Dead As Ever: Meet The Rising Dark Star Of Boston’s Jam Band Scene

Images courtesy of David Rubin

“I just love the marriage of soul with these kinds of jazzy elements and improvisations … It’s just a good time … That’s something I really identified with.”

On an evening earlier this year when I first went to see them jam at the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain, Dave Rubin and the Diamond Blues put on a jaw-dropping, heart-thumping, head-twirling show.

There was a quiet snow falling outside the windows, but the view of the street was mostly obscured by glowing beer decor and people. Above us, multi-colored bulbs glowed across the ceiling, reflecting off the fat, smooth wooden wraparound bar.

Not wanting to miss any of the show, we arrived slightly early for the band, which in addition to Rubin features Lucas Bateman on drums, Ian Brenkle on bass, Caroline Killoh on keys, backing vocals from Madolyn Allison, and Chris Belden on sax. I chose not to wear tie-dye because I didn’t want to look like a poser, still self-conscious of my recently found love for the Grateful Dead. But to no surprise, there were plenty of swirling colors and skulls in the room. The audience ranged from college kids on a feverish search for heady jams, to older fans reliving their glory days.

One showgoer had just finished mauling half a mound of lo mein at the bar and journeyed over to the cushioned chairs at the back of the room to schmooze with a couple sitting there. He stopped just short of the chairs and gazed at the back wall that was covered in concert bills, photos, and other memorabilia, with electric guitars solemnly standing guard below the ceiling.

He motioned with grand gestures at one or more of the photos, seemingly sharing some memory or insight with the couple. The man then stopped abruptly, as if remembering what he was trying to do all along, and pulled a fortune from his pocket, the kind you get from cookies. He held the tiny paper up to the dim glowing lights and read it, then nodded, crumpled up the fortune, shoved it in his pocket, and continued down the bar.

The band began to play. As the fans who were smoking outside rushed in, their damp shoe prints seemed to dance after them on the worn ground. “Shakedown Street” blared through the loudspeakers at either end of the stage, and it felt like I was witnessing the start of something special.

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!

And in that moment, it felt like we really were at the heart of it: a hardy, ripe old club where everyone got together without judgment to dance the night away and celebrate life together. I felt lucky to be in this small intimate room among masterful musicians, following cues of the bandleader, 23-year-old Berklee student and guitarist David Rubin.

There’s something extraordinary about Rubin’s guitar playing—not only is he technically talented, but it’s evident that he feels every note deeply, eyes closed and sparks flying. At the Midway, Rubin’s knees bounced and head bobbed as he leaned into a solo, his guitar piercing straight through the dark bar air and embracing the audience with ribbons of melody. Bold and commanding, yet patient, reassuring, and nostalgic. A real tribute to Jerry Garcia. The crowd cheered in approval, the energy in the room electrified by Rubin’s deft performance.

Two disco balls of varying sizes hung above the stage, catching quick glimmers of the soft, multi-colored lighting.

Jay Balerna, owner of Midway Cafe, shared that the venue’s Grateful Dead nights always draw a crowd. “We love Dave,” he said, adding how aside from being a gifted guitarist, Rubin has built up a Wednesday residency at the Midway with the Diamond Blues and holds a regular spot in their Friday Hippie Hour with the Mystical Misfits or Uncle Johnny’s Band. 

Having been to at least 50 Dead shows himself, Balerna smiled and acknowledged how the patrons show up in their tie-dyes to support the local acts. “The community aspect is really great,” he said, noting that Dead nights at Midway Cafe have been going down for 10 years, having started with John Frazee and Maak “the Hippie” Pelletier.

Speaking of the tightknit local aspect, Rubin added, “I see [these people] every week. I love that. When I go out and play, that’s when I see everybody and catch up.”

From Deadhead to band leader

“I’m a huge fan of old soul music … all like ’50s and ’60s jazz records.” 

Rubin may be deep into the Dead, but his musical tastes range from the aforementioned to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. He didn’t truly discover his biggest influence until halfway through his teenage years.

Unaware of the life-altering experience he was about to have, a 15-year-old Dave Rubin sat with his back touching the back wall of the DCU Center in Worcester waiting for Dead and Company to take the stage. It was the band’s seventh date on their debut tour in the fall of 2015.

Rubin was in the nosebleeds with friends, but by the time the second set rolled around, they had sneaked their way down to the one-hundred section right behind the floor, front and center. Rubin smirked at this juvenile memory, but then he spoke with a seriousness.

“It was a mind blowing show for me at the time, and it was really a life-changing experience.”

This was his first Dead and Co. show, but it would not be his last. Rubin reminisced about traveling to see the band, smiling at memories of retreating up to the lawn at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin because the lower seats were too cramped.

Rubin said he never ditched his initial influences after finding the Dead, and instead became involved with the Diamond Blues “at a time when I was listening to soul music.”

“I just love the marriage of soul with these kinds of jazzy elements and improvisations,” Rubin said. “And [Jerry Garcia Band, Garcia’s leading side project] just has this old school dance party kind of vibe which I really love, you know, blaring sax and all this. It’s just a good time. So that’s something I really identified with.”

His most recent project, the David Rubin Band, features its namesake on guitar and vocals, Liam Oulton on bass, Gordon Fromm on keys, Lucas Bateman on drums, James Hooper on saxophone, and Johnny Glennon on trumpet. Notably, they’re playing original songs that Rubin said mainly stem from beyond his usual sphere: “The idea is taking a lot of influences outside of jam bands and kind of bringing that into the fold.”

Asked about how improvisation factors into the song-writing process, Rubin said he tries to “keep it in the mix, 100%” when performing, but is currently “just trying to write a decent song.” Whatever they’re doing, it’s promising; on the strength of past projects and performances, Rubin’s new band’s Midway debut in April drew about 50 people, from college student newbies to Hippie Hour regulars.

During their set, Rubin joyously debuted a new original, which he announced was “Untitled, that’s how new it is,” which has now been dubbed “Wildflower.” The crowd moved and cheered the whole time, his rippin’ jam at the center of the action. 

The graduate

As of the time when I reported this profile from winter into spring, Rubin was finishing his last semester at Berklee College of Music, working as a freelance mixing/mastering sound engineer, and playing with six bands: Owsley’s Owls, Diamond Blues, Uncle Johnny’s Band, Stone Dead, Reckoning Crew, and the David Rubin Band. Things are moving forward for a lot of the acts; the Diamond Blues, for one, are playing the Stone Jack Ball festival in Maine in August.

While he improvises guitar riffs on stage, Rubin said he also appreciates “the technical side of recording a band,” adding, “I think that ties back to what I was saying, that I want to write a good song. I love recorded music, listening to what you produce, and cool sounding albums … I think it’s amazing when you can capture a real vibe on the record that just, like, stays.”

“I have been working with Dave and his band here and there for a couple years now.” Collaborator and musician Max Chase spoke about Rubin’s talent and hustle. The pair recently recorded some of Rubin’s originals on Chase’s Hammond organ. Chase continued … 

“The Grateful Dead tribute scene is a crowded corner of the music business, but Dave, combined with his skills on the guitar, has carved out his own fandom through performances with area GD tributes and his own projects.”

Follow David Rubin and the Diamond Blues on Instagram for more info on upcoming shows, including a residency at the Burren and shows at Midway Cafe.