To call Dark Star Orchestra one of the more artistically successful tribute bands ever would not only be indulging in understatement, it might also be missing the point. Like practically everything else related to the Grateful Dead, this band is completely over the top and in every way fanatical in their attention to even the smallest, most obscure detail.
Sure, there are Beatles, Stones and Who cover bands out there that get the look and period clothes right and who can semi-competently play the material, just as there are Pink Floyd tribute bands who go to the trouble of bringing the gargantuan banks of lights and lasers. I've even seen a Who tribute band smash all of their equipment. But unlike most bands in rock and roll, the Dead were never merely about clothes, special effects or gratuitous over kill, they simply preferred to do their audience-transporting solely via the music itself. Given that so much Grateful Dead music relies on the musical freedom of improvisation and spontaneous creation, this is no small feat. It is the overall 'feel' in the playing that is most important, rather than just knowing what particular chords to play and kiddies, Dark Star Orchestra gets it about 99% exact.
A Modulus bass guitar played through a spinning Leslie speaker cabinet? Check. A virtual battery of rock percussion instruments, including Noble and Cooley drums combined with ethnic World Music gear? Got it. How about the ability to melt from one song into another creating an oozing torrent of lava-like, chiming guitars and thumping bass? Dittos, Rush. Okay, I guess it could be pointed out that the two Dead drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart actually played Sonor drums back in '78, not hitting the Noble and Cooley's until the early 90's, but who's counting?
So it is highly appropriate that DSO is a band that pays so much attention to the little things that make a difference aurally, rather than just attempting to suck an audience in with visual bells and whistles. After their performance at the Granada Theater on Saturday night, I am truly at a loss to come up with any criticism whatsoever of the performance itself and the band's replication of the Dead sound, not to even think of make any suggestions of what would make this Dead concert experience more authentic.
The band's second Dallas performance in as many years found DSO in mellow late 70's mode, replicating the entire Grateful Dead performance from 11/24/78 at the Capitol Theater in Passaic , New Jersey . While late 1978 was not one of the more outstanding periods of the Dead's performing history (they would sack the road weary husband and wife keyboardist/vocalist team of Keith and Donna Godchaux a little over 2 months later), this show proves that even a decidedly mundane Grateful Dead show by set list standards still managed to have some ultra-inspiring moments when it squeezed out sparks.
Opening with an up-tempo version of, "Jack Straw" which sounded to my ears to be more of a 1990's vintage than 1970's, DSO had the 800 or so tie-dyed, all-ages crowd that crammed the Granada bopping by the first note. Utilizing the 8-piece band set-up which included the female background vocalist and two drummers, ultra-discerning Dead Heads in the house took notice immediately that this evening's concert would either be culled from between the years 1975-1979, or like DSO's performance last year at the House of Blues Dallas, would be a completely original set list. The shuffling tones of "Sugaree" came next and by this time the twirlers in the audience were already out in full force. Guitarist Rob Eaton (playing the role of Bob Weir) employed some tantalizingly tasty slide guitar on this tune, originally from the first Jerry Garcia solo album in 1972 and which has been a staple of first sets at Dead concerts ever since.
"Me and My Uncle,"the most played tune in live Dead history, followed and featured multiple lightning lead runs by guitarist Jeff Mattson (Jerry Garcia). This tune segued nicely into a rip-roaring, " Big River " as DSO had the Dead's country/jug band roots proudly on display. If "Stagger Lee," (the first of 5 tunes performed during the night from the rather lackluster Shakedown Street album) failed to alert many in the audience that tonight's set list was firmly rooted in 1978, the inclusion of the ultra rarely played "From the Heart of Me" three songs later must have proved this conclusively. Another seldom performed song from the same era, Phil Lesh's "Passenger," happened to roar and snarl on this particular evening and was a surprising highlight of an otherwise extremely mellow first set.
"Candyman," while a great tune on the American Beauty album, often paled in the live setting even when the Dead performed it and DSO's rendition on this evening was no different. The Granada audience grew a bit restless during this song as they were seemingly ready to rock out to such hard-jamming tunes as "The Eleven," or "Supplication" but again, we were locked into 1978 here, so that was just not to be. It is for this reason only that I would say the totally original set performed by DSO at House of Blues show in 2011 was far superior, as it contained many heavily psychedelic highlights. "New Minglewood Blues," was okay, as was "Loser" and the throwaway "Promised Land" closed out a below average first set; not in the Dark Star Orchestra performance, which was spot-on, but in the songs played by the Dead 34 years previous.
After about a 30 minute intermission, the band returned to the stage and the deluge of tunes from the Shakedown Street album continued. "I Need a Miracle" segued rather nicely into a peppy "Good Lovin'" which featured nice keyboard interplay courtesy Rob Barraco. It was interesting how different his vocal style is while emanating Keith Godchaux as opposed to shows that included Pigpen or Brent Mydland, the two other main Dead keyboardists. This seems to me an especially daunting task to undertake, but Barraco has handled it with aplomb each of the 6 times that I have seen DSO.
"Friend of the Devil," appropriately given its 1978 dirge-like rendering as opposed to the country gallop of its original 1970 incarnation was played how it should have been, given the context, though in this instance I much prefer the former to the latter. A sumptuous "Estimated Prophet" followed and this tune segued during the extended instrumental break into a very nice " Shakedown Street ." This tune has apparently aged well for Dead Heads, as it has been more noticeably well-received live now than it was in the distant past when the band first unveiled it.
A comparatively brief (by Dead standards) drum duet then ensued, which happily morphed into one of my all-time favorite Dead tunes, "Fire on the Mountain." Tonight's concert was the first time I have ever heard it out of its normal context, as it was not preceded with its usual live combo partner, the lovely "Scarlet Begonias." The change turned out to be good for the tune and DSO was able to take the solo and lead break into new musical vistas since the song was unharnessed. For me, this was the highlight of the show and Mattson again ripped on the solo, nailing Garcia's phrasing and lead guitar dynamics throughout. Whether one's eyes were open or closed, the listener was immediately transported to New Jersey at the end of the 'Me Decade.'
A somewhat predictable "Sugar Magnolia" ended the set proper and this one had the entire crowd singing the verses and chorus in near unison. After leaving the stage briefly DSO returned and for this night's encore reached back to 1958 for Chuck Berry's classic, "Johnny B. Goode." Appropriately, this tune is now at the edge of our galaxy (literally), as Berry's original recording of it is on the Voyage Golden Record, aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft to represent rock and roll, should it one day encounter life in another time and space. My choice for inclusion on the spacecraft back in 1977 of course would have been the Grateful Dead classic, "Dark Star," which is infinitely more other worldly and exploratory. Well, maybe next time.
Since forming in 1997, Dark Star Orchestra has already performed over 1,900 shows, in 15 years. The Grateful Dead themselves performed 2,319 shows between 1965 and 1995, while taking most of 1975 off, which means that DSO is on target to do something that was once completely unthinkable---eclipse the Dead's brutal touring history, in only about half the time. That's some major truckin', to say the least.
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