Weathering The Storm Of Disappointment: When DSO Doesn’t Turn The Clock Back Far Enough

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.

Weathering The Storm Of Disappointment: When DSO Doesn’t Turn The Clock Back Far Enough

DSO Does The Shrine ’78

Jeff Mattson made his Los Angeles debut as the lead guitarist/singer for Dark Star Orchestra Friday December 3rd, 2010 at the El Rey Theatre. My favorite venue to see this incredible band was the perfect setting for Mattson’s introduction to Angeleno Dead Heads and DSO Heads alike. I’ve been listening to Mattson’s work within this incarnation of the band and have been wildly impressed. But nothing I heard came close to seeing these folks work their magic in a live setting. No recording can do it justice.

I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here: Dark Star Orchestra is the closest thing to the real Grateful Dead experience I have ever come across. At times DSO even one-ups the boys, particularly when recreating shows from the late-80’s and 90’s when the Dead themselves had clearly moved beyond their prime. Luckily for me, however, DSO recreated a GD show from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles originally performed on January 10th, 1978, one of my favorite years out of the 30 they played. The set list was as follows:

Set One: Bertha > Good Lovin’ ; Brown Eyed Women ; Mexicali Blues > Me And My Uncle ; Friend Of The Devil ; Cassidy ; Candyman ; Passenger ; Sunrise ; Deal > The Music Never Stopped

Set Two: Jack Straw ; It Must Have Been The Roses ; Estimated Prophet > He’s Gone > Drums > The Other One > Wharf Rat > Franklin’s Tower > Around And Around

Encore: U.S. Blues

DSO added one more song as filler, something they do quite often. On this night, we got keyboardist Rob Baracco recreating Pigpen’s “Mr. Charlie.” The perfect topper to a perfect evening.

Mattson’s an interesting fellow to watch. His seemingly expressionless features can quite suddenly transform into a wide, buck-toothed grin as he –and us– are caught in a moment of uncontrolled ecstasy. Simply put, Mattson is a joy to watch and the music that rolls effortlessly off his fingertips lifts the very floor beneath your feet. And the rest of the band grin right alongside him as the music crescendos again and again, spreading irrepressible smiles through the audience until the whole joint is dancing wild, screams of joy bursting into the air, hairs standing on end. It is one of the great moments in life that remind you just what an amazing experience we are capable of achieving here on this earth.

It is truly a gift. And just in time for Chanukah. :)

I recorded most (though sadly not all) of the second set on my iPhone. It’s far from great quality and I’ll be replacing it with better as soon as something shows up on or elsewhere. But in the meantime, this will have to do. And I apologize for the loud woman who appears periodically throughout the recording. She was a sweetheart, but she must have been feeling A.D.D. this night as she rarely stopped talking or moving. She loved the music, but being able to concentrate on it for more than a few seconds at a time was not her strong suit. That said, she had a good time and couldn’t have been nicer. The recording, however, picks her up like another member of the band. And a less talented one, I’m afraid. But that’s the live concert-going experience, warts and all, as it were. Nonetheless, it felt like family in there and, though I arrived alone, I never for a moment felt it. And this woman helped make that possible for me and for that I am grateful.

If you’d like to listen to the second set from Estimated Prophet on, you can get an mp3 HERE.

In addition, here are some vids I also took with my iPhone. Excuse the jerky nature of the image. I was dancing, dontcha know. Make sure you check out THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED. One of the best I’ve seen. Ever.

DSO Does The Shrine ’78

Stu Allen & DSO: Making Beautiful Music

It seemed no sooner had I discovered Dark Star Orchestra than lead guitarist John Kadlecik announced he’d be leaving the band to tour with Grateful Dead founding members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Quite a coup for the man who founded the single best Grateful Dead “cover” band ever with DSO. But, for anyone who knows them, “cover band” seems too slight a term. It’s almost insulting. What DSO does is so much more than “cover” Grateful Dead songs. They use the Dead’s influence of improvisation to take those Grateful Dead songs and set lists and transport them to places they’d never been before. As far as energy, musicianship and inspiration goes, this is a band lacking in none of the above.

