Dark Star Orchestra: The True Keepers Of The Flame

darkstarI’ve written about these guys before, and there’s a good chance I’ll continue to write about them every time I see them. When Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and singer for the Grateful Dead, died, I had to come to terms with the reality that a very particular experience–a very deep, spiritual, and life-affirming experience for me–had suddenly come to an end. For those who never tapped into what the Grateful Dead were doing probably think those “kooky Dead-Heads” and their strange devotion to that “hippie” band was a lot of drug-induced bull. Well, for those who were genuinely present, it was anything but. It was, in fact, one of the great experiences of a lifetime. What a strange thing to say about a rock band. I mean, surely other bands have devoted followers without all this hyperbole. Yes, they do. But the Grateful Dead were doing something different. They were on the edge, taking musical risks rarely seen in the world of popular music. They were always chasing that elusive magic, that moment of pure joy and unadulterated connection to the universe that left both audience and band awe-struck. This was, for many of us, our church, our sanctuary; it is where we gathered to get close to “God”. As a self-proclaimed atheist, this is a word I’ve always avoided as it usually conjures up images of a conscious being, a decision-maker. I never personally bought into that tale of the universe. But for me, what the Grateful Dead were doing was more in sync with my vision of what was out there: something beyond my comprehension. Not an individual, not a single consciousness, but a pure and inexplicable energy. We are part of something massive, strange, beautiful, terrifying, emotional, vast… The human brain, the human 232163116_e4bfdc006dconsciousness, is incapable of boiling it down to words. For me, and many like me, that’s what the Grateful Dead tapped into. It has nothing to do with following any member of the band or granting guru-like status to the players; they are just a piece of the puzzle, no more or less than we, the audience, are a part of that same puzzle. They were, through daring and unparalleled musicianship, “channeling” something far greater than themselves. And for whatever reason, Jerry Garcia, through the strings of his guitar and the fingers that played them, spoke to millions with a “voice” that seemed to encompass the whole of the universe. And when that light went out, so did our connection to that other world.

The remaining members of the “Dead” still knew that magic and never stopped risking and searching for that connection. And from time to time, they tapped into a version of it. But it was never the same. A link in the chain had been broken. And so I spent years listening to tapes and CDs of live shows, closing my eyes and re-capturing those moments to the best of my ability. But it wasn’t the same as stepping into the halls of an arena or the orchestra section of a grand old theater and letting that magic wash over you like the technicolor dreamcoat itself. No, one had to be there, part of the moment itself, a player, a piece of the puzzle.

I grew used to the idea that I would never attain those moments again in my life. At least not in the same way. And while it did leave a hole, I was grateful for having lived in a time when that experience was accessible to me. And to have seen the Grateful Dead before they started to fall apart, before the drugs and bad health of Garcia took such a hold that he would never return to us as he had once been. And all this before he died.

A couple of years ago I was convinced by an acquaintance to go see what I believed a mere Grateful Dead “cover band” called  Dark Star Orchestra. What I found was something I hadn’t expected. These guys were not only recreating specific Dead shows, they were seeming to actually channel that energy I had been missing. At first I wanted to deny it, wanted to believe only the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia could do that. But I was wrong. These guys are as well. Throughout my 46 years on this planet and many, many live concerts under my belt, only two bands have ever achieved this in my presence. The Grateful Dead and Dark Star Orchestra.

Last weekend, DSO performed at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. I brought along with me a friend who had never seen the Dead, but had always enjoyed their music, though never “tapped in”, as they say. There was no way for me to know if the band was gonna tap into that magic this night or not, but I wasn’t gonna miss it if they were.

The Dead had many eras and many sounds. And every Dead Head has his or her favorite. Mine are the Keith and Donna years, 1972-1979. For me, the Dead were at their tightest, most jazziest. It is the sound I initially fell in love with and the era I return to as often as humanly possible through collected live recordings. But my own experience of seeing the Dead live began in the fall of 1979, just after Keith and Donna left the band. I never saw them perform. I was too late by mere months!

bandEnter DSO. recreating shows from different eras, down to a specific date and venue, I was given a chance to experience these shows, not when they happened or exactly how they happened, but in some strange sort of modern time-travel. And yet, not. You see, while DSO recreates the set list and “feel”, they are also NOT the Grateful Dead. They are an astounding group of musicians exhibiting a level of supreme musicianship rarely seen today. Whatever the Dead tapped into, DSO has managed, through their sheer love of the Dead and their joint musical talents, to open that door themselves and be the recipients of whatever the universe has in store. The church has opened once again.

