reCAP :: Dark Star Orchestra :: 2015.05.29 & 2015.05.30
For decades the adage went, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead Concert.” Today, with the magical jam act long defunct, there is nothing that comes closer to that euphoric and unique experience than a Dark Star Orchestra concert. The energy, the emulation and the excitement make DSO today’s definitive Grateful Dead musical experience.
The current incarnation of the band includes Rob Eaton (vocals/rhythm guitar), Jeff Mattson (vocals, guitar), Rob Barraco (keys), Skip Vangelas (bass), Lisa Mackey (vocals), Dino English (drums), and Rob Koritz (drums). The band has performed over 2000 shows since they formed in November 1997. On Friday night, the band played to a near sell-out crowd at the Cap, the most prolific venue in the Tri-State area. There are 324 Grateful Dead cover bands in the U.S. according to www.gratefuldeadtributebands.com, which include quality outfits like Reflections, Ship of Fools, Splintered Sunlight, Dead Sessions, Cosmic Charlie and Stella Blues Band. However, none is ultimately as fulfilling as Dark Star Orchestra.
The band started on the right foot with an incendiary fast-paced, “Alabama Getaway” which segued to a rambunctious “Mama Tried” and a delightful “Dire Wolf.” The crowd was immersed from the start and looked like a sea of fish bouncing to the groove. The John Barlow-penned “Brother Esau” was shared with appropriate nuance before the extended jam of “Keep on Growing” had the crowd erupting with adulation. The rarity “Lazy Lightning” was sharp and on point and at this juncture one knew for certain that it was an original set list rather than a particular show they often choose to emulate. The set closed in a fiery fashion with the upbeat love song “Foolish Heart” seamlessly seguing into the punchy “Music Never Stopped.”
The joy of DSO is to watch the picking and choice of fills utilized by maestro Mattson on his axe. He performs Jerry’s riffs with pride and it shows with the utmost professionalism. The band is renowned for its relentless energy permeating from the stage. This energy is best epitomized by Mackey and her relentless contagious dancing. The second set further showcased his brilliance. “Help>Slip>Franklin’s” was a tasty way to blast off the second set with the crowd adding the full “Roll away the do” chorus during the crescendo. It was followed by the underrated gem duo of “Lost Sailor>Saint of Circumstance” where the audience was fired up during the “I’m gonna go for it, it for sure” segment. Trippy red, white and blue projections adorned the Cap walls for a barn burning “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” which proved adept at sharing fruitful full length jamming.
With an abundant touring schedule that rivals the busiest of touring bands, an outpouring of energy and emotion that doesn’t waver and an ever growing base of hungry fans of Grateful Dead music, Dark Star Orchestra is here for the long haul. There may just be nothing like a DSO concert.Dark Star Orchestra :: 2015.05.30 Written by: Chad Berndtson Photos by: Geoff Tischman
This was an unusual Dark Star Orchestra show on a few levels: first that the band ignored one of its hallmarks -- surprise -- by pre-announcing what show it would cover, and second that it would go not only for a show so renowned in the annals of Dead, but also one that's been recently hyped and analyzed as part of the Spring 1990 box set.
Did it work? Of course it worked; no touring band is more consistent as an interpreter of Grateful Dead music, and DSO's strength is in how it gathers elite musicians not just to play Dead songs and improvise really well, but to actually converse in the language of the Dead, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a tribute act without ever transcending them. Some corners of Dead fandom would vilify you for saying they provide a more consistently good night of Dead music than any of the four surviving Dead members seem interested in pursuing these days. But nights like these make it tough to deny.
The question is whether that still makes Dark Star Orchestra interesting, or merely diverting. They crushed 3/29/90 from the opening "Jack Straw" straight through the choogling "Lovelight" finale, "Knockin On Heaven's Door" encore, and a tasty "One More Saturday Night" in the "filler" slot.
Throughout came beauteous and dramatic moments, not least those with old pal Kenny Brooks, tackling the Branford Marsalis role with aplomb. The run from "Eyes" through "Estimated, "Dark Star", drums/space and "The Wheel," which bounced and rocked and traveled deep into the nether spaces before re-tightening…well, you remembered to stop asking so many damn questions.
Dark Star Orchestra's role in the legacy of the Grateful Dead is a heady thing to think about in this Grateful Dead 50th anniversary year. When does the trick get old, and the tribute band journey wind up? Better not to over think the "why" when you can so enjoy the "what" and "how." It's a hell of a lot more fun to get lost in their moment than wonder where it all leads.