DARK STAR ORCHESTRA: THE MUSIC NEVER STOPS


Grateful Dead :: Greek Theatre :: Berkeley, CA
By Jay Blakesberg
In this year, the 40th anniversary of Grateful Dead music, it behooves us to consider the legacy of one of the greatest bands of the past century. Sure, the Dead are a punchline now, an easy dig at hippie culture and a generation that talked loud about social change and then settled for a steady job and security. Yet, one is hard pressed to find another act besides The Beatles who've impacted musicians more. Bluegrass, modal jazz, battered blues, folk ditties, and straight up rock 'n roll. It's all in there, the great American songbook wrapped in colorful tie-dyed cloth, death and life square dancing on a runaway locomotive. It is fitting that there are tributes dedicated to continuing the magic that little Bay Area jug band discovered in the Sixties. And tributes don't get much better than Dark Star Orchestra, who combine a fan's zeal with topnotch musicianship to recreate something not unlike the original, a feat the remaining members of the Grateful Dead rarely accomplish nowadays.

This last thought is bound to piss off a few of you. Sorry about that, but it's true and I'll explain why by and by. Having just seen Ratdog in Las Vegas in early February and then a few days later Phil Lesh and Friends' Mardi Gras extravaganza in San Francisco, those experiences were fresh in my mind as I approached the DSO show and the venue where One From The Vaults was recorded, a San Francisco landmark that once housed whores and poker tables before giving way to rock's vice.


Dark Star Orchestra by Susan J. Weiand
Outside, shaggy, ticketless bum-scented armies waited on wet sidewalks, hoping for entry into a show for which they'd traveled many miles. There was a motorcycle covered in fur, pot brownie mongers, glass pipe peddlers, and all manner of Oliver Twist looking urchins. In their young faces, I recognized my first inkling of this music's power, but unlike them I paid for every ticket. Never once did I spare change or hassle those who'd planned ahead. It's never been something I could stomach too well, and it struck me anew that this is why many diminish the musical importance of the Grateful Dead – the patchouli-soaked culture that hangs around their necks like an albatross.

Inside, the mix of gray hairs and teenagers was dizzying. A quick glance at the crowd announced DSO's multigenerational draw. There's a hunger for this experience that transcends mere nostalgia. It is an urge to live, to be present at peak experiences. It's the lure of community in a world full of fences. It's the chance to dance away the blues, kiss a stranger, kick down a few doors of perception. And it begins with the music. That's the enzyme that starts this entire process. After four decades, these songs are soaked in memory like a cherry in brandy. While each night with Dark Star begins with a question mark about what show they'll recreate, I want to share what they played before the encore, when they reveal the details. In their 1,046th gig, they performed the 11-10-1973 Winterland Arena show. Look this over and try not to wish you were present for this sequence of lovely sounds:

Set 1: Bertha, Jack Straw, Loser, Looks Like Rain, Deal, Mexicali Blues, Tennessee Jed, El Paso, Brokedown Palace, BIODTL, Row Jimmy, Weather Report Suite Prelude > WRS Part 1 > Let It Grow

Set 2: Playing In The Band> Uncle John > Morning Dew > Uncle John > Playing, Big River, Stella Blue, Truckin > Wharf Rat > Sugar Magnolia

Encore: One More Saturday Night, Casey Jones


Rob Eaton (DSO) by Susan J. Weiand
A tribute is something given as deserved, a gift or service showing respect, gratitude or affection (or in the case of DSO, all three). I'm sick of people viewing what this band does as novelty, a cheap knockoff designed to cash in on the legacy of another band. Their decision to focus their lives and talents around keeping this music alive is a humble, sincere form of love. Just as the Dead changed their lives, they are humping it town-to-town sharing a refracted part of that magic.

Like many, I resisted Dark Star Orchestra at first. With bootlegs and Dick's Picks, who really needed something like this? Then, I attended their 3rd anniversary show at the SF Fillmore a couple years ago. Eyes closed as the lights fell, I opened myself up to what might happen. By the end of "Shakedown Street," I was sold. It was a DSO original setlist, a new combination of pieces from the Grateful Dead rainbow of material and cover tunes, often showcasing sequences the Dead themselves would never have touched. A "Terrapin" next to a "Shakedown?" An '80s ballad next to a song that hadn't been played since the late '60s? Sure, why not? This music is alive. While it has history aplenty, it's still telling its tales today, adding new chapters, offering fresh perspectives within the same stanzas.

What impresses me most about DSO is how close they come to capturing the vibe, the emotional atmosphere, of what the Grateful Dead used to do. Yes, I'm using the past tense because the various post-Garcia aggregates – The Dead, Phil and Friends, Ratdog, The Other Ones – only approximate this vibe. That's not to say they don't have charms all their own. They do, often exceeding the Grateful Dead's musical prowess by a goodly margin (especially in the case of Ratdog and Lesh's 2000-2003 "Quintet") but always burdened with being superstars in the cult of personality. After Jerry Garcia's death, the remaining members were imbued with archetypal power, a larger-than-life stature that permeates everything they've done since.


The Dead :: Phil Lesh & Bob Weir :: 2004
By Jake Krolick
If the Grateful Dead were the Super Friends, then Jerry's passing took Superman out of the equation and put a lot of pressure on Batman, Aquaman, and the others to keep the planet safe. I'm not sure human beings are built to deal with this kind of pressure, even these often-amazing fellows. Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzman, and Phil Lesh can't walk onto a stage without this Jungian meta-status. The roar that picks up before they've even played a note tells you how important, how powerful they are to a small legion. Away from the others in their own vehicles, Weir and Lesh have taken this music to new places, expanded their own vocabulary, and fully come into their own as bandleaders. Together with Hart and Kreutzman in The Dead, they seem much more like the jokey cover band that many paint Dark Star to be. Without whatever "X" factor Garcia added, their crucible runs hot but produces little of the old alchemy. There, nostalgia does rule the game, and the music suffers for it. Playing stadiums full of adoring fans has to be a tough habit to kick, and it's understandable why they'd want to play together again (first as The Other Ones and now as The Dead), but a serious listen to the actual notes will tell you that they are in their most creative bloom away from one another.