On this night, DSO took us back to the Beacon Theatre in New York on June 14, 1976. This was an amazing time for the Dead. They’d just returned from a year and a half touring hiatus and had just released what I consider their greatest studio effort, BLUES FOR ALLAH. For me, this set list was as if you had asked me what songs I would want to see live and in what order. But, of course, the set list is only one part of what makes the show. It’s the playing that brings the night alive. And on this night, the band brought us to places rarely seen, to heights rarely reached, to an inner world so rarely glimpsed. I was transported. I was elated. I was both time-traveling and out of time. I was both in 1976 and 2009. For the band this night was not the Grateful Dead, but Dark Star Orchestra. And what was taking place was happening through them. And through all of us who were there.

And like anyone who knows a Dead show knows, the audience and experience can differ greatly from night to night, venue to venue, era to era. But the Music Box this night felt of its own time. Twirling bodies, like snakes of beauty, mesmerizing and mesmerized. The only hint of where I was came during the beginning of the second set when a man and what I could only describe as his evening’s “escort” stood in front of my friend and I. The man was completely outside the music. He spoke to his “companion” loudly and about things that had nothing to do with the events around him. She, for her part, never responded, but stood there in her too-high heels nursing what looked like a martini. I don’t believe she spoke english or understood a word he was saying. Nor do I think she cared. The man would search his iPhone from time to time, pointing out interesting and fascinating factuals that he had found somewhere in his little cyber world. The woman would smile and turn away, as if quietly seeking the nearest exit as she planned her escape. Periodically, the man would stop chatting and realize he was at a concert. He’d stick two fingers in his mouth and let out a screeching and painful whistle, disturbing both the music and all those around him. He was, of course, oblivious to the dirty looks he was receiving. He was too busy “doing what you do” at a concert. Whistling, screaming, talking. Anything but listening to the music. It reminded me of what the Dead audience had become in later years, when I slowed down and saw only the occasional show. Luckily for those of us near this “couple”, they quickly grew bored with the whole scene and were gone by the second song in. Perhaps through that exit the woman had been quietly seeking.

The rest of the night was pure bliss. Easily one of the best concert-going experiences I’ve ever had. And one I shall never forget. My GOD, where did this band come from?

Suffice it to say, the DSO and Dead virgin who accompanied me that night was, quite simply, “blown-away.” He couldn’t stop thinking or talking about it for days.

Before moving onto the next night’s concert in San Diego, I’ll jot down the set list from this L.A. show for those who share my love of such things:

Set 1

Cold Rain and Snow
Mama Tried
Row Jimmy
Brown Eyed Women
Big River
Might As Well
Lazy Lightning->
Tennessee Jed
Playing in the Band

Set 2

The Wheel
Samson & Delilah
High Time
The Music Never Stopped
Crazy Fingers->
Dancing In the Streets->
Cosmic Charlie
Help On The Way->
Franklin’s Tower->
Around & Around
U.S. Blues

DSO Extra Encore:
Mr. Charlie

Exquisite! From start to finish.

Now for the Wave House in San Diego. Like the Grateful Dead, DSO are also capable of delivering shows that are far less appealing to me than others. This was one of those nights. I should say, however, that the playing was always tight and energized. But the combination of set list and venue added up to a let-down for this particular viewer.

3630182602_86437f0296Let’s start with the venue. The Wave House is an outdoor, beach front mini-Disneyland for surfers. It is a combination of manufactured surfer waves and bars disguised as tiki huts. And the clientele for this particular venue are, of course, surfers and frat boys. And the drug of choice here is alcohol, which is available about every ten feet.

