Photos by Leigh Stevens
I’ll admit it. I’ve been neglecting Dark Star Orchestra ever since the advent of Furthur, the current touring powerhouse of the Grateful Dead world that includes original members Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.
During the years of the Lesh/Weir separation, my time was spent equally between Bob Weir and Ratdog, Phil Lesh and Friends and Dark Star Orchestra. I felt that while both Ratdog and Phil and Friends were musically fantastic, Dark Star was the only band that was able to give me my well-rounded Grateful Dead fix.
In fall of 2009, following a decidedly mediocre tour of The Dead (featuring all of the remaining members of the Grateful Dead), Lesh and Weir decided to form Furthur, a conglomeration of musicians from across the spectrum of the jam band scene. Fronting this new band on lead guitar was Dark Star’s own “Jerry,” John Kadlecik, who got himself the promotion of a lifetime.
While this loss dealt a serious blow to Dark Star Orchestra, the world’s most famous Grateful Dead tribute band bounced back quickly.
Within weeks, Kadlecik was replaced by guitarist Jeff Mattson, who many will recognize from his years with the Zen Tricksters and the Donna Jean Godchaux Band. Mattson is now the second member of Dark Star Orchestra with a history with the Zen Tricksters: keyboardist Rob Barraco is also a former member.
Feeling a serious yearning for a little DSO lovin’, I decided to go to Dark Star for New Year’s Eve atMontclair,NJ’s Wellmont Theatre, the second night of a two-night run at the theater.
Dark Star with Mattson still has the balanced sound of the Grateful Dead, but this sound is bigger and heavier. It gives the illusion that you could get knocked off your feet by the sheer force of it. The sound is distinctively different from the old Dark Star Orchestra sound, and I have to say, I’m pretty into it.
Many of the shows DSO played leading up to the big night consisted of three sets— a concert dynamic everyone loves to see. Even if the actual time a band spends playing is the same as a two-set show, a third set makes an event seem a whole lot more special.
On New Year’s Eve, Dark Star used their three sets to showcase one set from the 1960s, one from the 1970s and one from the 1980s.
The 60s set, from February 21, 1969 at the Dream Bowl in Vallejo, CA, opened with “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (with singer Lisa Mackey on harmonica) and “Doin’ That Rag.” It then segued into the quintessential 1969 setlist of “Dark Star” > “St. Stephen” > “The Eleven” > “Turn on Your Lovelight,” complete with the coveted “William Tell” bridge.
Despite set list similarities to many other shows played during the same era, however, Dark Star’s choice of this particular show was not random. The version of “The Eleven” played at this show is well-known by tape collectors as one of the best ever, and the 25:30 “Lovelight” contains one of original Grateful Dead organist Pigpen’s best raps. Dark Star’s Barraco didn’t disappoint during this portion— his (only slightly) paraphrased version of the rap was about as close as anyone will ever get to the real thing.
For their second set, Dark Star chose a less-trippy and more-traditional straightforward first set from the University of California at Santa Barbaraon June 4, 1978. If any set of the night was perfect for sing-alongs, this was it. It opened with a rippin’ “Bertha” > “Good Lovin’,” a combo everyone wants to hear but seldom gets.
After the energetic intro, the band paused to wish Mackey (who might just be better than Donna, but shhh.. you didn’t hear it from me) a happy birthday.
Foregoing all of the later 1970s funk and disco-style songs, the meat of the set went on to showcase the Dead’s Americana and country offerings, and featured only songs recorded before or during 1972. A boisterous “Dire Wolf” (during which the audience was nearly as loud as the band) was followed by a pair of covers, “Me and My Uncle” and “Big River.”
Just before Eaton turned the crowd into an emotional wreck, the band quickly transitioned into a duo of “Europe’72” favorites: “Tennessee Jed” and “Jack Straw” to close out the set.
Keeping with the theme of playing shows from later on in each of the allotted decades, the choice for the third set was a second-set from July 18, 1989 at Wisconsin’s famed Alpine Valley Music Theatre.
The set opened with a three-song ode to the female race, beginning with a truncated (read: no “Sunshine Daydream”) “Sugar Magnolia,” which jammed directly into “Scarlet Begonias.” “Begonias,” too was without its second half, with the setlist opting for “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” rather than the expected “Fire on the Mountain.”
The band then stopped the show to announce that there was only 20 seconds left in the year 2011, and a countdown began shortly. At the stroke of midnight, a shower of balloons and confetti was released, and the cheering of the crowd was complimented by the opening chords of “Eyes of the World.”
In what seemed like an awkward turn so soon after the New Year celebration, “Eyes” became “Drums” and “Space,” which eventually released into a somber “China Doll.” Despite the tragic beauty of this song, I can’t help but note that its inclusion tends to kill the energy of any show it’s played at.
However, in sheer contrast to “China Doll,” the set then took a very, well, 80s turn. The tail end of the show included a cover of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” complete with the transition into the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” that was popularized by Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper on their 1969 live album. The band then played an absolutely awesome “Throwing Stones,” Bob Weir’s only foray into political songwriting.
While one might think that Dark Star Orchestra would have taken the opportunity to choose their own encore for this show, they went with the encore from the Alpine Valley show: Bob Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo,” which was a good choice, considering the song’s all-encompassing nature.
The structure of this New Year’s Eve show was unlike any other Dark Star Orchestra show I’ve ever seen. The spanning of the ages allowed for the show to hold something for everyone, no matter what a concertgoer’s favorite era was.
Dark Star Orchestra
Set I: 2/21/1969, Dream Bowl,Vallejo,CA
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
Doin’ That Rag
Dark Star >
William Tell Bridge >
The Eleven >
Turn on Your Lovelight
Set II: 6/4/1978, Campus Stadium, UCSanta Barbara
Happy Birthday Lisa
Me and My Uncle >
Looks Like Rain
Set III: 7/18/1989, Alpine Valley Music Theatre,East Troy,WI
Sugar Magnolia >
Man Smart (Woman Smarter)
Eyes of the World >
Dear Mr. Fantasy >
E: The Mighty Quinn