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A big, burly presence hovers near the bar at Sneakers Sports Grill in Hollywood on a recent Friday evening. The entity is invisible but unmistakable as B.O.B., a five-piece band formerly known as Britain On The Bay, plays songs by the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, and other classic rockers. A handful of fans, some in tie-dyed T-shirts, some in peasant skirts, twirl their arms in the claustrophobic four-foot space between the stage and the bar. They're too blissed-out to let a mere lack of space stand in the way of their reverie.
The presence in the bar is, of course, the ghost of Jerry Garcia. The late Grateful Dead leader is kept alive in South Florida by bands such as B.O.B., Crazy Fingers, and Uncle John's Band, whose musical careers are built on playing the Dead's repertoire. But B.O.B. also writes and plays its own, original material. And while the band readily acknowledges the Dead's influence, it's also searching for its own identity.
"Even when we play Dead songs, you're not going to a Dead show, you're going to a B.O.B. show," says guitarist and singer Paul Waxman. "If you like the Dead you're gonna like B.O.B., but you'll like B.O.B. for B.O.B. Many people I talk to say we just give them that kind of feeling, where they can just go and have a good time and let loose and enjoy themselves."
B.O.B. has found that the "Dead band" label is hard to peel off. Waxman admits that his band has had trouble getting gigs, especially at venues that already employ a Dead cover band. Still, he feels that B.O.B. is slowly gaining a reputation as an original band and proudly points out that it just got booked to play with Crazy Fingers, one of the area's best-known Dead bands.
"It was tough with the clubs early on, but I don't think we're having that problem any more," says the animated, chain-smoking Waxman. "We can do two hours and not play the Grateful Dead. We really want to get the originals out there, and we're recording a CD that we hope to have out in the fall."
Bubba Newton, the bassist for Crazy Fingers, understand B.O.B.'s position. Crazy Fingers exclusively plays songs by the Dead, but the band is also composing originals and hopes to have a CD out by the end of the year. Newton feels that by playing the Dead's music, Crazy Fingers has built up a fair-sized and open-minded fan base.
"The Dead encompass so many styles that Deadheads could be listening to music from Johnny Cash to Miles Davis," explains Newton. "The Dead mutated themselves into all the music they liked from the last 400 years. If you ask a Deadhead what they listened to in the past week besides the Dead, you'll see a great appreciation of different music. So a Dead band doing originals has a good head start."
B.O.B. is rounded out by Alex Munoz, who shares guitar and vocal duties with Waxman, Albert Hahn on bass, A.J. Mazzetti on drums, and Sheryl Burdick (Munoz's girlfriend and also the band's manager) on background vocals. But it's Munoz and Waxman who form the band's core. They began their careers as actors and met in 1989 when Munoz was in a production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Waxman's father, Jerry, who founded the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre. After Paul Waxman and Munoz were introduced, they discovered their mutual love for the Grateful Dead and began jamming together.
They became a duo that played primarily Grateful Dead and Beatles songs, and called themselves Britain On The Bay. They later learned a rather amazing fact: A chamber music group dedicated to playing works specifically by English composers who live in San Francisco had already taken the moniker. Waxman and Munoz duly shortened their name to B.O.B. Gradually, they evolved into a five-piece, though the two still occasionally play gigs as a duo.
Munoz, age 30, is B.O.B.'s primary songwriter. His voice is clear and unwavering, his guitar licks bluesy. With his straight hair parted in the middle and barely covering the tips of his ears, Munoz stares thoughtfully at his fretboard while on stage, betraying few emotions. In contrast, the scruffy-haired and goateed Waxman, age 27, sports a big smile while he plays. His voice seems to come blasting out of him from somewhere down in his gut. Waxman is the band's prankster, the guy who feigns fellatio on the microphone after singing "But she never lost her head/Even when she was giving head" during a cover of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." While Munoz simmers, Waxman brims with impulses.
"We're not afraid to fuck up," notes Waxman. "We have a tendency to experiment on stage, and sometimes we do it without thinking. It's a free form, not locked into any structure or time frame feel. If you're not so concerned with ending the song right now, or the solo being only six measures, or whatever it is, then you get that feel."
Waxman is right: B.O.B. does occasionally slip up. During one recent concert, as the band tackled the Beatles' Abbey Road suite, the beat skipped a little on the transition to "Polythene Pam." Segueing into "The End," Waxman's guitar and Hahn's bass seem to lose each other for a split second. But these rough edges, not unlike those at a Dead or Phish show, add to B.O.B.'s feeling of spontaneity and even sheer silliness. In bringing the Abbey Road suite to its finale, "Her Majesty" becomes a country and western rave-up, galloping along until coming to a halt for a version of the Jefferson Airplane classic "White Rabbit."
The band's original songs mine the classic-rock/Dead vein. The reggae-tinged "Oh So Mellow" declares "She makes me mellow 'cause she's black/She makes me mellow 'cause she's blond" -- a reference to certain strains of hashish, which came from a slogan on a pack of Rastafarian rolling papers. The spritely, ants-in-your-pants energy of "Station," a Munoz original, recalls Little Feat and the Spin Doctors. Waxman has written a version of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" titled "I'm an Amoeba."
Yet Jerry's ghost will always keep a firm hand on the band. On the monitor in front of the stage at Sneakers lies a crumpled T-shirt with a parade of smiley-faced dancing bears. The bears seem to be staring up at Waxman and Munoz, as if to remind them that no matter what they do, Jerry's watching. And probably smiling.
B.O.B. plays every Friday night at Sneakers Sports Grill, 112 S. 20th Ave. in Hollywood. Call 954-929-3902 for details.