It's hard to say whether the Jello Boys, an Annapolis-based rock band, has been helped or hindered by the way people have been comparing them to the Grateful Dead since the group's early days.

At least it doesn't seem to have hurt the Dead. And to be honest, it doesn't seen to have really hurt the Jello Boys much either.

Lead singer Casey Letizia is hard-pressed to explain the GratefulDead comparison.

"Of all the bands that play Grateful Dead music,we cannot touch the way they play," he said. "We just don't do that,it's not our style. We play some of their songs, but not the way they play them."

One possible explanation, speculates keyboardist Jimmy Jacobs, is the "difference between style and attitude. Most cover bands play the style, they play the song the (same) way the Dead playit. I think we play more of the attitude."

Since 1981, the group has enjoyed a growing popularity in the mid-Atlantic region, thanks both to their free-wheeling performance style and their albums: the self-produced "Do You" in 1987 and "Pickin' Up The Pieces" in 1990.

The title cut off their last album can also be heard on the new Wedgewood Entertainment Group sampler album, "Breakout USA," which has been released nationally.

The band will perform Sunday at the fifth annual Eastport Benefit Show for the Hammett-Wendell Memorial Fund. The benefit runs from noon to 7 p.m., with the Jello Boys onstage between 3 p.m. and closing.

The fund-raiser, conducted annually since 1986, commemorates two Annapolitans, Geof Hammett and Marcy Wendell, lost at sea while delivering a racing yacht from Connecticut to Annapolis.

Along with the music, hot dogs, hamburgers, sodas, beer and commemorative T-shirts will be available.

Admission is $4.

Proceeds from the event will go to help the Draketail Project, the Sail Into Life Program, and the Eastport Youth Sailing Program, three youth-oriented sailing education programs in the area.

"It's a neighborhood type of thing," said Letizia, "a bunch of homeboys getting together out in Eastport and having a good time for charity. We get to see all our friends out there and have a nice neighborhood party."

Besides Letizia and Jacobs, the band includes Steve Badger on rhythm guitar and vocals, Rurik Reshetiloff on bass, Greg McKain on drums and vocals and Leslie Aumiller on vocals.

Audiences just naturally seemto to take to the band's competent, informal and unpretentious style, their eclectic choice of original and cover tunes and their superb musicianship combined with a gentle irreverence.

"We're an old band," jokes guitarist Badger, one of two remaining founding members, along with Reshetiloff. "We got started somewhere between eight years ago and 1914."

Actually, the band came together about 1981, playinginformally at parties, mainly for their own enjoyment.

Shortly after that, the band began a famous series of picnics at both Wilmer's Park, near Brandywine in Prince George's County, and in Sudlersville,on the Eastern Shore, that continue to this day.

"We used to justsit around and jam to no purpose, kind of like we do now," said Badger. "We were pretty terrible, but we had a lot of fun."

The band'sname, Letizia recalled, materialized during a party/practice gig at former band member Greg DeVore's house. Things were going so so well he said, that the music quickly "mellowed away. A lot of different people, that nobody knew, or hadn't seen for a really long time, came to listen."

The party proved especially successful. As the evening wore on into the wee hours of the morning, Letizia said, "somebody said 'Who was that band? They're really mellow.' (Someone else replied)'No, they're Jell-O, just a bunch of Jell-O boys,' and that was it."

Nowadays, the group plays what it likes to call "good time rock and roll" or "spontaneous music for combustible people." In simpler terms, Letizia explained, they try to keep their music fresh, never playing it the same way twice or being tied to any one style.

"Sometimes it's good and sometimes it can be pretty bad, but it's out there and it's ours."

For more information on the Jello Boys and a list of upcoming appearances, write to The Jello Boys, P.O. Box 3556, Annapolis, 21403. Information: 267-7913

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