Iconic North Tampa venue Skipper’s Smokehouse has long been a refuge for peanut-butter crunchy and strawberry jammy vibrations, and one of its longtime residents, Uncle John’s Band, has been drawing hundreds of warm bodies to the scuffed, plank-boarded Skipperdome dance floor for upwards of 15 years. In fact, this September marks UJB’s 16th anniversary heading up the venue’s weekly Grateful Dead Night.
Bassist/singer Mike Edwards formed the tribute band with his two brothers, mostly for fun, back in ’89. The Grateful Dead rarely toured in Florida, however, and UJB unwittingly filled a void Edwards didn’t know existed: ’Heads desperately seeking a live fix and the warm community vibe the Dead had so lovingly cultivated for more than two decades. As their audience grew, Edwards got more serious about gigging and when he received a phone call from Estimated Band asking if UJB was interested in filling their Thursday night Dead slot at Skipper’s, he jumped at the chance.
That was in 1998. This past May, Uncle John’s Band celebrated its 800th Skipperdome show. “I’m very surprised the family is this big, this late; I thought it would dwindle,” Edwards said in a recent interview. “But it’s gotten stronger. I see these kids at Skipper’s, they know the words to the songs better than I do and they’re 20 years old. It’s a very heartwarming feeling.”
His brothers abandoned the UJB ship long ago, but Edwards couldn’t be more pleased with the talented group of musicians who currently join him — drummers Dan DeGregory and Mike Bortz, keys player Art Nelson, and guitarists Alan Gilman and Rich Whiteley — and who’ve played together for so long they’ve established a powerful live dynamic. Their continued success is due in no small part to their reverence for the Dead’s material and the Dead’s core improvisational values; they perform shows like the Dead did, a 90-minute first set and two-hour second set, maintain a similar approach to setlists and song placement, and leave plenty of room for stretching it out. “To be involved in something at that level, with the music that you love so much, it’s the secret of life almost. It’s a bowl of cherries,” Edwards gushed. “What else could you want, being in a local band? You go out and play the music you’ve loved your entire life, and they give you money for it and ask you to come back next week…”
Maintaining a reputation of excellence has afforded UJB some pretty exciting opportunities performing with former members of the Dead — keyboardists Tom Constantin and Vince Welnick, and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux — and they have no problem booking gigs around town beyond the weekly Skipperdome residency. “I’m very proud of it,” Edwards said. “It’s been a long strange trip, and I don’t expect it to stop all too soon.”
Uncle John’s Band has a busy schedule ahead coinciding with the anniversaries of Jerry Garcia’s birth (August 1) and death (August 9), including two special editions of Grateful Dead Night on July 31 and August 7. Visit unclejohnsband.com for info.
Skipper’s Smokehouse is located at 910 Skipper Road, in Tampa; 813-971-0666, skipperssmokehouse.com.