If you’ve never seen Dark Star Orchestra, don’t fret because they play about a hundred shows a year and it’s pretty easy to find a show near you. If you don’t know who they are, Dark Star Orchestra is a Grateful Dead cover band. But there’s a fun twist! At each of their shows, they usually cover an entire Dead concert. I am certainly not a “dead head” nor have I ever seen the Grateful Dead live, but what I can say confidently is that these guys (and girl) are extremely talented musicians. The similarities are really quite impressive.
DSO performs shows from the Grateful Dead’s catalog containing nearly 2,500 shows that they performed during their 30-year musical career. Some members of the Dead have even played on stage with DSO in the past and as of January 2011 the band reportedly played their 1900th show. DSO has been playing live shows together since 1997 and the members of the band have varied greatly. The former members of the band actually outnumber the current members 2 to 1. The current members are Lisa Mackey (vocals), Kevin Rosen (bass), Rob Koritz (drums, percussion), Dino English (drums, percussion), Rob Eaton (rhythm guitar), Rob Barraco (keyboards, vocals), and Jeff Mattson (lead guitar, vocals).
This night of their tour was actually one of the nights where the band didn’t cover a past show. They sold out the Vic Theater in Chicago on a typical Chi-town winter evening. I must say I was pretty unimpressed with the crowd at this show. I’m actually a very patient person, but these fans were quickly making my shit list. And the consensus seemed to be unanimous on DSO’s online forums, which didn’t make me feel any better about it.
First of all, DSO’s followers are filled with smokers and tokers and this venue has a no reentry policy meaning the ‘vibe’ was always tense, everyone was on edge, and the place was packed to the walls. Plus, when you tell someone they can’t come back inside if they go out and smoke, they’ll just light one up inside and ruin what little fresh air is left among 1,400 hippies. And when that happens security becomes upset and power trips all over you if you even as much as block an aisle on the balcony.
It seemed like everyone was just really drunk and pissed off at each other. Nobody would move when you navigated through the crowd and I seemed to be the only person in that whole venue who apologized for bumping or spilling. One girl knocked over an entire garbage bin, emptying its contents all over the floor and didn’t even look back. I don’t mean to generalize, but I thought a crowd following a Dead cover band would be more aware of themselves, their environment, and be a lot more courteous than this bunch. And you would think they would learn to hold their booze better. Oh, the irony.
These factors were very distracting, making it difficult to concentrate on the show. I’m not really complaining though, because it probably wasn’t ranked as one of DSO’s better performances among their fans. Maybe I’m wrong, but it definitely wasn’t on my top ten list of past year’s shows.
I will admit that this show had some diamonds in the rough. “Friend of the Devil” blew me away. It was better than most recordings I’ve heard the Dead play and some may call that blasphemous. It was the only point during the whole night where the crowd went from drunken zombie to dancing orangutan. I could have sworn all 1000+ fans were shouting every lyric at the top of their lungs with the band and the lights were the most energetic and colorful than any other track of the evening. I could hardly contain myself holding my handheld video camera in the air to capture all 10 minutes of the song.
However, the rest of the night was not very eventful. Maybe that has to do with the fact that they weren’t trying to mimic a previous Dead show. They were just improvising and their lack of energy and enthusiasm was evident. The biggest surprise was hearing “Dear Prudence.” It was kind of nostalgic for me. That song brings back a lot of youthful memories and it was the last bit of ear candy from the rest of the night.
This isn’t an attack on the band at all. It is crystal clear that they are all committed musicians with a pretty serious stage setup, especially in the drum and percussion section. DSO’s lead guitarist, Jeff Mattson, makes playing guitar look incredibly easy. It actually hurts to watch because the only thing I’ve ever been able to play on guitar is the beginning of “Iron Man.” Mattson’s hand looked like he was stroking a cat. It barely touched the strings and yet sound exploded from his amp. Lisa Mackey brought some feel good careless energy to the stage as well. As she spun in circles to the joyful melodies, her long brown hair captivatingly lifted in the air.
Obviously, this show didn’t get a gold star from me, but I can’t deny the power and influence the Dead has on its forever-diehard fans. I may not fully understand it, but boy do I have respect for the everlasting power of their music. I think it’s really creative to not only cover a band, but also cover entire concerts. It’s not something I am used to and for that I am thankful for the experience.