Words and Images by: Chadbyrne R. Dickens
Dark Star Orchestra :: 05.27.12 :: Tarrytown Music Hall :: Tarrytown, NY
The bumper sticker used to read, “Who are the Grateful Dead and why do they keep following me?” The same can be said for Dark Star Orchestra, the quintessential musical outfit that continues in an exemplary fashion to spread that unique experience. Having already performed a slew of sold out shows across the land, and with at least 37 stops planned for the remainder of 2012, DSO not only carries the torch of GD music but extensively travels in a quest to share love for the famous jam band much in the same rigorous vein as the Dead did. The beauty of DSO’s current success is they don’t play stadiums, but alternatively offer the euphoric emulation at more intimate venues ala The Grateful Dead in the early seventies. Fortuitously, I was able to catch up with them at a music hall nestled amongst quaint shops on Main Street in the Village of Tarrytown, a mere 25 miles north of New York City.
|Dark Star Orchestra by Chadbyrne R. Dickens |
DSO often recreates specific shows by following the setlist song by song. However, they also create setlists of their own choosing which can significantly vary from what the Dead would do. Personally, I don’t know why they don’t always recreate a show; it affords Deadheads the opportunity to relive a piece of history, perhaps a show one had personally seen, and one can become immersed in the statistical and nostalgic part of GD history. When one has seen over 100 Dead shows, collected endless bootlegs or memorized parts of setlists from DeadBase, they are afforded the luxury of knowing the structure of a performance. One knows certain songs open or close a set or which ones segue best. Perhaps the inclusion of an original set only serves to further fuel the intrigue.
Rob Eaton (vocals/rhythm guitar), Jeff Mattson (vocals, guitar), Rob Barraco (keys), Kevin Rosen (bass), Dino English (drums), and Rob Koritz (drums) attacked the stage much the same way they had the previous weekend at the Mighty High Festival, which they headlined for three nights. The strongest impression they consistently make is through the monumental energy they express, especially when factoring in they have been playing the same songs as a band for 15 years, and some of them personally since the early 1970s. With the smattering of drums smacking us to start, “Women Are Smarter” opened the show. I was slightly disappointed with this rather average song selection for a show opener, with knowledge this particular opener meant we would not be hearing a recreated setlist. But that momentary sense of melancholy quickly dissipated as the band slipped into a satisfying “Cold Rain and Snow”.
|Rob Eaton by Chadbyrne R. Dickens |
Although the band performs Grateful Dead songs, they do not seek to replicate particular jams within them. Eaton explained, “The Dead provide a musical framework. We use that as a structure to paint our own pictures inside of it.” This grouping of lifelong Deadheads understand the band, structure, scene and music, but most importantly how this particular genre works and why it is important to respect what the Grateful Dead’s music inherently is at the core. Mattson continued, “Sometimes we listen to the particular show we are covering to understand the arrangement or style of performance from a particular era, but the musical adventure is up to us from there. That is what the Grateful Dead is all about – improvisation.”
After a satisfactory “Mama Tried,” the boys segued into an absolutely stellar rendition of “Big River.” Traditionally a fun dance song not known for extended solos, Mattson led the crew to a level of crescendo I had never witnessed. It was DSO’s unique take on this Johnny Cash classic, making it their own, which propelled the usually forgettable number mired in the middle of a set into a first set highlight. Buoyed from that energy, “Loose Lucy” consciously invited the exuberant crowd to throw fists up in the air while singing with authority , “Thank you….for a real good time!” The set closed with a hodgepodge of songs one would never find in that spot, including a wonderful reminder of the greatness of “New Speedway Boogie” and how much I wish The Dead had played it more.
