Playing in the Band

T ribute Bands Keep the Music Alive

By Rusty Pate

The band members take their places on stage and quickly tune up. A smattering of plucked notes and random drum beats melts into the fan favorite “China Cat Sunflower.” Throughout the crowd, hippies bop and twirl as a thick haze of smoke begins to rise. The tune twists and turns through several improvisational swells. Someone in the crowd closes their eyes and smiles.

This scene could describe any of the thousands of shows played by The Grateful Dead, but the band on stage this night is the tribute band Dark Star Orchestra.

Don’t mistake it for a cover band. Tribute bands take a much more specific approach to making music. Where cover bands simply play songs written and made famous by other artists, tribute bands focus on one act.

Often, the tribute band attempts to look and act like the band they “play.” They wear the same clothes and hairstyles. They buy the same gear and mock the mannerisms. Some tribute bands take the gimmick route. Mini Kiss plays the music of Kiss, but all members are dwarfs. Lez Zeppelin is an all-girl take on the classic-rock radio heavyweights Led Zeppelin.

DSO is different.

The band recreates complete concerts by the Dead – a daunting task considering the band played over 2,300 shows in their 30-plus years together. Along the way, band members came and went, songs morphed and equipment evolved.  Dark Star attempts to take all of these factors into consideration, while leaving room to allow their own artistic needs to be fulfilled, according to lead guitarist Jeff Mattson.

“The main thing is you get to be creative with the songs every night,” Mattson says. “That really helps keep it fresh. Even with songs that I have been performing since the 1970s, I still find a way to challenge myself.”

They do not attempt a note-for-note recreation of the shows they choose to play. Rather, they do their best to capture the energy of the Dead’s concert experience.

“We try to get the period right,” Mattson says. “Say for example, if we are doing a 1977 show, there are certain arrangements, certain drumbeats, certain tempos – little things that are appropriate to that era that we want to get right.”

Other tribute bands, such as Eagles imitators Hotel California, take a more conventional approach. Bassist Andy LaPointe said his group attempts to play the songs just as the Eagles do.

“Our goal is to have people say at the end of the show, ‘we closed our eyes and we thought we were at an Eagles concert,’” LaPointe says.

Hotel California has been together 27 years, with two current members having been there since the beginning. The group originally began playing half Eagles songs and half Doobie Brothers, but eventually focused on the crowd-favorite Eagles.

“People wanted more of the Eagles,” LaPointe says. “It’s a broader music and a more popular act – more hits.”

The group has played all over the world, from all over North America to such exotic locales as Bermuda, Japan and Dubai.  LaPointe also manages other tribute bands as a day job. He sees the popularity of such acts stemming not only from a sense of nostalgia and love of the music, but these bands’ willingness to play anywhere.

“It allows people to see bands that normally they wouldn’t go see, especially in the small communities,” LaPointe says. “People in Springfield would have to drive to Cleveland or Columbus to see a big name.”

Both bands have had the chance to play with their musical heroes. Hotel California joined The Doobie Brothers for an encore of “Listen to the Music” in Blue Ash. Mattson joined DSO after founding guitarist John Kadlecik joined the Dead’s Phil Lesh and Bob Weir in their new band, Further. Mattson has also played with Lesh as well as former Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, Dead drummer Mickey Hart and The Band’s bassist Rick Danko.

In addition to their upcoming show in Springfield, DSO will curate their own three-day festival at Legend Valley (formerly Buckeye Lake) from Aug. 31 – Sept. 2. The festival will also feature several of the new bands fronted by former members of the Dead, including: The Mickey Hart Band, 7 Walkers (featuring Bill Kreutzmann) and The Donna Jean Godchaux Band (featuring Jeff Matson). Cincinnati group The Rumpke Mountain Boys will also play.

It seems the business of paying homage to classic bands is good. Both groups spend much of their time on the road. DSO has played over 2,000 shows since forming in 1997 and Hotel California will play around 100 shows in 2012. LaPointe says that travelling can be tough. Being away from home and unfamiliar elements begin to wear on anyone, he says.

“No one likes to do a 10-hour drive, but once you get there it’s all worth it,” LaPointe says.

Dark Star Orchestra will play a free show on July 12 at Veteran’s Memorial Amphitheater in Springfield at 7 p.m. All ages are welcome. The Dark Star Jubilee festival takes place Aug. 31 – Sept. 2 at Legend Valley in Thornville. VIP tickets are $199, three-day passes are $99-129. For more information visit Hotel California will play a free show at Veteran’s Memorial Amphitheater on July 14.

Reach DCP intern and freelance writer Rusty Pate at



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