Review | Photos | Dark Star Orchestra | California | Nevada

Words and Images by: Brennan Lagasse

Dark Star Orchestra by Brennan Lagasse
There are cover bands, there are tribute acts, and then there’s Dark Star Orchestra (DSO). While opportunities to hear various artists covering classic acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd are far from rare, there has never been a band the recreates an original experience like DSO does with the music of the Grateful Dead. You never know what you’re going to get when you go to a DSO show, but one things for sure, your attendance will undoubtedly yield an opportunity to tap into the energy of a band beyond description.

Dark Star Orchestra :: 10.10.12 :: Miner's Foundry :: Nevada City, CA

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills lies a quaint gold-rush era town filled with interesting people, interesting politics, and an incredibly intimate venue. Nevada City is off the beaten path, but if you showed up to the Wednesday evening DSO concert, you would have thought the whole 3,000 or so population of the town were deadheads. The place was packed.

With a stage framed by a magnificent “Benjammin” tie-dyed backing, DSO took the stage and entertained the crowd to the fullest. In the style of early 70’s Grateful Dead, there was only one drummer, and the first set reflected the tunes the band commonly performed during that era. Every song was offered in a tightly knit, precise manner, a regular occurrence at most DSO shows. Standout versions of “Sugaree” with a smooth pairing of “China Cat Sunflower”>”I Know You Rider” anchored the set, while a spacey “Playing in the Band” and upbeat “Casey Jones” sent the crowd into the break grinning ear-to-ear.

Dark Star Orchestra by Brennan Lagasse
The second set was a monster run. No less than fifteen songs were played. Each were masterfully crafted in impeccable style with a tone so true it was almost like listening to a soundboard from an old Grateful Dead show. The “Dark Star” was sublime, as was the segue into “Comes a Time”. It was so salient I actually listened to the original Grateful Dead recording the next day and found out that the show DSO recreated was in fact infamous for this pairing (7/26/72 Paramount Theater, Portland, OR).

The show was complete fire to the ears of a deadhead. To someone who might not be as well versed with the vast catalogue of the Grateful Dead, one could imagine that they might have jumped on the bus for good after this show. By the end of the night it was clear from a noticeable presence on stage left that the band had passed its curfew. While remaining as respectful as a band could be, the lone encore of “One More Saturday Night” could not have been more danceable. It was Wednesday in Nevada City, but everyone in the house was throwing down to the very last drop before DSO left the stage.

Dark Star Orchestra :: 10.16.12 :: Cargo @ CommRow :: Reno, NV

Dark Star Orchestra by Brennan Lagasse
Almost a week later, DSO showed up in Reno, NV, a town not too far from the Lake Tahoe area and Nevada City. This was a new venue for most show goers in the area, and while questions swirled prior to the start of the show, the feel, sound, and room itself was a perfect venue to host another rocking DSO show.

For this evening, it seemed the band was set to play another show in the style of early 70’s Grateful Dead. Just like in Nevada City, Dino English was the lone drummer, and on the birthday of original Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, the band dropped right into a soaring rendition of “Cold Rain and Snow” before offering interesting and seldom played gems like “Dark Hollow” and “The Race is On”. Also of note during set one was vocalist Lisa Mackey’s lead on “You Ain’t Woman Enough”, and the improvisational jam out of “Bird Song” led by Jeff Mattson, who continues to honor the spirit of the late, great Jerry Garcia in a profound way.

When the second set opened with “Tough Mama”, a song soundchecked by the Grateful Dead in 1995, but never performed live, many fans knew something was up. This couldn’t be a recreated Grateful Dead show even though the prior song pairings and band setup seemed to match up.

Dark Star Orchestra by Brennan Lagasse
In the end this show was an original set list, something DSO throws in the works from time to time. The thing is, it really sounded like early 70’s Grateful Dead. Every note, transition and song fit the mold. If anything, the spirit of Pigpen would have been proud to have heard keyboardist Rob Barraco honor his legacy with his intense improvisational rapping on “Good Lovin’”, but in reality it was just another standout highlight within yet another fine show played by DSO.

DSO is unlike any “tribute” or “cover” band you’ll ever see. In 2012, you might have a few show-goers who saw the Grateful Dead in the 70’s mixed in with a bunch of folks that never got to see the band before their end in 1995. But how many people were actually seeing shows consistently in 1972? Although the time is long gone, the spirit remains with DSO, and to be able to enjoy such an amazing offering of live music, some of which might have been performed as long as 40 years ago, is something all live music fans should take advantage of whenever the DSO bus comes by.

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[Published on: 11/2/12]

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