The Grateful Dead’s music is an ocean of infinite possibility. Ship of Fools sets sail with every concert.
Ship of Fools is a band. The Grateful Dead’s music is the ocean on which it sails. Its core band members are bass guitarist Mike Hoffman, rhythm guitarist and singer Cameron Williams, vocalist and mandolin-player Turner Moore, vocalist and lead guitarist Nate Howell and drummer and vocalist Doug Rogells. They play all over town and occasionally on literal ships at sea. We recently spoke to Moore about what keeps this band of brothers going.
How did you fall under the Grateful Dead’s spell?
“Estimated Prophet” first got me hooked. I heard that song on a mix tape my brother made for me in 1983. I thought: “What is this crazy band? What’s this crazy song?”
Why do you love the Dead?
What sets the Dead apart is their music is always different. It’s not just “baby, baby” love songs. They weren’t limited to one mood, one genre, a few hits. They would sing a spacey song like “Dark Star.” They would sing about characters and tell stories about Wild West shootouts and poker games. Their music is an ocean of infinite possibilities. You can explore it forever and never get bored.
Hence “Ship of Fools.”
Speaking of which, who plays what, and who sings what?
I cover about 40% of the vocals. I also play mandolin in the rhythm section and try not to step on the keyboard — and that’s a challenge because it’s in the same high register. Nate, our lead guitar player, also does a phenomenal job interpreting Jerry Garcia’s vocals. Douglas Rogells, our primary drummer, keeps driving the train. Our bass player, Mike Hoffman, totally captures the feeling of Phil’s playing. (Without the right bass player, a Dead band just doesn’t cut it.) Cameron Williams is outstanding on rhythm guitar and harmonica. Starting this summer, Jeremy Egglefield became our permanent special guest on keyboard. He’s been a great addition.
Is the local Deadhead subculture alive and well?
Absolutely. As a fan and a band member, it’s been very rewarding to see that community grow. It’s like a big circle of friends. Just this morning, I was walking my dog and met another guy walking his dog. He had on a Dead shirt. I said, “Wow, nice shirt.” We felt an immediate affinity.
What unfolds at a typical Ship of Fools concert?
There’s no such thing, really. Our music is always fluid and changing. We have about 250 songs in our repertoire, and that gives us a lot of flexibility. So if it’s Sunday at Stottlemyer’s [Smokehouse], we feel wide open. We might play late ’60s psychedelic Dead, ’80s Dead, country, bluegrass, songs from the Jerry Garcia band, New Riders of the Purple Sage or whatever we want. Saturday night at Growler’s is usually a more traditional Dead show. At Mattison’s or the Blue Rooster, we’ll tend to do more covers — and the Dead played tons of covers. Depending on audience, venue, day and time, we’ll adjust to keep people happy.
As a tribute band, how do you make the Dead’s music yours?
Instrumentation is a major part of it. A lot of that’s me. The Grateful Dead didn’t have a mandolin player. Our medleys also set us apart; we’ll play some unique song combinations the Dead didn’t play but could have.
Do you work out your set list before each concert or go with the flow?
We’ll usually start with one. The worst thing in the world is to be standing on stage going, “What do you want to play?” “I dunno. What do you want to play?”
You’re a Dead band, but you don’t want any dead air.
Exactly. So we’ll start with a working list. We might deviate from it in the flow of the performance, but it’s a structure to stand on.
In concert, how does it feel when everything’s going well?
It’s so much fun to feel like you’re on the train, and it’s rolling down the track. When the crowd’s dancing, you sound great, you’re hearing little surprises from your bandmates, you’re in the moment, and [you’re] getting goosebumps? That’s it. You’ve arrived. And that’s why we do what we do. There’s really nothing better.