Santa Cruz musician Scott Cooper.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Santa Cruz’s Scott Cooper finds a way to blend his songwriting style into interpretation of the Grateful Dead

At the center of the Grateful Dead subculture in Santa Cruz sits singer, guitarist and songwriter Scott Cooper, one of the five musicians who make up the China Cats. On Wednesday, Cooper will play with his other five-piece band, Rosebud, named for Jerry Garcia’s distinctive guitar.

Every moderately successful classic rock band, it seems, has a tribute act or two these days. (Yes, we live in a world where there’s an all-female Duran Duran tribute band called “Joanne Joanne”).

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But nowhere is the tribute-act phenomenon as rich and varied than in the realm of the Grateful Dead. One chronicler of the Dead tribute scene has counted almost 60 bands in California alone regularly gigging as a Dead tribute act. As the spiritual and literal home to the Grateful Dead Archive, Santa Cruz enjoys more than its share of Dead acts, both homegrown and touring, to the nationally well-known Dark Star Orchestra, to the Los Angeles-based Jerry’s Middle Finger, to Santa Cruz’s own China Cats.

At the center of the Dead subculture in Santa Cruz sits singer, guitarist and songwriter Scott Cooper, one of the five musicians who make up the China Cats — with Matt Hartle, Steve Sofranko, Roger Sideman and Michael Owens. On Wednesday, Cooper will play with his other five-piece band, Rosebud, named for Jerry Garcia’s distinctive guitar.

The crucial difference between the China Cats and Rosebud has to do with repertoire. The Cats — named for the Dead classic song “China Cat Sunflower” — is strictly a Dead tribute act, playing only songs that the Dead would have played during their 30-year reign from the band’s beginnings in the Haight in San Francisco in the mid 1960s to Garcia’s death in 1995.

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Rosebud is a bit more expansive. That band — Cooper, Lachlann Kane, Fred Rodriguez, Andy Birchett and Mark Corsolini — certainly covers Dead tunes, but they expand that set list to include music from various Dead spinoff groups and projects, including the Jerry Garcia Band, Kingfish, and even the bluegrass one-off Old & In The Way. But the mission of Rosebud is even broader than that. The band also mixes in originals, many of which are written by Cooper, who has recorded several albums of his own material.

“It’s all played in the style of the Dead,” Cooper said of his Rosebud project. “When you used to go see the Dead, you never knew what material they were gonna do, and they were always pulling out something new. To me, that was the joy of seeing them. I didn’t want to see them have a limited repertoire of 150, 200 songs, or whatever it was. So Rosebud, to me, is kind of more true to the spirit of the Dead because we’re always introducing new material, as the Dead would have.”

On Wednesday, Thanksgiving eve, Rosebud headlines at Felton Music Hall in a show they’re calling “Friendsgiving.” Cooper and keyboardist Kane contribute original songs that fit snugly with the Dead-oriented material the band plays about half the time. Even so, Cooper said, he does not use Rosebud as a showcase for his eclectic songwriting.

Santa Cruz musician Scott Cooper.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cooper, 56, has been a central figure in the Santa Cruz music scene for close to 30 years, and in that time, he has shown a love for, and a facility with, everything from New Orleans funk to blues to bluegrass.

“I write a lot of stuff,” he said. “Some of it just isn’t in the Dead style at all. And I just don’t do those with Rosebud. I only pick out tunes of mine that are appropriate to that style.”

Friend and fan Andy Shapiro of Santa Cruz loves the China Cats, who have built a substantial following throughout the state. He’s a frequent visitor to Hartle’s Sunday night jam at Michael’s on Main in Soquel. But, Shapiro said of Cooper, “his original music sometimes doesn’t get as widely appreciated.”

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As for the China Cats, Cooper gets to scratch his itch to explore the Dead songbook generally in the role of Bob Weir, Garcia’s longtime bandmate. The China Cats will take the stage on New Year’s Eve at their home stage at Michael’s.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the China Cats were preparing to mark their 10th anniversary as a band. The group first came together in 2010 and have kept the same lineup since then. This year has seen the Cats pick up where they left off pre-pandemic, traveling extensively up and down California, from Humboldt to Ventura and as far east as Lake Tahoe.

Though the China Cats stick closely to the Dead material, Cooper said, what keeps it fresh for him and his bandmates is their insistence on never playing the same set list twice. The band posts their set lists for each performance on their website.

Everyone has different opinions on how to drive the ship. But what has become our M.O. is that we do different material every show.

“Everyone has different opinions on how to drive the ship,” said Cooper of his bandmates. “But what has become our M.O. is that we do different material every show.”

“Scott talks about a lot of different musical influences,” said Shapiro. “He probably talks about Neil Young as an influence as much as he talks about the Dead. But obviously he’s gotten a lot of his recognition from covering Dead songs. And that band has a way of weaving some of those older songs into a modern way of thinking about them and interpreting them.”

“There’s a few tunes that I really don’t need to play anymore,” said Cooper. “But a lot of times, I’ll look at a set list for an upcoming show and I’ll think, Oh, I can’t wait to play that tune and I can’t wait to play that one, too. Those are the really fun tunes to play.”

Scott Cooper and Rosebud play live at Felton Music Hall on Wednesday night. The China Cats headline Michael’s on Main on New Year’s Eve.