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Courtesy of DSP Shows

November 25, 2019

Dark Star Orchestra Proves the Music Still Hasn’t Stopped in Ithaca

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Long before I started applying to college or even thought about Cornell, I started listening to the Grateful Dead. Little did I know that the college I would end up at was the home to arguably the best Grateful Dead show that ever took place (Barton Hall on May 8, 1977). Like many other fans of the Grateful Dead, I was introduced to them through my older brother. I found his iPod and stumbled upon some Dead songs, the first being “Casey Jones.” I was immediately captivated and began to dive deeper and deeper into the vast Grateful Dead catalog, which includes 13 studio albums and about 3,000 live performances.

Today, I consider myself an amateur deadhead. I can pick out the names of songs, and in some cases the date on which a live song was played, but I’ve never seen Jerry Garcia in the flesh and won’t ever really know what a Grateful Dead show is like. Dark Star Orchestra, however, gave me a little taste of what that show might be like. This was my second time seeing Dark Star, and I was beyond excited to see them in a venue like the State Theatre. I saw them perform for the first time at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., the famous venue where Bruce Springsteen came to be. It was a great show, but unfortunately, a security guard decided to cut my Stone Pony experience short. I was holding a beer and didn’t have a wristband on (rookie mistake). I gave him the drink and began my walk of shame out of the venue. Not the best end to a show, but I was ready to redeem myself at the State Theatre.

I pulled up to the State Theatre and was pleasantly surprised to find out that our tickets were general admission and we could sit wherever we wanted. We walked right up to about the fifth row — we were stoked. While we waited for the show to start, I grabbed a beer (legally this time!) and headed back to my seat. As I looked around, it was comforting to know that we were surrounded by a big group of kids our age and wouldn’t be terrorized by die-hard deadheads claiming we’re at the wrong concert or berating me for wearing a Phish shirt.

Soon enough the lights went down and the band came on stage. They started off with “The Music Never Stopped,” a song written by Bob Weir (rhythm guitarist of the Dead) and John Perry Barlow (songwriter and childhood friend of Weir). I was immediately taken back by the band. Although I had seen them before, I was shocked at how closely DSO resembled the playing of the Grateful Dead and even more the voices of each member. The lead guitarist, Jeff Mattson, does a great job at mimicking Jerry’s playing, especially in the way he spaces out the notes he plays. This won’t come as a surprise to many, as Jeff has played with every member of the Grateful Dead and has been involved in the scene since the early 1970s.

Some of the highlights of the show included a pumping “New Minglewood Blues,” a dreamy “It Looks Like Rain,” a “Lazy Lightning” similar to the one played at Barton Hall in 1977 and “It Must Have Been the Roses.” Dark Star Orchestra brought the heat.

Anytime this band comes into town, I highly recommend you go see them. Maybe they aren’t the same band that emerged during the San Francisco Acid Tests in the ’60s, and they definitely didn’t live together in Haight-Ashbury. But if you squint really hard they are pretty damn close. There’s a reason why Phil Lesh (Dead bassist) picked Dark Star to fill in for him for his Halloween shows and why my Uncle Chris (a traveling Dead fan who attended the famous show at Barton Hall) asked me how I knew who Dark Star Orchestra was. This band has it and whether you know it or not, you need it.
William Miksic is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at wmiksic@cornellsun.com.