November 21, 2011

Nostalgia and Other Drugs: Dark Star Orchestra at The State Theatre

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The Dark Star Orchestra came to the State Theater to play their 2,000th performance on Saturday. Perhaps it was this landmark occasion that spurred them to bloat their performance time over three hours. But that was a matter of taste, which is different from a lack of skill. The Dark Star Orchestra is talented, without a doubt.

Dark Star Orchestra is a tribute band to the Grateful Dead. Its name is derived from the 1968 Grateful Dead single “Dark Star.” Since its formation in 1997, the group has been on tour nearly non-stop, culminating in their show on Saturday — their 2,000th.

It’s easy to see why they’ve been invited to perform again and again. Lead singers Jeff Mattson and Rob Eaton do a good job recreating the raspy vocals of the Grateful Dead. The rest of the Dark Star Orchestra is successful in performing up to par with the Grateful Dead as well, which is an honest complement to a tribute band.

And when Dark Star Orchestra is playing Grateful Dead songs, they truly do shine. The crowd knows the lyrics and everyone’s happy listening to those good ol’ tunes. One familiar love song, “Believe it or Not,” even caused every couple in the room to make out simultaneously. Their synchronization was uncanny, or perhaps just musical.

Dark Star Orchestra was far from untouchable, though. Several times throughout the concert, they went on meandering melodies and improvisations that really weren’t all that creative (just derivatives of simple phrases outlined by the Grateful Dead). Out of their three hour performance, about one hour was simply their improvisation, and it didn’t seem to go anywhere. It was as if the self indulged Dark Star Orchestra was just jamming in their garage for fun, except they were actually charging hundreds of dollars for it.

Of course, they were probably stuck in the magical daze of on-the-spot music making, much like the drug-addled crowd was. But as a sober spectator, I did not appreciate the interminable lack of direction.

But perhaps a meandering lack of worry was just the mood of the ‘70s and ‘80s? The Grateful Dead’s music seems to portray this mood. Even their up-tempo songs are laid back and dazzled by carefree synthesizer chords. Of course, the Dark Star Orchestra recreated their songs perfectly.

While Dark Star Orchestra recreated the Grateful Dead’s music, the entire concert recreated the 70s. Psychedelic drapes back dropped the stage and I witnessed more dreadlocks and overgrown facial hair in that one room than most people will see in a lifetime. During the intermission, the building director had to ask the audience to stop hot boxing the stadium because the police department was threatening to shut down the concert (at which point some 30-year-old guy with a beanie tried to sell me some cush. After the announcement, people continued smoking pot as if nothing had happened. Seemingly very ‘70s indeed…

But why recreate the ‘70s when we live in 2011? Nostalgia, you respond. And that’s a fine answer.

And there’s the tougher question: What is the point of tribute bands in the first place? It is to recreate another band’s music faithfully. But what does that suggest about the current trends of music? To devote your career to someone else’s work is both an homage to the famed artist and a concession that the best music is in the past. Tribute bands recreate music of the past without generating much enthusiasm for the present, and this is a somewhat troubling notion.

The problem extends beyond the music industry. We constantly see our box office dominated by remakes and sequels of films; film critics pan these remakes and then reminisce about the good ol’ days when every movie seemed to be a classic. Writers have satisfied themselves with writing introductions to dead authors’ books instead of making their own material the greatest.

Looking beyond that, we see professors, brilliant people by any standard, who devote their entire careers to arguing and decoding great thinkers’ writings, though the thinkers themselves have long since dropped out of the debate. Are the best thoughts and arts really in the past? Is our generation reduced to pondering and remaking them?

Of course, the past is rife with knowledge and beautiful arts; it would be irresponsible to ignore them. But there’s something about devoting one’s present to the past so wholly that makes me uneasy. Are there no more good ideas for the present to explore? Will kids of 2030 still adore the music of the ‘70s?

I can only hope that, 40 years from now, they’ll be forming tribute bands to the music of the 2010s, or better yet, just creating music themselves. I can only hope that the Dark Star Orchestra eventually makes music of its own, instead of exhausting their Grateful Dead repertoire, however exhaustive it may be.

Original Author: Kyle Chang