This has nothing to do with the talent or skill of Dark Star Orchestra. I have never seen them not play well. But I am learning something about myself that I must face: I’m simply not fond of the Grateful Dead’s set lists or sound post 1984. In fact, I would go as far as to say that, where DSO is concerned, I don’t need to see them recreate any shows post 1979. But Dark Star Orchestra doesn’t play for me and me alone, they do what they do. Which is recreate Grateful Dead concerts from the band’s many eras.
And this is where I have to be honest with myself. The Grateful Dead were never the same band for me after keyboardist Keith Godchaux left and Brent Mydland stepped in to take his place. Brent was a supremely talented musician. No one who knows anything about music could deny this. However, his style of playing, singing and songwriting was so vastly different from the Grateful Dead I fell in love with that I was never fully able to embrace his contribution. Ironically, I never had the opportunity to see Keith perform with the Grateful Dead. My first show was in September of 1979 shortly after Brent joined the band. But I had been listening to the Grateful Dead for many, many years before I had the opportunity to see them live. And in those early days of Brent, he was a bit more subdued. But within a couple of years, his playing became busy and forceful to the point where almost all the quiet spaces within the music were filled. For me, it was a sound deluge that diminished the delicacy I had come to love and expect from the Grateful Dead. The jazz-influence that Keith advanced in the band –his sense of when to step up and when to step back– was lost with Brent’s enthusiastic contribution. It wasn’t wrong, just different. And, for my personal taste, less preferable.
Now understand, ever since the beginning of the Grateful Dead, they were a band capable of vast depths of sound; they could be as quiet as a single soft breath or as loud and complex as a city under siege. But it was the contrast between these two spaces that made the adventure of seeing and listening to the Grateful Dead a genuine journey. Brent diluted this contrast for me. The cacophony became more consistent, more the norm. And, as will happen with the addition of any new sound, any new influence, it effected how the other band members approached the music.
Then there were the songs that Brent wrote. Simply put, Brent’s skills as a songwriter were not in sync with what attracted me so intensely to the Grateful Dead. I know that Brent was profoundly disheartened to see so many people choosing his songs as their bathroom break or an opportunity to visit concessions, but he never seemed to consider that his style of songwriting was not the kind of music that attracted many Dead Heads to the Dead; Brent’s songs were more direct in their storytelling, less ethereal and poetic. They were also seeped in a pop-ballad style that seemed to defy the Grateful Dead’s deeper exploratory nature. Yes, the Grateful Dead were a reflection of all types of American music, but I suppose the part of Americana that influenced Brent never appealed to me and, as talented as he was, I never found a way into his music. It simply did not move me. In fact, it did quite the opposite. For me, it stopped the show in its tracks.
Later audiences seemed to embrace Brent’s songwriting. In many ways, it was more in sync with what drew these later crowds to the Grateful Dead. Pop songs like TOUCH OF GREY and WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE or FOOLISH HEART, all Garcia/Hunter originals, were appealing to a generation that preferred “ditties” over depth. I rarely enjoyed these songs and, like Brent’s musical preferences, they stopped the show for me.
Last night’s Dark Star Orchestra show at the El Rey in Los Angeles was filled with these show-stoppers. And, as if pre-planned, the audience seemed to be made up of far more frat-boys (of varying ages) as well as men who clearly spend an inordinate amount of time at the gym pumping iron. This evening would find them with their trendy-clad girlfriends by their sides. It was like DSO were playing 24-Hour Fitness.
In effect, the show recreated was from May 9, 1987 and the audience matched the era. Eek. This was a time when the Grateful Dead were slowly being pushed out of their favorite venues due to uncontrollable crowds. The scene was turning, and not for the better. TOUCH OF GREY ushered in a whole new audience that changed the vibe forever.
Now, one good thing about DSO recreating these later shows is that DSO is, invariably, a far tighter band than the Grateful Dead were at this point in their development (or devolution, as many would refer to it). So the playing last night was solid. Tight.