The stage is a tiny little thing set high above the audience. It seems to have been placed there as an afterthought. There is maybe forty feet of audience room before you reach the tiki hut bars and the non-stop conversations that take place there. It reminded me of the outdoor “concerts” one would see on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show; a stage thrown together in the alley between two sound stages equipped with an artificially enthusiastic studio audience. As one friend said to me, “The crowd is perfect for the setting. It’s the band that’s out of place.” And so they were. It was almost as if anyone trying to listen to the music was simply getting in the way of someone else’s drunken conversation. It was an audience of alcohol-soaked dudes and high-heeled women in what I’ve come to call “pseudo-jazzy, upscale Macy’s” attire, with the occasional Dead Head thrown in here and there for good measure. It was an odd mix, to say the least.

DSO San DiegoIt should be stated here that DSO will sometimes opt to play an original set list of Dead and Jerry Garcia Band tunes instead of recreating an actual show. This was one of those nights. Often, this is a joy because so many different eras are represented. But on this night, it seemed as if the band were, consciously or unconsciously, catering their song choices to the venue and crowd. Ditties, pop songs, blues tunes. Songs once performed by the late Brent Mydland were scattered throughout the evening. Never my favorites and always a bit of an anti-climax for this particular Dead Head. But those songs seemed to be the crowd’s favorites and, perhaps, the only songs to get their attention. No, this night felt a bit like time-traveling to those later Dead years, post TOUCH OF GREY (which actually opened the second set this night), when the crowds had become unruly, out of touch, not sure why they were there. And the combination of songs somehow lacked that wondrous sense of journey as well. With some exceptions. The SCARLET BEGONIAS first set closer was like a surge of new breath which filled me with hope for the set to come. But the second set began much as the first;  a series of danceable, likable, isolated songs that never quite swept me away, despite being expertly played. I needed something more to lift me up and carry me away from the confines of the Wave House. And that finally came with the delivery of a rousing EYES OF THE WORLD-> DRUMS-> SPACE-> ST. STEPHEN that really took off. But following that, I felt the show lost some momentum again, though the level of professional musicianship never waned. They were all good songs in their own right, to be sure, but perhaps the pull of the previous night was too strong as the blissful haze of 1976 and the memories of the welcoming crowd at the Music Box still flowed strongly in my veins. It seems I just couldn’t make the adjustment. This new venue was so distracting and inhospitable that it served only to remind me why I had stopped going to so many Dead shows toward the end of their career. What I had witnessed at the Music Box in Los Angeles reminded me why I had been a part of this incredible scene in the first place. The Wave House in San Diego reminded me of what the scene had sadly degenerated into.

Let’s take a look at the original set list for that night:

Set 1

Hey Pocky Way->
Minglewood Blues
Easy Wind
All Over Now
They Love Each Other
Blow Away
West LA Fadeaway
Tom Thumb Blues
You Ain’t Women Enough
Scarlet Begonias

Set 2

Touch of Grey
Maybe You Know
It Takes a Lot To Laugh
Box of Rain
Eyes of the World->
St Stephen->
Black Muddy River->
Midnight Moonlight
How Sweet it is

Looking at it now, it doesn’t seem so bad. And truth be told, if the Grateful Dead had played this same set list as tightly and as energetically as DSO did this night, I probably would have been stunned, amazed and ridiculously gleeful. But for so many reasons stated above, this night was a constant struggle for me. But I assure you, that won’t stand in the way of my going back to see DSO whenever they come to town again because these guys still carry the flame. And not a simulation of the flame, mind you, but the real deal. The very flame itself. They are, without question, the greatest improvisational jam-band touring today. I will, however, have to opt out of the next show at San Diego’s Wave House. It is a place I clearly do not belong and have no desire to revisit. It is not the experience I am looking for. So I will let those that it appeals to enjoy its charms. I’ll stay a little north and soak in Hollywood and Los Angeles’s Music Box and El Rey Theatres. And the magic that consistently takes place there. And I will be grateful.

16111It should be noted, for those interested, that DSO lead guitarist John Kadlecik is currently touring with Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in what they are calling Furthur.

Dark Star Orchestra: The True Keepers Of The Flame

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