Mark Karan by Susan J. Weiand
One more aside before I return to the matter at hand... Lesh and Weir share a bond with another musician in their respective bands that beats out anything they currently have with their old Grateful Dead mates. In the case of Phil, it's his telepathic communication with drummer John Molo, without question the best rhythm partner-in-crime he's ever had. For Weir, it's the bond with guitarist Mark Karan, a vibrant conversation that comments on and expands each other's ideas. The truth is neither Dead alum has anything approaching this same chemistry with their old band members. To hear Lesh or Weir weave new trails with these guys is spectacular. It reminds us of why we are far from finished with this music. Even Phil's recent under-rehearsed Mardi Gras variety show still had an engaging low end. The interplay of Molo and Lesh is as intuitive and natural as that of Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones in John Coltrane's classic quartet. The same holds true for Karan and Weir, who remind one in spirit of what Eric Clapton and Duane Allman shared on the Derek and the Dominoes sessions. It is the heart of why I believe that Ratdog is the finest setting Weir has ever had. There's empathy for HIS muse in Ratdog that's only partially present in any other configuration, including the Grateful Dead. He seems most beautifully himself with these musicians, and that has renewed my interest in his work in a profound way in the past few years.

Being with DSO at the Great American reminded me how they bypass this personality cult and bring us back to the music. They've picked up a few of the Dead's mannerisms, phrasings, and signature riffs, but they aren't some VW bus version of Beatlemania. Their raison d'aitre is to revisit various incarnations of a beloved band and make them shine. They are willing to be who Weir and Hart and the rest are no longer able or willing to be. They are playing in the band many of us want to hear again, or in the case of younger fans, to experience for the first time. There's something of a séance or ghost dance in their method. More than once I've felt the presence of spirits or whatever you want to call them. And I felt it again this night, dancing amongst hundreds of happy folks who'd thoroughly given themselves over to this ritual that's been playing out for four decades.


Kevin Rosen (DSO) by Susan J. Weiand
"Jack Straw" chipped away at all the detritus we'd brought in with us. The "Loser" that followed announced a melancholy vein that would appear again throughout the performance. More than the party tunes and the spectacle that eventually surrounded the Grateful Dead, I think it is the wistful strains that tie us most powerfully to these tunes. It's what makes such private thoughts that much more intense when shared en masse. Dark Star gets this and emboldens pieces like "Stella Blue" and "Looks Like Rain" with their own dark understanding, the latter soaring with an elemental perfection befitting the wet days of February.

Folks who could be my grandparents were tai chi interpretive dancing as a geriatric harem girl dripped hippie sweat over startled strangers. One gets used to the freak show when this circus comes around. Since my first days with the Dead in the mid-80s, my tolerance for the bizarre has increased three-fold. It's a byproduct of letting loose in a culture that likes us in neat boxes. Offered actual freedom, there's no telling what people will do. That audiences feel safe enough to let it all hang out is another sign that DSO is on the right track.

So, how are they different than the Dead? It's a question many attendees addressed during the set break but often without a clear bead on the answer. That they are close enough to cause that kind of confusion should be taken as a compliment. I can offer some scattershot observations which may be helpful.


John Kadlecik (DSO) by Susan J. Weiand
I'd say their shifts in mood are smoother. There's less wandering aimlessly in "Space" most of the time. Their attention isn't split by a narcotic maelstrom that sometimes sabotaged things with the Dead. Their "Jerry," John Kadlecik, is less messy than Garcia, his fingers are surer than that gypsy wildman (which is both a positive and negative), and his slide work has a controlled grace that doesn't jive with Jerry's wonderful country mess. Lisa Mackey ("Donna") more than betters most of the original Donna's vocals by delving deeper into the blues. At times, their keyboardist, Scott Larned, is a bit invisible, letting the guitarists and drummers hold the foreground. Kevin Rosen ("Phil") is closer to early '70s Lesh, a bit more tentative than the Greek mythological ramblings of today's Phil. Playing a bass once used by Lesh, Rosen seemed stirred by this magical artifact and turned in one of his best showings. Rob Eaton ("Bobby") is eerily on the mark vocally and increasingly snags Weir's idiosyncratic and brilliant guitar style. Their vocal blends are potent and often possessed of a harmony the Dead managed only rarely. They have bad nights and sloppy starts and all the other bumps that come with being a road band. Sometimes it's creepy how much like the genuine article they sound and other times it's strange how far off the mark they are. However, if any rock band could be described as erratic and unpredictable, it is the Grateful Dead.

Does any of this make them "better" than the Dead? Hell no. They wouldn't be doing this at all if there weren't so much rich stuff that's come before. But they aren't just copyists, and over time they're putting their own unique stamp on things. They are keeping the Dead's legacy alive, and like the originators, it is a mercurial, spontaneous pilgrim's progress.

This was the first night of a three night run at the Great American and the only evening on which they recreated a Grateful Dead concert. The other nights were original creations from this succulent source that included dizzying runs like "Shakedown," "Estimated" > "Eyes" > "St Stephen." Who loves this music and wouldn't love to hear a set like this? A sold out run in San Francisco and many other towns around the country says I'm not alone in feeling there's something special to this tribute. They highlight and expand upon the glories of days past, and in this way, build a future for the music.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | San Francisco
Go See Live Music!

http://darkstarorchestra.com/

[Published on: 4/4/05]

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