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

Weekend Flashback: DSO’s Farthest Journey Back In Time To Date

Continuing their newly discovered ability to dip into the 1960’s, DSO has once again recreated a 1969 Dead show. This one from 04/22/69 at The Ark in Boston, MA. This is the oldest set of Grateful Dead music DSO has ever performed in their 13 years together. Very cool, if you ask me. And we have lead guitarist/vocalist Jeff Mattson to thank in large part for these stellar, ageless journeys.

This show also dipped into Jerry Garcia’s August 1st Birthday just before the encores. Performing at the Town Ballroom in Buffalo, NY, on the night of July 31st of this year, DSO wished Jerry a very happy birthday before plunging into a staggering Viola Lee Blues>  Alligator>  Viola Lee Blues.

Close your eyes, go HERE, and enjoy the ride.

Weekend Flashback: DSO’s Farthest Journey Back In Time To Date

Jerry Garcia Week 2010: Day 3 – Dark Star

Taking a slight departure from Mr. Garcia’s own playing, I want to focus a bit on his legacy and the “scene” that lives on in his wake. While there are many jam bands out there, none have captured the Grateful Dead experience as closely as Dark Star Orchestra. Anyone who has followed my Dead-oriented scribblings here on this site know that the last few years have yielded an ever-increasing fascination for me with this band. While technically a Grateful Dead “cover” band, DSO has taken that concept to an entirely new level. You see, to be a Dead “cover” band, one must, well… depart from playing this music exactly as the Dead did themselves. Meaning, since the Grateful Dead’s live gigs were all about improvisation and never playing the same show twice, any cover band worth its two-cents would have to embrace improvisation to the fullest extreme. So, while DSO do quite often recreate entire set lists from Dead shows past, and the style and sound is based on the Grateful Dead at that particular time in history, the jamming is all Dark Star Orchestra. So in order to truly capture the spirit of the Dead with any accuracy or integrity, a Dead cover band would have to be one hell of a jam band in their own right.

And that would be Dark Star Orchestra.

With their new lead guitarist, Jeff Mattson, DSO is taking the music one step beyond. I’ve written this before and I’m bound to write it again. But it warrants repeating. We’ll never see Jerry Garcia grace a stage again (in this world, anyway!), but his legacy lives on in Dark Star Orchestra. While the remaining Grateful Dead members still perform the old tunes (now, ironically, with ex-DSO lead guitarist John Kadlecik), they have grown and morphed into a very different band with a rather different and wholly original approach to the music. Still steeped in improv and still full of joy, I have found the music a tad less exciting than when Jerry lead the way. They no longer feel like the Grateful Dead. In many ways, they are a lesser cover band, as odd as that may sound. Never as tight as I would like them to be, but still engaged in the act of making improvisational music and spreading joy, the remaining Grateful Dead members now take a back seat to the Grateful Dead experience as it had been during Garcia’s reign and Dark Star Orchestra stands in their stead. And that’s okay. Music is meant to grow and Phil, Bobby, Mickey and Bill are ever-changing, ever-exploring. But when I need me a true Grateful Dead live concert fix, I go see DSO. And to prove my point, here’s an absolutely smoking hot live performance by DSO just last month (July 8, 2010) at the All Good Music Festival in Masontown, WV. This is easily one of the tightest, most energetic shows I’ve ever listened to. Including by the Grateful Dead themselves. Sound too good to be true? Take a listen and you tell me. I would love to hear your thoughts. And, though this is an audience recording, it’s one of the cleanest and clearest I’ve ever heard.

So strap on those headphones, crank the volume way up high, and hold on tight.

Until tomorrow…

The bus leaves from HERE.

Jerry Garcia Week 2010: Day 3 – Dark Star

And The Winner Is… Jeff Mattson

Those of us following the trials and tribulations of Dark Star Orchestra know that, since the sudden exit of lead guitarist and founder John Kadlecik, DSO members have played with two different guitarists with the intent of making a final decision as to who would become their next permanent member. And while I personally loved seeing them with Stu Allen, I also loved hearing them with Jeff Mattson. Both brought something to the band that would have been a welcome addition. There really was no wrong choice. However, I think most of us knew that Mattson was looking like their guy for quite some time so this announcement just verifies what most of us already assumed. The official announcement from DSO:

Jeff Mattson Gets the Gig

After months of touring and playing with Jeff, we have decided to offer him the full time gig, which he has gratefully accepted. Jeff has blown us away with his energy, licks, and presence on stage. He is a great guy, an inspiring musician and so much fun to perform with, we cannot wait to get back out there and mix it up with him once again. We are having more fun than ever and are looking forward to seeing you all at the upcoming shows.

Congrats Jeff. Looking forward to seeing you live!

And The Winner Is… Jeff Mattson

The Different “Jerrys” Of Dark Star Orchestra

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.

Stu Allen

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.”

Jeff Mattson

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.



The Different “Jerrys” Of Dark Star Orchestra

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