But I’ve discovered (or more aptly, am ready to admit) that the allure of DSO for me is in seeing those earlier shows. Opening with SUGAR MAGNOLIA-> SUGAREE was very welcome. And even ME AND MY UNCLE-> MEXICALI BLUES was fun and well-played and still in keeping with the oldies but goodies theme I so love. But then suddenly, I’m plunged into WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE, a song I never understood the appeal of. For me, it was not reflective of Garcia’s musical strengths. If this were the music of the Grateful Dead from the get-go, I never would have been attracted to them. This was followed by the (IMHO) dreadful Brent tune TONS OF STEEL. Try as I did, I was not able to shed the sinking feeling building in my gut. I was no longer “in” the music as I had been for those first two songs. Then BROTHER ESAU followed. While a far better song than the two previous, it’s still something I have a hard time getting excited about. This trifecta left me feeling disappointed and “outside” the show.
Luckily, the TENNESSEE JED and LET IT GROW brought me back up, though never to the level where I had started. There was something in my gut, expectations foiled, that I could not shake. Truth be told, as soon as I walked into the El Rey and saw that the guitars and drums were set up for a show most-likely from the 80’s or 90’s, my heart sank a bit. But there was an extra mic set up which gave me hope that this would possibly be an original setlist and not a show from my least favorite era (as it suggested the inclusion of the fabulous Lisa Mackey in the Donna Godchaux role). Alas, the extra mic was removed and my hopes dashed.
The second set started off with more dismay. TOUCH OF GREY. I could live a long, happy life and never hear this song again. It’s a fun little ditty (there’s that word again), but it’s a sad replacement for the possibilities of second set openers the Grateful Dead were accustomed to treating us to. This was followed by LOOKS LIKE RAIN. Never one of my favorites, it was at least an older tune, but one usually reserved for first sets, not second. Again, given what second sets often had to offer, this felt distressing. I was, at this point, thoroughly removed from the show and could have actually walked out and called it a night.
Now I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my statements here. Dark Star Orchestra played these songs, each and every one of them, with energy and conviction. As I said before, in many ways better than the Grateful Dead themselves had in 1987. The disappointment I was feeling began and ended with me. No one else. It’s my personal taste and desire. It’s what I want to get out of the experience of seeing DSO that was unfulfilled. DSO was just doing what DSO does. And, try as I might to counter it, so was I.
The HE’S GONE-> JAM was very well played, particularly the long OTHER ONE TEASE JAM which started to lure me back in. DRUMS->SPACE were customary and enjoyable, but the sinking feeling in my gut had already settled too deeply. The rest of the show was filled with songs I truly love. All of them soared with energy. And at times I was moderately transported, but that feeling in my gut that had settled there never left. It remained like a shroud over even the best moments. I was aware of trying to get rid of it, to let it go and enjoy being there, listening to live music again. But my attempt ultimately failed. I could not transcend the moment.
All of this is made even worse by the fact that I’ve been reliving the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 tour in its entirety thanks to the recent release of the entire tour on CD. This is widely considered the Grateful Dead’s best tour ever. And I wouldn’t argue that. So much so that the set list from ’87 just seems downright lazy by comparison. A friend of mine also in attendance pointed out that DSO could have played any show from ’65 through the first half of ’79 and you wouldn’t hear a single song that would disappoint. The same can’t be said for any show post.
The only criticism I have of DSO as a band is that, now with the inclusion of Jeff Mattson -who I must say is an amazing guitarist and about the best replacement for former lead-guitarist John Kadlecik that one could imagine– this incarnation of the band seems intent on bringing every song to its highest peak. And they’re damn good at doing it. But there’s something almost “manufactured” in their doing so. As if subtlety and nuance were not quite as important as blowing minds. It happened so much that it ceased to be special and started to feel too easy. It didn’t feel organic. It wasn’t the music playing the band. This felt pre-planned in some way. Now that may not be accurate to what was actually taking place for the musicians, but it was my experience. Sometimes making a song “explode” is not the best thing for the soul of the music. But I’m just an audience member and probably one of the few who didn’t walk out of the El Rey last night satisfied. It is my personal cross to bear, I suppose. Again, it’s what I want that is not always in sync with what DSO is offering. That is no fault of theirs. That’s all on me and I take full responsibility for it.
I wish in the future I could know whether DSO were going to play a show from an era I want to travel back in time and experience, or whether they’re recreating an era I need not revisit. That would help me decide whether or not I need attend, to avoid disappointment or embrace that which I love and yearn for. But such things are not the way of the world. So I must take my chances, make my decisions. Perhaps I’ll just see DSO every other year and hope for the best.