First off, let’s just get this out of the way: Dark Star Orchestra is not Beatlemania. Sure, they are technically a cover band, but they are also so much more. Dark Star Orchestra recreates particular Grateful Dead concerts on an (almost) nightly basis. For those unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead, they were an improvisational jam band with roots in folk, bluegrass, jazz, rock, you name it. They never played the same show twice and they never played the same song the same way. Each night, each venue, was the breeding ground for a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience never to be repeated again. So that is precisely why Dark Star Orchestra, despite mimicking the stage set up of a particular era, the instruments used on a particular night and playing the songs in the order they were originally performed, could never truly recreate the music itself. Even the Grateful Dead couldn’t do it if they tried.
So why go see DSO? Because they are probably the tightest, most energetic jam band touring today. Sure, the music is mostly the Dead’s (however even the Dead did covers), but the energy and musicianship belongs to the miraculously talented members of DSO. I resisted seeing them for years fearing the experience would be more depressing than exciting; that it would make me miss the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia more than ever. But when I finally went to see them last year, I was pretty damn surprised. These guys were great! But it wasn’t until seeing them again this year that I came to understand that these musicians were carrying on the experience, not solely as a recreation, but as a continuation. I started to appreciate these guys for what they were creating as individual musicians.
Easter weekend found DSO at the El Rey Theater here in Los Angeles. I didn’t catch Friday night’s performance, but I was there for Saturday’s (which made me WISH I’d been there for Friday’s!). My inclination was to close my eyes and imagine that it truly was the Grateful Dead up there; to allow the band and audience’s mutual “illusion” to take hold. But something unexpected happened.
I opened my eyes and saw the band.
The music was soaring and people were dancing and the place was alive, I mean really hopping. And suddenly it became less important for me to imagine that this one is Jerry Garcia and that one is Bob Weir and that other guy is Phil Lesh… I was actually getting excited about who these guys were!
When Jerry died, I believed I’d lost that musical experience forever; that I would never feel that particular kind of joy again. And in some ways that was true. But DSO has all but absorbed the Grateful Dead’s energy and style, incorporated it into their own DNA and spit it back out as something both new and old, familiar yet unique. Inspired by the Dead, but something more.
The show I saw was a recreation from 1990. One of my least favorite years for the Dead. I started seeing the Grateful Dead in 1979 and still felt I’d come onto the scene too late. Every Dead Head has their favorite period, year, tour. Mine were the Keith and Donna years, 1972-1979 (Keith and Donna left the band the tour before I saw my first show). For me, the band was never tighter, stronger, more energetic and beautiful than during this period. As the years progressed and we entered into the 80’s, heroin and other drugs seemed to be taking a massive toll on Jerry Garcia’s health and performance. Don’t get me wrong, they were still an amazing band and the best concerts I’ve ever seen, but a sloppiness had entered into their playing. There will be those who will disagree with me and that’s okay. I still loved them. I saw them 140 times between September 1979 and 1994. Not as many as some, more than a few. But I always felt that the introduction of keyboardist Brent Mydland gave them a new sound I wasn’t as fond of. And I often found the keyboards overpowering in the mix, often allowing the other musicians to, well… not be as tight as they had once been. Mydland was a terrifically talented musician and singer, but I missed the understated keyboards of Keith Godchaux and the female vocals of his wife Donna (whom many Dead Heads have a love/hate relationship with). But I digress… the point I wanted to make here was that seeing a recreation of this nineties show filled with the Dead’s “newer” songs which I had never come to love, was a real eye-opener. Suddenly, it was like seeing the music from this era and these songs played as if the Dead had first performed this show in their prime. Suddenly I had a new-found appreciation for VICTIM OR THE CRIME and FOOLISH HEART. Songs that used to disappoint me, suddenly became energetic set closers! I learned to truly appreciate them for the first time. And this is when DSO started to become one of the great jam bands, perhaps of all time, in my newly opened eyes. The hairs on my arms and neck stood up on end and an uncontrollable smile spread across my face. I hadn’t felt that in years. I looked over at a beautiful young woman dancing nearby. Our eyes locked for a moment and we were both grinning from ear to ear. We silently acknowledged this incredible moment, and then continued our individual ecstatic dances. The mood was joyful, sensuous, comforting. As the evening drew to a close, the music and nuance created that night in the intimate setting of the El Rey Theater left me yearning for more.
So the next time DSO comes to town, I’ll be catching both nights instead of just one. And who knows, maybe I’ll take a drive up to the Bay area and see a few more. And then it’s just a stone’s throw to Seattle… and Portland, maybe even Eugene…
“A couple of times when I had my back to John (Kadlecik) onstage and he started to sing, I had this weird sense that it was Jerry.” Bob Weir, Grateful Dead co-founder/vocalist/guitarist
“Playing with Dark Star Orchestra is something that feels just exactly like it felt when I was playing with the Grateful Dead.” Donna Jean Godchaux-McKay, Grateful Dead vocalist, frequent DSO guest