What if Pigpen was never shy? Would the Grateful Dead have taken a completely different turn if Ron McKernan emerged from behind the keys to front the original blues-fueled band? The Alligators frontman Pete “Pen” Carona gives his best “over- the-top” attempt at this possibility.
A couple weeks ago my soon-to-be-wife (I hate saying fiancee) Meghan and I drove up to Ventura to catch The Alligators at the Golden China Restaurant. I have been doing advance work for the upcoming third annual Skull & Roses Festival being held at Ventura County Fairgrounds. Friend and publicist Dennis McNally suggested I sample some of the music of the festival’s house band (who happen to be The Alligators this year.)
McNally arranged for me to arrive between 5 and 6pm so I could sit down with the band before they took the stage. I didn’t want to seem too eager so I showed up around 5:45.
When I walked into the Golden China Restaurant I encountered the lovely hostess. She asked, “Table for two?” I informed her that I was there as a publicist for the band. She looked down and continued to do whatever it was she was doing without giving me the least bit of information as to where I could find someone.
Meghan led the way into the dining area. The stage was in the front of the restaurant nestled against a large tinted window that showcased the parking lot. I noticed a guy working a board and introduced myself, “Hey, I’m John with Grateful Music, I’m hoping to catch Soundcheck?” “No one’s doing soundcheck. The guys will most likely just go on when they get here.”
I was bit confused because McNally had arranged a meeting with The Alligators manager and Skull & Roses creator, Chris Mitrovich, but he too was absent from the venue. I just hoped everything was ok.
It turned out everything was more than ok. Stevie Ravioli, the bands rhythm guitarist, or “our Bobby” as Carona likes to put it, just welcomed a newborn into the world. With this arrival, Ravioli was unable to attend that night’s gig. Compound that with reservation issues at the bands’ hotel and my scheduled interview was slightly overlooked.
Meghan and I were able to make use of our time by working our way into town for a couple hours where the Ventura Lantern Festival was taking place. Food vendors and live music occupied our interests along with hundreds of hand painted lanterns that were all decorated by the town’s folk. We could have stayed all night but had to head back to the Golden China Restaurant.
When I returned, the band had still not arrived. I was able to meet Garrett Deloian, however, as he made his way into the venue. After introducing myself, Garrett explained he was with Jerry’s Middle Finger, but tonight he was playing with The Alligators. (Jerry’s Middle Finger will also be at Skull & Roses.)
Deloian it turned out was Stevie Ravioli’s last minute replacement. “Garrett really shreds. He had no trouble filling in for Stevie. We were lucky to have him,” Carona told me over the phone a couple days later. “That’s what’s amazing about this community – so many talented musicians can fill in at a moment’s notice.”
I never did get to meet anyone from The Alligators that evening, but I did get to catch the show. Not knowing what to expect The Alligators were way more explosive than your typical Grateful Dead cover band. Pete Carona walks out in a cowboy hat and southwestern styled drug rug or “muumuu” as he puts it.
The Alligators do everything in their power to create a swamp-like atmosphere with well-placed chomping sound effects and a good use of fog machines. Carona runs around making sure the entire band is involved with the crowd. They put on a more rehearsed show than the standard improvisational Dead concert.
Garrett Deloian never missed a beat with these guys as he filled in for Stevie Ravioli. The rest of the band is complimented by a drums and percussion section lead by Scotty Gator and Tommo Chomp. McSwamp is on sound effects and sang back up vocals on songs like Good Lovin’. Mike Berkey plays the Pigpen riffs on keys while Carona sings vocals. JJ Gator is an original founder of the group and bass player. Finally lead guitarist is the Kim Chee Warrior. I’m sure if there is an after-life, somewhere Pigpen is smiling.
What impressed me most were the random people who just happened to be eating at the restaurant that evening. Typically when a Grateful Dead cover band starts, non-Deadheads evacuate the premises as fast as they can. The Alligators were playing blues filled Americana songs like “Lovelight” and “Hard to Handle” however. By the end of the night they made new fans of the genre. That was what caught me off guard; non-fans were into these traditional classics being presented by a Dead cover band!
I was fascinated. Having spent way more time at this show than we ever expected, Meghan and I had to leave before an opportunity to hang with the band presented itself. With a little help from McNally I was able to get a hold of Pete Carona a couple of weeks later.
Pete Carona was fun to talk to over the phone. A bit eager, at first, to promote his band, Carona rattled off some of his prepared marketing lines before I could hear his genuine tone. By the end of our talk however Pete’s friendly personality had me feeling like I had spoken with him hundreds of times before.
The Alligators will be gracing the Ventura stage for the third year in a row at Skull & Roses. “For years tribute bands have represented the styles of The Grateful Dead but there has never been a defining Pigpen element,” Carona explained to me the other morning from his house in Monrovia, CA. “The Alligators were formed just for that purpose.”
Originally intended as a one-off, Carona came up with the idea of a Pigpen tribute while discussing the Skull & Roses Festival’s inception 3 years ago with festival creator, Chris Mitrovich.
Mitrovich’s intention was to have 48 bands in 3 days. Less than a month before the festival opened its doors however a band dropped out leaving Mitrovich with just 47 bands. That was just not going to fly so Carona stepped in.
“We could be your 48th band,” Carona told Mitrovich. Mitrovich was intrigued at the idea and suggested Pete go with a Pigpen vibe. “Hundreds of Dead acts out there, but no Pig Pen element,” Mitrovich explained. Three weeks and a couple craigslist postings later and The Alligators were formed.
Carona is no stranger to the music scene. He has been the front-man for an extremely popular local act (in Monrovia) called the “The Insulters.” “We always have a great turnout in town, but when we took the act on the road, the energy wouldn’t translate in unfamiliar cities and towns.” Carona went on, “With The Alligators we are instantly accepted into communities everywhere we play.”
Originally intended as a one-off The Alligators saved the 48-band line up and successfully filled in the missing slot for Mitrovich helping make the first Skull & Roses Festival a success. Carona and the rest of the band knew this was not a fluke. “Something felt right,” Carona told me, “We all had this feeling like, this is it. You know?”
Three years later and The Alligators are now billed as the “House Band” of Skull & Roses. When I asked Carona what that duty entailed he replied, “We’re there to bring the party.” Now that’s something you’d expect from a lead singer whose number one prop is a bottle of whiskey.
Check out all The Alligators have to offer at www.Alligators.love. And be sure to not miss the upcoming Skull & Roses Festival in Ventura County this coming April 5 – 7. Pigpen lives.
Great article and interview John Holloway. Thanks!!
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