The Roy Jay Band – opening for Donna the Buffalo on Saturday night at Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs – has just enough connections with the Grateful Dead to make them sound like they belong in the same family without coming across as copycats. Dennis McNally (the Dead’s historian for more than two decades) is the band’s publicist, and Rob Wasserman (longtime bassist for Dead guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Bob Weir’s Ratdog) plays on Roy Jay’s second album “Joy Ray.”
The touring band has an incredibly broad background. While lead guitarist John Zias has the distinction having been in possibly the first ever Grateful Dead cover band – Cavalry, back in 1969 – he’s also studied with jazz master Pat Metheny at Berklee and with Al Di Meola and Elliot Easton of the Cars. Sax player Regi Oliver has toured 38 countries with bluesman Lucky Peterson, is a grantwriter and fellow of the California Arts Council. Percussionist Dan DeGregory is married to a Pulitzer Prize winner. Keyboardist Carson Cohen writes left-handed and plays bass right-handed. And bassist Brad Rhea has been in many classic rock bands. “There’s a common thread,” says guitarist-vocalist-bandleader Roy Jay. “Most of us were big Dead heads.”
You can hear the influence on the band’s new album, especially on “Kinsale,” which has that elusive Jerry Garcia karma in its melody. “That tune is particularly dear to me because I wrote the lyrics to that tune in Ireland, and that’s actually the first tune I took into (producer) Chris (Seefried) where I’d completely written the lyrics, and they were completely done.”
Seefried plays guitar in Rosanne Cash’s touring band, and he’s led his own bands, too, including Gods Child, Joe 90 and Low Stars. He produced and co-wrote Fitz & the Tantrums’ EP “Songs for A Breakup” and their album “Pickin’ Up The Pieces.”
“The band itself likes playing that song. When you’re opening for people like Little Feat, Donna the Buffalo and the Radiators, we don’t get a tremendous amount of time, and we don’t have a whole lot of slots in our set list for slower tunes, but since it had that finish on it – first of all, they like the song to begin with. Then the
finish kind of takes it away from a slow tune anyway. So they nominate that song for that slot as much as I let them. They really enjoy playing that song. I suppose I should say, we really enjoy playing that song.”
The band does on average two Dead covers per set to give the audience a reference point. These cuts are almost as true to form as the covers by Dead cover bands like Dark Star Orchestra, but it’s the originals that give the listener an almost mystical feel that Roy and his band may be channeling Jerry.
Roy describes Jerry’s enduring appeal: “It’s the melodicism of his entire presentation. He never did anything that didn’t have a melodic intent to it even when he was playing rhythm. And when you get right down to it, you should be able to identify somebody’s guitar playing from just a couple of notes, and his is quintessential. It’s also the way it came out from his brain into his fingers into his guitar. I was listening to Sirius/XM yesterday, and just like the wealth of material they’ve recorded over the years is astounding. You’re always able to discover something new that you never heard. It just blows your mind.”
Roy Jay’s maturity is a plus in his music, and there’s a reason his resume is shorter than that of some of his band members even though he’s in his 40s. “I played music in college for four or five years. I mean the raw truth has been told to everyone whose written a story, and it gets compressed into something that’s a little bit print-friendly or radio-friendly, but the raw truth is I played for four or five years in college, and my girlfriend got pregnant, and I had to get a job ’cause I wasn’t quite ready to earn a living as a musician, and that kind got in the way for about 20 years.”
But what about the name game here? It was after dinner and three bottles of wine that Roy and his producer Chris agreed on a name for the second album, “Joy Ray.”
Joy Ray, Roy Jay, get it?
“We were just having dinner one night, and somehow we got around to mispronunciations of my name, and Chris said something about Joy Ray, and I was thinking, ‘No, no one has ever called me that.’ Then he started laughing and said, ‘You’re the joy ray,’ and I said, ‘Well, there you go. There’s the record name.’ And I go into the studio the next day, and our engineer Seth (Atkins Horan) has already got this mocked up almost virtually the way you see it on the cover of the CD. So we contacted Edward Rowles, who drew the picture.”
The typeface appearing on the cover of the CD is exactly the same for both the album title and the artist’s name with a – you guessed it – ray gun illustration. And, since Roy Jay isn’t exactly a household name, it’s sure to cause some confusion. Which one is the CD title, and which is the artist’s – or band’s – name?
“I wanted to call the band the Magic Nuts,” says Roy Jay, “but the band refused.” You can probably surmise the origins of their reticence.
“September 2010 was the first real tour we did, and I had to name the band. So I’m trying to come up with names, and nothing’s working. I’m like, ‘Fine! We’ll just do it, but the funny thing was soon as I dubbed it officially the Roy Jay Band, the second person I told that to asked me whether I was Roy or Jay.”
By the way, Jay’s full name is Roy Joseph Ray. “I was going to say Junior, but it’s not junior because my dad’s name was Leroy, but, no, that’s me!”
By the way, the band that Roy Jay is opening for Saturday night is an Ithaca-based Tier jam band that itself has a “storied” name that arose when Dawn of the Buffalo was misheard as Donna the Buffalo.
The Roy Jay Band opens for Donna the Buffalo at 9pm on Saturday (September 10) at Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs. Tickets are $20. The Roy Jay Band is also headlining at 7pm tonight (September 7) at the Hudson River Music Hall in Hudson Falls. Chuck Kelsey opens. Tickets are $20 at the door.
Story by Don Wilcock, editor in chief of the weekly ezine BluesWax