November 25, 2008

Dark Star Orchestra Raises the Dead

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Fuzzy purple lights wrapped the State Theatre in a cloud of warmth, as 30-foot tie-dye tapestries set the backdrop for the world’s most renowned Grateful Dead tribute band, the Dark Star Orchestra (DSO). Touring nationwide for over a decade, the Chicago-based DSO recreates original, song-for-song concerts from the Dead’s 30-year history. Last Tuesday night, the audience was treated to DSO show #1,611 — a rare original set list.
There was an Age of Aquarius vibe in the air as bearded hippies draped in tweed, hemp and flannel floated into the venue early to stake out some prime real estate in the general admission seating. The band’s determined commitment to “raising The Dead” seemed to be a success already, as overheard conversations in the crowd included one slightly confused Deadhead boasting: “I was born in 1971, and I’ve been following these guys ever since.”
Chandeliers dimmed as the crowd erupted for frontman and lead guitarist John Kadlecik. Through clouds of pungent smoke, the stage lights brought out the deep reds and greens of the tapestries. At the same time, Theatre security tried in vain to pinpoint the source of the illegal olfactory sensation, but the buzzing audience proved far too difficult a sea to part. On Tuesday night, power to the people!
A calming organ on “Midnight Hour” swayed the audience and, as one wave, the first 25 rows poured into the isles and up against the stage. The strange mix of old hippies and Ithaca High School kids twirled and joined hands as they caught a groove in “Easy to Love You.” Kadlecik absolutely nailed the song’s chorus, bellowing out a reverberating “Yooooouuuuu donnnnnooo haaaaawwww easy it izzzzzta loooooveeee yooouuuu,” much to the delight of his flower power fans.
Next on tap was a mellow cover of Dylan’s “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again,” complete with Grateful Dead inspired improvisational jams as the glue between verses. The 15-minute track’s relaxed vibe silenced the minds of all in attendance, achieving the anticipated aura of Zen.
The Dark Star Orchestra skillfully crafted a sensory milieu in which one’s only objective was to synch physicality to the aural sway. The smiling flower girl boogieing to my left took this opportunity to whisper in my ear: “That’s amazing! Gosh! I just wet my pants.” Was she digging the beats or just turning a figure of speech? My usual eloquence betrayed me as I replied, “Groovy!”
After a lengthy intermission, DSO returned to launch the crowd into kazoo heaven. A half-hour drum solo built to a climax, as the crowd was blasted into psychedelic outer space. “You close your eyes and it’s like you’re back when it all really happened,” declared a kid who surely had to ask his mother for a ride to the show. With the help of longtime Grateful Dead sound mixer Dan Healy, DSO transported us there for real.
No longer a concert, but a visceral experience, the hard rocking “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” proved too much for a portion of the aging hippies, forcing many to avoid complete exhaustion by taking a seat. A Beatles cover from a Dead tribute band? Too much, man, too much.
But wait, now a Stones tune! On “Satisfaction,” the final track before the encore, the frontman elicited help from the crowd, as everyone chanted, “I can’t get noooo!” with huge grins on their faces. An unidentified tripping Ithaca townie slaps a turquoise teddy bear sticker on my blazer, exclaiming: “No charge dude! I’ve got trillions of ‘em!” My reply, “Groovy!”
Finally, DSO concludeed the magical, mystical journey with “We Bid You Goodnight” over a sea of oscillating lighters and cell phones. Three-and-a-half hours of mellow tunes, confused hippies and plenty of second hand smoke. Dark Star Orchestra have reincarnated the Dead!