A Monumental Night With Dark Star Orchestra
The night started innoculously enough. We really had no way of knowing that before us was a night of astounding musical hights. My friend and I ambled into Madison, Wisconsin's own Barrymore Theatre, making our way directly into the theater itself so that we might secure some choice seats before the milling crowd outside started to make their way in. The atmosphere was laid back, with people talking amiably over good Wisconsin beer. Just another Wednesday night. One might be tempted to think back to those now historic nights at the Fillmore and realize that for the Heads of those days, going down to see the Dead on a Wednesday night was just another night in San Francisco--no big deal, just another musical miracle coaxed from a well-worn stage.
We made our way down the aisle, little clusters of Heads here and there catching up on all that's gone down since the last show. We decided to park ourselves directly in front of the soundboard, where the sound was good, the crowd was laid back but still ready to shake their bones. We took our Arctic coats off (remember, this is Wisconsin in early February) and began to wonder about the new guitarist.
John Kadlecik, the guitarist who was with the band from the start (and was amongst the ones who had the idea for the original premise for DSO which they have remained faithful to lo these many years) had recently left the band after receiving an offer from Bob Weir and Phil Lesh to go and start a new band with them. Not that anyone can really blame him. After all, it's the chance of a lifetime, and he might as well play the cards fate has dealt him (in true Grateful Dead style).
I knew that Jeff Mattson had been with the Zen Tricksters, and had of late been playing with them and Donna Jean Godchaux. I had heard the Tricksters once many years ago down in Chicago, and had been impressed by their sound. But had Mattson been with the band long enough to develop the sort of psychic rapport that was an absolute necessity for this sort of music? We needn't have worried.
As we wondered to ourselves, the band casually took the stage and broke into a early 70s sounding Greatest Story Ever Told. The wah-wah crescendos were very Jerry, and Rob Eaton sounded his Weir best (complete with the over-the-top screams that early 70s Weir was so known and loved for--the dude sacrificed his vocal chords on the alter of Rock and Roll nightly). They then went directly into the medium-tempo shuffle of an early 70s Deal (though the Dead really rocked this one out later in their career, for whatever reason, I always appreciated the more understated early versions better--something about Garcia's leads and the easy-going way he sang it), and I began to get the distinct feeling that we were in 1971-1972 territory. The next song, a Pigpen number, sealed this opinion: Mr. Charlie came out in all its swaggering glory. After a one-beat rockin' Beat It On Down the Line, the bittersweet nostalgia of Brown-Eyed Women, and the sweaty Rock and Roll of Chinatown Shuffle, the show began to take on the distinctive hue of 1972--the last great hurrah for Pigpen, and the beginnings of the more Jazz-infused Keith Godchaux version of the band. 1972 had a bit of both, and Dark Star Orchestra drew on both for full inspiration last night.
By the time the first fateful notes of Playing In the Band floated free of the speakers, little doubt remained in our minds--we were knee-deep in one monster of a show.
The thing I've always admired about DSO is that you can tell they do their homework. Not only do they replicate the sound of the era they are playing, but they also recall the very structure of the specific songs they play. As any Deadhead worth their weight in Maxell XL II 90s can tell you (did I just date myself there?) a song like Playin' changed remarkably through the years. For DSO, it's not enough to simply play the song on the same equipment it was originally played on. Hell no, they need to musically trace the song's evolutionary trajectory. This obsessive need to remain true to the music is, more than anything else, what sets them apart from all other Dead-related cover bands.
Labels: DSO Review