In 1972, David Gans' roommate dragged him to a Grateful Dead concert, and his life was changed forever. From then on, all his musical endeavors have been Dead-oriented. He started playing Dead-influenced music at what he calls "steak-'n'-lobster" gigs. He drew crowds from his generation and others with a taste of the past and a hint of the future. Two decades later, Gans now takes his solo act on tour, playing festivals and hooking up with world-renowned jam bands such as String Cheese Incident and Phil Lesh & Friends. He continues to stay connected to local bands in the East Bay, showcasing them on his radio show, the Grateful Dead Radio Hour, on KFOG. He still looks the part, too: usually adorned in gray sweatpants, tie-dye shirt, round tinted shades, and long gray hair tied into a ponytail.
Gans, who has lived near Lake Merritt for the past 35 years, is a classic jammer. He's known to the community as an accomplished guitarist and a symbol of the old days with a modern twist, using technology such as a looping device. But his strength is remaining loyal to music of the Sixties and Seventies, from the Dead to the Doobie Brothers. It's a philosophy that he eventually used to create perhaps his most successful endeavor to date.
One fateful day in the KFOG studio, Gans invited local musicians Lorin and Chris Rowan to play a segment. As the two tuned their instruments, they started playing a Beatles song. Unable to resist, Gans chimed in with his baritone voice and the classic Beatles three-part harmony filled the room. The jam turned into Gans' newest project: Rubber Souldiers.
To the casual listener, Rubber Souldiers appears to be a mere cover band. To old hippies, it's a trip down memory lane. But to the musicians themselves, the band is an improvisational take-off of the British legends, influenced by the Beatles but in no way a clone.
"We're not a tribute band," Lorin said. "The concept is to continue seeking out new capillaries, new brain cells to Beatles songs."
The band is starting to take on its own "identity," said Gans. The band visits Florida twice a year for the Magnolia Festival and has played festivals in Northern California through word-of-mouth. Gans attributes the band's swift popularity to the ability of Beatles songs to transgress generations of listeners.
"They've kept their catalog fresh," said Gans. "When the movie Across the Universe hit theaters, a whole new generation was introduced to their music. I think there is a revival of Beatles music among young people who heard that."
The result is what Gans envisions the Beatles would sound like if they had become a San Francisco band and written songs that were longer than three minutes. Rubber Souldiers turn the original songs into ten-minute jams, melding multiple songs together and sometimes drifting into a different sound completely.
"We take those songs and stretch them out," Gans said. "We shuffle them like a deck of cards. We're reverent in that we're giving them a lot of love, but we're irreverent in that we're adapting their music to our own style."
After years of typical hippie strife in the music biz, Gans has found a unique formula to bring him into mainstream popularity. He's moving listeners in the direction of musical appreciation and old-school talent by bringing back the brilliance of the Beatles and the jamability of the Dead.
But Gans says perhaps the greatest thing he learned from the Dead was that storytelling and causing a political and emotional stir are the backbone of creating great music. "Whatever people think about the Grateful Dead, they were great storytellers," Gans said. "I also grew up thinking music was going to change the world. I'm a diehard, Sixties, tree-hugging, world-changing kind of guy, and I write songs about that kind of stuff."
His philosophies and current musical style are best exemplified in his new solo album, The Ones that Look the Weirdest Taste the Best. The first track, "Shove in the Right Direction," perhaps best sums up the current stage of his musical career. "Save Us from the Saved" is critical of the conservative religious right who condemn what Gans considers natural freedoms such as abortion rights and marijuana use. He may be becoming more aggressive as his music develops, but his philosophy and style remain constant.
"Music is art and art is not a mirror to reflect the world but a hammer with which to shape it," said Gans. "I don't have a heavy-handed agenda. I'm just a guy who wants to enlighten and persuade. You can't change the world through coercion."
Gans continued to expand his musical knowledge in the form of freelance writing and photography. In the 1970s he worked a series of day jobs, including his radio show on KFOG and for the long-defunct BAM magazine, interviewing everyone from Leo Fender, creator of the Fender guitar, to the Grateful Dead themselves. On a press junket in 1982 when he traveled to Jamaica to cover the Dead, Gans schmoozed up Peter Simon and the editor of Simon's book, Playing in the Band: An Oral and Visual Portrait of the Grateful Dead. The goal was to sell some of Gans' photos, but with his credentials and a bit of luck — Simon's writer had just dropped out of the deal — Simon soon signed up Gans as the co-author of the book. "My whole life I've been able to be a musician," Gans said. "I've been able to play and find related ways to really make a living."
Three decades of music education has brought Gans to where he is today, analyzing music from the past and shaping it to the jamability of the modern jam scene. He continues to perform solo throughout the country but holds a special place in his heart for the Rowan brothers and Rubber Souldiers. Lorin and Chris describe him as the fourth Rowan (Peter, who also performs on the road, is the third Rowan brother). And their family continues to expand. Rather than take a full band on the road, the trio picks up local musicians along the way and gets them into the groove. Thanks to Rubber Souldiers, the Sixties are getting new life in the 21st century.