By RUDY GERSON
Are tribute bands nothing more than a homage to the now-gone original, or do they play in creative independence from their inspiration? By the energy of the 700 or so fans crowding the State Theatre to see Dark Star Orchestra earlier this month, the answer didn’t much matter. Hands twirled. Heads bobbed. And lips moved, as concert goers of all ages (but mostly old) lived and relived their love for the greatest touring band in existence.
To those that believe the Grateful Dead concert experience survives only in a bygone era, you’re sorely mistaken. While the psychedelics may have been left at home (or consumed last week for String Cheese Incident), the spiritual train of the Dead still rides on, fueled by the love of the very much alive community of Deadheads.
My first-exposure to DSO was nearly three years ago, when they stopped in Ithaca to play their historic two-thousandth show. Three years and 383 shows later, they returned with force, journeying through time and space to Wichita, Kansas, November 17, 1972.
The hip-swaying “Sugaree” filled the air as I found my way to the front, assuring my doubtful ears that DSO had both heart and technique to work with. Lead guitarist Jeff Mattson offered delightful solos and heartfelt vocals all evening, channeling Garcia’s tender touch masterfully. The enjoyable but often undesired GD staple “Black Throated Wind” was transformed into a sing-along belter by rhythm guitarist Rob Eaton. I was pleasantly surprised at Eaton’s finesse in recreating the younger Weir’s head cocking vocal crescendos. Eaton led the band on cues and provided significant improvisational energy throughout the evening, held strong by consistent percussionist Rob Koritz.
The first set soared to new heights when a Robert Hunter three-song string of “Bird Song,” “Jack Straw” and “Box of Rain” featured the ecstasy inducing trifecta of harmonies by Mattson, Eaton and Skip Vangelas, the Lesh-style bassist. From left to right, Mattson serenaded Garcia’s “Bird Song,” Eaton roared Weir’s “Jack Straw” and Vangelas crooned Lesh’s “Box of Rain.” I was pinching myself. This was a theme throughout the night.
Mattson’s milky voice on the treasured “Bird Song” treated everyone’s yearning ears. Then, the timeless “Jack Straw” following the rare “Box of Rain” gave Vangelas a one-two punch opportunity to strut his stuff. He filled Phil Lesh’s role nicely as the agile beat keeping, string-plucking powerhouse. His thunderous work in a second set “The Other One” had the hair on my neck standing tall. And notably, anyone who’s heard Lesh sing “Box of Rain,” knows he can be a marvelous trainwreck, but Vangelas was an enjoyable improvement from Lesh’s beloved, yet strained vocals.
The western-style foot stomper “Don’t Ease Me In” gave keyboardist Rob Barraco space to lead and exhibit his prowess behind the ivories. To conclude the first set, a psychedelic “China Cat Sunflower” led into a dynamic “I Know You Rider” that had everyone in the place jumping to the beat, bad knees and all.
The house lights rose, and with the harmonies of the stringed-trio’s last verse of “Casey Jones” still ringing in my ears, I was speechless. With the lights up, the eclectic crowd was now clearly visible. Veteran Dead Heads with 200-plus shows under their belt co-mingled with the wide-eyed younger followers who began listening to the legendary band long after they stopped touring.
Since DSO reenacts full sets from the Dead’s over 30-year touring history, fans are given a fully-recreated night with the Dead. Every night, DSO changes arrangements, guitar modulation and their playing style given the evolving sound of any-given era. And they’re committed, traveling with their own sound and lighting equipment to recreate the energy of all the Dead’s unique periods. No LED lights. Woven rugs underneath their feet. A mesmerizing 30-foot tie-dye backdrop. A three and a half hour, two-set show sure doesn’t feel like just a tribute band. Dark Star Orchestra are only the current drivers of a bus that hasn’t stopped since the Grateful Dead first hopped on in ’66. They’re the biggest Dead fans in the room, playing for each other and the audience.
The air was electric when the lights came down for the second set to begin. A toe-tapping “Cumberland Blues” started the set into a homey “El Paso” that, in keeping with Dead tradition, had Rob Eaton flub a couple verses in a beautiful Bob Weir-esque fashion. Demonstrating the collaborative, supportive vibes of a Dead show, the crowd lovingly cheered the band on because any mistake brings us closer to the heroes on stage, who aren’t gods, but humans just like us.
The tone shifted when the stirring ballad “He’s Gone” brought the carnival inward for a lengthy jam that moved hearts and brought the dead to life. Everyone’s deeply personal relationship to this music surfaced when Mattson delivered the somber lines in the first chorus: “Like a steam locomotive, rolling down the track/He’s gone, gone, nothin’s gonna bring him back.”
Since Jerry’s death, “He’s Gone” has held a special place in all Dead Heads’ hearts. We’ve all lost family and friends on our long strange trip through life, and DSO and cover bands everywhere help us honor their gone, yet not lost, love of the Dead. The internal exploration took a poetic hiatus when the celebratory “Truckin” brought us out of our contemplation, only to be continued when a trippy half-hour “The Other One” followed.
For the first time all night, the crowd appreciated the obstructing chairs of the State, as we all sunk into our chairs and blasted off into a disorienting deep-blue excursion through the depths of space. Reality was suspended for a time as the spaceship of my mind floated, only guided by an innumerable number of penetrating rays of light guiding my path. The lengthy brain melting cacophony only subsided when gentle bass vibrations swirled softly into a warm “Brokedown Palace.”
A highlight: A five foot three dancing blue bear grooving through the crowd all night made her/his/its way up onto the stage.
After the final joys of “Sugar Magnolia,” “Uncle John’s Band” and “Johnny B. Goode” to end the show, I zombied out onto State Street looking for a way to safely float back down to earth. Alas, no balloons, only a man selling grilled cheese.
I happily settled for grilled cheese, knowing the Dead were alive as ever.