By Liz Tracy
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Every Saturday night at Tavern 213, several pairs of women's shoes can be found lined up along the banister that surrounds the bar's small stage. There are clogs, sandals, sneakers, stacked-heel pumps. It looks like some kind of strange offering or sacrifice to the four guys on stage, collectively known as Uncle John's Band.
Actually the shoes are a tribute to the band, which plays mostly Grateful Dead tunes and other classic rock songs from the '60s. Most of the audience is composed of young hippie-type women who, in the spirit of a bygone era, dance barefoot in front of the stage. Around midnight, the bar gets so packed it's difficult to squeeze through the door, and even the shoes have to fight for space on the railing.
The members of Uncle John's Band aren't exactly rock-star types. Vaughn Dawson, on keyboards and lead vocals, is a computer consultant. Drummer Mark Robin works as a district manager for a software company. Rob Bienstock, the band's leader and lead guitarist, is a programmer. Jim Hibel, on bass, doesn't work in the software industry -- he's a psychology professor. With his curly white hair, bushy mustache, and full beard, Hibel bears some resemblance to the late Jerry Garcia, but 100 pounds lighter.
But Bienstock feels the closest to Garcia, thanks to a distinctive rosewood guitar, modeled on one of Garcia's favorites, that he acquired a couple of years ago. It was made by Stephen Ray Cripe of Tampa. Cripe showed up to an Uncle John's band gig in Miami several years ago and handed Bienstock a business card made of wood. Bienstock thought nothing of it until, some months later, he read an article in Guitar Player magazine and saw Cripe's name.
"The story was that every guitar-builder in the country was building guitars and mailing them off to Jerry Garcia, because if he ever played them on stage, it would be instant fame for the builder," says Bienstock. "Anyway, he [had] rooms full of hundreds of guitars, but this guy Cripe sent him one. Apparently Jerry just put it aside, but down the road a little bit, he picked it up and realized it was the best he'd ever played. And it became his favorite guitar."
Bienstock called up Cripe and asked him to build an exact replica of the Garcia guitar, with a few minor modifications. "He had to toil three or four months on that," says Bienstock, who paid $4000 for the finished product. It's the last of its kind: In 1996, Cripe was killed in an explosion while making fireworks in his toolshed.
Bienstock makes good use of the instrument. Uncle John's Band, like the Grateful Dead, is known for its extended jam sessions and improvisational exercises, and everyone gets a turn to strut his stuff. On a recent Saturday, while the drummer went into a freeform solo, the rest of the band members simply wandered off stage and began drinking.
Anyone who's still making the long, strange trip through the '60s is invited to make a rest stop at Tavern 213, Southwest 2nd Street, Fort Lauderdale, every Saturday. Kick off your shoes and stay a while.