On 12/06/10 Dark Star Orchestra played the Belly up Tavern in Solana Beach Ca. I have seen DSO dozens of times over the years, and have never been disappointed in their ability to recreate an original Grateful Dead show song for song. They capture (and release) the magic, the sound and the energy better than any tribute band out there.
The only thing better is when they decide to do an “elective” show. They typically do this if they are playing a couple back to back shows at one venue. Using their own set list, they are able to sample parts of the Dead’s entire catalog (Its fun to watch the confusion erupt when people, expecting a recreated Dead show, hear a Brent tune followed by a Donna or a Pig Pen song). They also get to play some amazing Jerry Garcia Band stuff on these nights.
At the second night of the San Diego shows, we got the best of both worlds, plus a bonus; One set recreation and one original, both acoustic.
Because DSO is on their “From a City Near You” tour, Rob Eaton dug up a show from 8/5/70 – Golden Hall – San Diego Community Concourse. They combined that two short set show into one long first set.
After opening with Candy Man and El Paso, Jeff Mattson (who I hadn’t seen before) really showed off his incredible flat pickin’ chops with a fiery Rosalie McFall. Next was a fun Cocaine Blues (the Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champion’s version, not the Jonny Cash classic), followed by a very honky tonk feeling Drink Up and Go Home.
Just when the crowd was getting all fired up in a beer soaked honkey tonk haze, the band took us right to church. A Voice on High was extremely well done. The harmonies on that were perfect. Cold Jordan into Swing Low, Sweet Chariot kept the spiritual vibe going and is where the Dead ended their first set.
I was blown away by Rob Baraco’s piano playing. One could hear every note ringing through in this acoustic format. I came to find out that the Yamaha GS-1 he plays is the actual piano Brent Mydland played with the Grateful Dead in the early 80’s. Some of the inner workings had to be changed (It’s now MIDIed to a Kertzwell P3X, top notch stuff) but it’s the grand feel of the keys that Rob credits for this instruments true magic.
The sound in general at the show was amazingly crisp and clear. The vocals sounded better than I’ve ever heard. Not because they sounded like the dead, but because they just sounded beautiful. Jeff Mattson’s voice was perfectly suited for this stuff. The drummers kept a subtle beat going with congas and brushes. DSO had the Grateful Dead’s sound engineer Dan Healey on their crew for a while, so this band really got dialed in by the best. The current crew upholds that standard.
The second half of the first set took us to the darker side of life with Deep Elem, Dark Hallow, Friend of the Devil, Mama Tried, a very sweet To Lay Me Down, Dire Wolf and The Ballad of Casey Jones.
Set Two (the elective set) opened with the seasonal Run, Run Rudolph that went quite nicely with holiday décor of the club, Walk In The Sunshine, Jack-a-Roe, Queen Jane, Operator, Overseas Stomp (Lindbergh Hop) ,Big Iron and Lazy River Road in which Rob Eaton set a really sweet mood with his slide playing. On The Road Again captured the sound and attitude of the Radio City shows of 1980. Pig Pen’s The Stranger (Two Souls in Communion) followed by Te Race is On. Gomorrah became one big happy, sad, sing along, and then Midnight Moonlight took on a musical fervor that brought the heads to moments of great dancing ecstasy. The first encore was Let Me Sing Your Blues Away.
Next came the highlight of the night. Perhaps the longest applause break of DSO’s history followed Lisa Mackey’s astonishing rendition of A Strange Man. She really blew the roof off the place. She sang with such power, confidence and emotion that she had us eating out of her hand. The crowd went wild. Then the humble singer turned red. Then the crowd got even more wild, and so on and so on. This went on for a very long time. There was a whole lotta love in that room for that moment. Then a very good Ripple ended the show.
Dark Star Orchestra continues to grow and change, and in my book, gets better and better. I hope to see many more of their shows (especially the elective and acoustic ones).