Rock is Dead

Grateful Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra is worth the trip

By Alan Sculley

Photo: Dark Star Orchestra will perform on Feb. 14 at the Madison Theater in Covington, Ky.;photo: Suzy Perler

Few bands in rock history have had a more loyal and devoted audience than the Grateful Dead. The “Deadheads,” as they are famously called, know the band’s studio albums inside out, and many own dozens – if not hundreds – of tapes of Grateful Dead concerts and have delved extensively into how certain songs in the Dead catalog changed live and evolved from era to era, tour to tour and even show to show.

So to aim to be the ultimate Grateful Dead tribute band – as Dark Star Orchestra has done – is no easy task. The fans will demand an authentic experience and will know if a band fudges on a Grateful Dead song or doesn’t capture the vibe of a certain era in the Dead’s history.

But one thing keeps Dark Star Orchestra from feeling he pressure to live up to an elevated standard in re-creating the music and spirit of the Grateful Dead.

“Well you know, we are those people, too,” singer/guitarist Jeff Mattson (who plays the late Dead frontman, Jerry Garcia) said in a recent phone interview. “We are all those crazy hardcore Deadheads. So those same qualities that the other Deadheads are looking for, we’re looking for it in the music ourselves.”

That kind of knowledge and playing ability allows Dark Star Orchestra to be more than just a garden variety Grateful Dead cover band. Beyond playing the songs well, Dark Star Orchestra seeks to conjure the freewheeling, unpredictable, improvisational character of a Grateful Dead live show.

The group does this, first of all, by not merely performing Grateful Dead songs, but by re-creating actual specific concerts from the band, playing the songs in sequence, trying to replicate the way the Dead played and sounded during that particular era (right down to using instruments and equipment from that period) and indulging in jams that are as unscripted as those the Grateful Dead would undertake in its legendary live shows.

In addition to the re-creation shows, Dark Star Orchestra also does what the band calls elective sets in which it puts together its own set list of Grateful Dead songs, mixing songs from different periods and sometimes combining the different ways the song was performed by the Dead at various points in the group’s career.

Mattson enjoys both types of Dark Star Orchestra shows, and for different reasons.

“There’s something neat about doing a [re-creation] show and trying to get all of the details right as far as the arrangements from that period in which the show was originally performed and the instrumentation and the vibe and the tempos,” he said. “That kind of attention to detail for hardcore Deadheads like ourselves is fun. By the same token, doing the elective sets allows us to juxtapose songs together from different eras that had never really been played together before and try all different combinations. That gives us a certain freedom that’s a lot of fun, too.”

The authenticity and attention to detail that Dark Star Orchestra brings to the music of the Grateful Dead has helped make it arguably the most popular and respected Grateful Dead-based act going.

The group was formed in 1997 in Chicago by John Kadlecik (who portrayed Garcia) and keyboardist Scott Larned. A large number of other musicians passed through the group in its early years, but several of the current members – Rob Eaton (as guitarist/singer Bob Weir), Dino English (as drummer Bill Kreutzmann), Rob Koritz (as drummer Mickey Hart) and Lisa Mackey (as singer Donna Jean Godchaux) – have been in Dark Star Orchestra for more than a decade.

Keyboardist Rob Barraco joined following the death of Larned in 2005, while Skip Vangelas (as bassist Phil Lesh) joined in 2013. Mattson replaced Kadlecik in 2009 after he joined Further, the band that features Grateful Dead alumni Weir and Lesh.

Mattson, though, was hardly a new face in Grateful Dead circles. He was a founding member of the Zen Tricksters, a group that recorded some original material, but was perhaps best known for its extensive repertoire of Grateful Dead songs.

The Zen Tricksters began touring with Donna Jean Godchaux in 2006, and in 2009 Mattson became a central member of a reconfigured Donna Jean Godchaux Band.

Even though it meant putting the Zen Tricksters on hiatus and being unable to tour extensively with Godchaux, Mattson was excited to cast his lot with Dark Star Orchestra when the Garcia slot opened in 2009.

“Nobody’s really done it better, and I say this going back to way before I was in Dark Star Orchestra,” he said. “Nobody’s put together, that I’ve ever heard, a band that pays attention to the details and the production values on the level of Dark Star.

“As soon as I played with them, oh boy, it just felt so good,” Mattson said. “It felt so right. You have everybody playing the right parts and everything’s there, two drummers, the equipment is right. I had to catch up with that. And they have such a great organization. It was kind of a no-brainer.”

Dark Star Orchestra will perform on Saturday, Feb. 14 in at the Madison Theater, 730 Madison Avenue in Covington, Kentucky. Doors open at 8 p.m., the show beings at 9 p.m. Tickets are $23 in advance, $25 at the door. For tickets and more information, please visit darkstarorchestra.net or madisontheateronline.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Alan Sculley
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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