|Dark Star Orchestra by Chadbyrne R. Dickens |
I was happy for some of my friends in attendance who were not such grizzled veterans as the opening chords for the familiar and crowd pleasing “Uncle John’s Band” bounced off the fine acoustic walls of the Music Hall. Clearly the fans had awaited a true sing-a-long and it had been offered. “Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance” was a treat; a delectable duo that never received its due considering its endless juxtaposition to the other usual second set openers like “Scarlet > Fire” or “China > Rider”. Eaton delivered the line “I’m gonna go for it, it for sure” with the enthusiasm of 80s Weir. Add a ponytail and short shorts to his already youthful appearance and one could imagine they were witnessing Bobby circa ’89. Eaton learned to play the rhythm guitar after hearing Weir at age 12, but don’t call him “Fake Bobby.” “It’s insulting,” Eaton uttered matter-of-factly, without the need for a moment to qualify his response. Clearly, he admires Weir, but he is his own man, making music in his own way. Mattson, laid back and taking time between questions, offered, “I don’t mind it. To be part of that rare conversation with Garcia is flattering.”
They ripped through the second set, colorful lights shooting rays across the Hall as tie-dyed patterns adorned the walls. Like Mighty High Festival, “Foolish Heart” was played with the intensity that I suggest Garcia imagined when he wrote the powerful love song. However, the poignant ballad “If I Had the World To Give” was the highlight on this night. With subtle nuance and vocals reminiscent of a young Garcia, Mattson took us on a rare journey with a tune most likely no one in the room had heard live, as the Dead only played it three times in 1978. The song contains lyrics that Deadheads of all ages can easily access, and I’m confident more than one girl had a mix cassette from middle school with that ditty on it. After a lengthy solo concluding the melancholy celebration of declared love, DSO effortlessly grooved back to the G and C chord progression for the closure of “Uncle John’s” until eventually landing into a barn-burning “Good Lovin” to close the set and allow everyone a rest before “Deal” offered another dance number for fans to enjoy and forever tidy up another Saturday night jam session.
|Jeff Mattson by Chadbyrne R. Dickens |
Many claim that the greatest cover band playing today is Furthur, which is helmed by Grateful Dead veterans Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. However, regardless of how well they jam on any given night, there are glaring limitations. Mr. Lesh still can drop a bomb like its San Bernadino ‘77, but there is a reason the Grateful Dead ignored performing most of his songs live. Other than “Box of Rain,” his best cuts “Unbroken Chain” and “Pride of Cucamonga” were ignored for decades, if played at all, and the songs he introduced near the end were not accepted by fans. For years, I zealously joined the legion of fans chanting, “We want Phil!” but that was an aberration in order to taste a different voice. Hearing Jerry’s popular classic “Eyes of the World” and others currently sung by Phil is simply a diet my soul finds difficulty digesting. With the younger, fresher and crisper vocals provided by Mattson, he simply provides an auditory experience that can’t be rivaled. Someday DSO may be set to play another sold-out show at Best Buy Theatre as Furthur is set for the same down the street at MSG. I know where I would be – without even factoring in the price gouge by scalpers.
With hundreds of Grateful Dead cover bands, there is a reason why DSO has been so immensely popular and shows no signs of losing momentum – they are really good. With deference to John Kadlecik, and honorable mention to other renowned players of Jerry Garcia’s music including Mike Mizwinski and Dave Hebert, Mattson is arguably the greatest pure lead guitarist in the current Grateful Dead related musical family. DSO still may have more people to convince that they are more than emulators of another defunct musical outfit. However, for those of us who have seen them, they are professional musicians who do not mimic but rather remain much more of a polished act than even their status in my mind as “The Greatest Cover Band Ever” may suggest. Eaton summed up the entire experience rather succinctly: “Music is all about emotion.” Thus, just like when the Grateful Dead “followed” me for years, I’ll let DSO “follow” me for a while, because I enjoy the emotion their experience evokes – happiness.
Set I: Women are Smarter, Cold Rain and Snow, Mama Tried>Big River, Loose Lucy, Greatest Story, Visions of Johanna, Box of Rain, New Speedway Boogie, Let it Grow
Set II: Uncle John’s Band>Lost Sailor>Saint>Foolish Heart> Truckin’>Drums>Space>Why Don’t We Do It in the Road> The Wheel>If I Had the World To Give>Uncle John’s>Good Lovin’
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