What an interesting opportunity to be able to compare three different interpretations of Jerry Garcia’s influence on lead singer/guitarists all within the same band. Since founding member John Kadlecik made his exit to play lead in Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s Further, Dark Star Orchestra has been playing with two different replacements. The first, and again current, is Jeff Mattson of The Donna Jean Godchaux Band. The second was Stu Allen of JGB fame. Both are heavily Garcia-influenced guitarists, but both bring an original vibe and approach that is distinct.
Having listened to both of them (and seen Allen live), my immediate sense is that each is an exciting replacement for Kadlecik. Stu Allen, after years with JGB, has a more relaxed approach. Meaning, he takes his time and lets the music build slowly until you find yourself in the midst of a crescendo you didn’t necessarily see coming. Not that it feels out of place. Quite the contrary. Allen’s playing is so mesmerizing and natural that it’s easy to drift into an almost meditative state while immersed. It’s downright hypnotizing.
By contrast, Mattson moves toward the peak quicker, though he’s hardly rushed. His playing is energized and intense. Yet he still maintains that fine balance of exploring the music while pushing the sounds toward a natural crescendo. But there’s a rock-n-roll edge to Mattson that separates him stylistically from Allen.
The differences don’t stop there. According to DSO keyboardist Rob Barraco:
“The one thing that Jeff has above everybody else is that he really understands the earlier bend on the Dead. The late ’60s, early ’70s. He does it so well and that’s something that we really haven’t concentrated on in this band until now. Jeff brings just a little more grease, that psychedelic greasy element that was missing in John’s playing. Not to demean John’s playing, because he’s brilliant. That’s just what Jeff brings that is different.”
Rhythm guitarist, Rob Eaton adds:
“[Mattson] comes at it from a place of its inception almost. He understands where it started and how it started and what it felt like when it started. He brings to the table a really deep understanding of what Jerry meant to this music in a pretty profound way that I didn’t realize until I started playing with him.”
Allen, it seems, favors the 80’s. That makes Mattson a great choice simply based on the fact that we stand to get recreations of more early Dead shows and that’s my personal preference. On the other hand, Allen kicked ass when I saw him with DSO and his extraordinary vocabulary and lilting late-Jerry voice was a real plus. I would go back to see him again in a heartbeat. So it’s hard to choose. They both have different strengths that make them truly captivating and alluring.
Both players seem to have stepped into Kadlecik’s shoes (and, by extension, Jerry’s) with relative ease. And DSO band members seem to have embraced both with equal vigor. They appear (and sound) like they are having a blast. No matter who’s standing in the lead guitar role. That means, no matter who you see them with, you’re in for a treat.
Here’s a bit of both to give you a taste. This first link is to DSO’s recent show in Hampton Beach, N.H. second night. Some Deadhead friends of mine were there and, thankfully, the original setlist could not have been a better one for them. The first set is quite good, building from an ambiguous place into being a great lead-in to what turned out to be a killer second set. And Mattson rocks it out with style.
The second is from Petaluma, CA. last April with Stu Allen standing in. There’s some truly amazing musicianship taking place here.
Both are original set lists and fascinating to take in for their diversity of style, as well as their similarities.
Enjoy. And I’d love to hear your feedback on which guitarist you lean toward. If any.