So, suffice it to say, I was seriously depressed to hear that Kadlecik was moving on. Selfish, I know, but I had truly missed the Grateful Dead musical experience and DSO brought it back to life with new breath in a way I never dreamed possible. But without Kadlecik, I thought to myself, the experience and joy would once again disappear from my life so far as the live experience was concerned.

I was wrong.

I didn’t manage to catch DSO touring with temporary guitarist Jeff Mattson. The recordings I’ve heard, however, sounded pretty damn good, I must confess, and I was surprised to say the least. But for this tour, they brought on the post-Jerry Garcia version of JGB’s (Jerry Garcia Band’s) lead singer and guitarist, Stu Allen. Skeptical with good reason, I almost had an “I dare you to knock me over,” attitude toward Stu. And I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this as attendance at Wednesday night’s DSO show at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles confirmed; the place was 3/4 full compared to last year’s packed house. “No Kadlecik? Why bother?” must have been on several lips of the unattended.

But I’ll tell you why.

Stu Allen.

And the rest of the incredible musicians we already know, love and admire.

They are a match made in heaven.

After years of playing in Garcia’s JGB shoes, Allen not only mastered many of Garcia’s signature licks, but he also learned how to take his time; to avoid the quick kill, the instant peak, to let the music find its feet and climb higher and higher until you’re standing atop Everest looking out over the world. Allen helped the already tight musicianship of DSO soar. And while very Garcia-like in his instrumentation, Allen still manages to find his own voice. And now that he’s playing in a Grateful Dead/DSO environment, he’s challenging himself even further and the beneficiaries of such an exercise are the audience who decide to show up and see what’s what.

If I had any personal disappointment with last Wednesday’s show, it would be that the original set list played was not strong on my favorites. Though I saw the bulk of my Dead shows in the 80’s, I’m more a fan of anything and everything pre-1979. Some great stuff came out of the 80’s, no doubt. But there are some songs that just never did it for me. And part of that may be that by the time the Dead wrote them/performed them, the band had lost its edge (IMHO) and the songs never grew to full maturity. I suppose that’s one of the glories of DSO. For the first time ever, some of the latter Dead songs are given a new lease on life. For me, it felt like I was hearing many of them for the first time. Garcia’s FOOLISH HEART, never a fave, grew to ecstatic peaks in the hands of DSO and Allen until the band appeared as if they were floating a solid foot above the stage! And we, the audience, were right there with them!

Part of the DSO experience I most love is the possibility that I will be transported to a time and place BEFORE I got to see the Dead myself (my first show was September 1979). While I can’t always be granted such a wish, I am thrilled to be standing in a theater seeing one of the best jam bands in existence playing ANYTHING. The fact that it might be a Dead show from the 80’s or 90’s is about as horrible as winning $10 million instead of $20 million. Either way, I won’t complain and I’ll happily show up to accept what’s being offered.

As far as Stu Allen goes, I don’t know what the other DSO band members are thinking, but Stu gets my more-than-enthusiastic vote. If you close your eyes, his singing sounds a hell of a lot like the later, heartfelt Garcia, while his guitar playing is celebratory and youthful. His sense of timing and his “hey, there’s no hurry” onstage nature elicited complete confidence and ease. It set the stage and I was ready to journey to whatever magical lands rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton had mapped out for the night. And while maybe not quite as polished as they had once been, with Allen in Kadlecik’s shoes, DSO still rocks as well as rolls. And this with only a handful of shows under their collective belts! Imagine where it might go once they get more familiar with one another. Let’s hope we get the chance to find out.

For a nice taste, check out this transcendent version of SHAKEDOWN STREET (split into two video parts) from the El Rey Theatre the other night.


And if you liked that, check out this rockin’ version of DEAL from that same show:

For even more, visit the Internet Archive for the entire show from the Grand Regency Ballroom on April 23, 2010, also with Mr. Allen.


Stu Allen & DSO: Making Beautiful Music

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

Out Of The Ashes Of The Dead, Dark Star Orchestra Rises

16111First 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.

dso4-11-09I 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

Out Of The Ashes Of The Dead, Dark Star Orchestra Rises