Dark Star Orchestra
Date: October 13, 2011
Venue: House of Blues
City: Dallas, TX
Review David DiPietro
Photos by Scott Witty
In the hierarchy of rock and roll, cover bands are a generally neglected lot. They're usually left to eek-out meager livings by playing endless successions of bar mitzvahs, bowling alleys and backyard barbecues. And that is if they are lucky.
When a band being covered that is as stigmatized and polarizing as the Grateful Dead is thrown into this mix, the odds against doing even semi-credible covers of the material is multiplied infinitely, given the Dead's 30-year career and their reputation as one of the most exploratory and experimental bands to have coexisted in rock's normally rigid framework.
The Dark Star Orchestra defied these odds at their House of Blues appearance in Dallas by not only "recreating the live Dead experience," but living it as well, in two blistering, thrill-packed sets which lasted nearly four hours.
It has been said about the Grateful Dead that their concerts were similar to baseball games, in the sense that no two games or concerts were ever exactly alike; no two hits ever bounced the same way. Taking this analogy even further, it was said that like baseball, the Dead would, "thrill you to death, in between the long and boring stretches."
By dispensing with their normal modus operandi of covering particular Dead concerts in their entirety, Dark Star Orchestra was able to transcend what Dead bassist Phil Lesh often lamented as, "The ossifying of the Grateful Dead concert." What this meant for seasoned Dead Heads was the fact that as much as the Dead relied on spontaneous inspiration and creation, the live sets played by the band in the late 1970's had become somewhat "predictable," not only for what songs were played at what parts of the shows, but for what songs were never played at all.
So it was refreshing to hear Dark Star Orchestra set the concert controls of the Wayback Machine to 1973 with, "Here Comes Sunshine." This tune then segued into "Truckin," a combo that the Dead themselves never played live. To have this same first set also feature the ultra rarely-played "Unbroken Chain," (which includes one of the heaviest-jamming lead/instrumental breaks in the entire Dead canon) was nothing short of revelatory.
Dark Star Orchestra, which has been covering the Grateful Dead since 1997, effortlessly drifted from one Dead era to another with the Pigpen blues oldie, "Mr. Charlie," to the mid 80's, "West L.A. Fade Away." Keyboardist Rob Barraco shined in what is perhaps the most daunting role in a Dead cover band, having to emulate the very distinct vocal and instrumental styles of Pigpen, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland, the Dead's three main keyboardists.
After a 30-minute intermission, the second set began with yet two more songs that the Grateful Dead never combined live, "Feel Like a Stranger" which segued into "Easy Wind." Guitarists Jeff Mattson (playing Jerry Garcia's role) and Rob Eaton (Bob Weir) were in fine form and it was amazing just how close their guitar and vocal tones matched those of their predecessor's. "Queen Jane Approximately," the obligatory Bob Dylan tune (there was usually one Dylan song in most every Dead set of the ‘90s) was tackled with restraint and panache, with Lisa Mackey (Donna Godchaux) providing soaring and tasteful background vocals.
The middle of the second set featured the Dead's tradition since 1978 of a drum duet followed by what has become known simply as "Space"---droning, insect-fear, psychotic reaction, space ritual, music for airports in the Mesozoic, to the uninitiated.
Unlike most drum solos in rock music, the Dead's (and DSO's) don't seek to show off feats of power, speed, muscle or endurance; they are more accurately conversations in percussion in which the players find grooves which weave in and out of each other, bouncing off the back beat and finding a new "one" with each successive pulse.
Drummers Dino English (Bill Kreutzmann) and Rob Koritz (Mickey Hart) along with a guest percussionist with whom they apparently attended drum school, took the audience of roughly 350 tie-dyed, gyrating Dead Heads on a canoe trip up the Khyber River, with their tantalizing web of tribal-influenced beats.
With bassist extraordinaire Kevin Rosen (Phil Lesh) hitting the guttural, polytonal notes that open the Aoxomoxoa album, Dark Star Orchestra sent the audience into a frenzy as they launched into the classic, "St. Stephen." This song in particular (unplayed live by the Dead since Halloween 1983) sent a wave of renewed energy through the endlessly gesticulating crowd. Again, the interplay between the instrumentalists during a tune so elaborate and complex - and with such a difficult time signature - was absolutely spot on; with each member building an aural house of cards, only to knock it down during the climactic, not to mention mind-mutating instrumental break.
Closing the second set proper with the globe-traversing warhorse, "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad," Dark Star Orchestra left many in the audience pondering just what tune they might pull out for an encore. The question was quickly answered with the highly appropriate ode to Dallas' blues music district of the 1920's, "Deep Ellum Blues," a rare, electric version of the tune which surprisingly, the Grateful Dead never performed during any of their mere five visits to Big D.
If there was one minor flaw to the show (it was no fault of the band's whatsoever), that would be what many people in the touring industry have referred to as the "Dallas Audience." This would be the few audience members who seemed to suffer from attention spans the size of "Touch of Grey" and during the softer middle parts of "To Lay Me Down" and "Estimated Prophet," could be seen and heard talking loudly to each other over the music, clowning around in a drunken manner, or jerking-off on their cell phones. Obviously this idiocy is not confined strictly to concertgoers in Dallas, but it seems that after 34 years of attending concerts in D/FW and elsewhere, there are more thoughtless drones (or should I say mindless androids?) in Dallas than anywhere I have seen a show. I look very forward to the day when cell phone use, like cigarette use, is confined to the parking lot, or other areas outside the concert hall.
As has been emblazoned on thousands of bumper stickers regarding the Grateful Dead since 1965, "They aren't the best at what they do - they're the only ones who do what they do." Despite the recent proliferation of such so-called "jam bands," as Phish, Widespread Panic, String Cheese Incident, et al., that motto is as true today as it ever has been. Dark Star Orchestra, however, is as close as it gets to the real McCoy.