic, ecstatic, jubilee!
Often billed as the Bay area’s premier Grateful Dead tribute band, the Cats play over 200 songs from the Dead’s catalog. But make no mistake, this is not a cover band. These guys take the framework of songs that fans have enjoyed for decades and add their own signatures and sensibilities, turning old favorites into exciting new renditions. Each show is a journey for the listeners and for the band, and every set list is carefully thought out. The song selections might reflect current events of the day, or things going on within the tight-knit community that make up the China Cats fiercely loyal local fan base.
You may have caught them headlining at the Redwood Mountain Faire, kicking off the opening of the Grateful Dead Archives at UC Santa Cruz, or at one of many local music venues. Or you may have run into band members around the Valley. Keyboardist and Boulder Creek resident, Steven Sofranko has been teaching at SLVHS since 2001 and gets a huge kick out of learning from his students that their parents love the band; occasionally they even bring the kids to the shows. Lead guitar player and vocalist, Matt Hartle, has been a mobile music teacher for many years and teaches several students guitar and piano throughout the SLV. Drummer Michael Owens and his partner are currently renovating the old Peoples Natural Food store in Felton.
The next opportunity to enjoy the incredible experience of a China Cats show is August 6 and 7 for the traditional “Days Between” celebration at Felton Music Hall marking the anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s birth and passing. This performance also celebrates the return to live performances for the Cats and honors their longevity as a band. The show will feature totally trippy, psychedelic, liquid light, and graphics projected behind the band and throughout the venue by the artistically divine and delightfully demented Stephen Goldsmith of Liquid Light Productions.
China Cats tickets: feltonmusichall.com
Featured photo of China Cats at Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center in Berkeley by Lisa Sofranko