Dark Star Orchestra brings Grateful Dead back to life
By Chris ScullinPosted Feb 6, 2013
Throughout its 30-year circus of a career, The Grateful Dead established itself as one of the most iconic American music groups in history. However, the party came to a halt in 1995 when lead guitarist and lead singer Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack.
A couple years later, in 1997, Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) formed near Chicago with the mission of bringing the experience of a Grateful Dead concert to fans young and old. The band will be performing at the Newport Music Hall Feb. 9.
DSO recreates entire Grateful Dead set lists in its performances.
The Grateful Dead was celebrated for its ability to improvise large portions of its live performances. When DSO recreates a show, it plays the same songs in the same order at the same tempo. But when it comes to the improvisational sections, rather than attempt to replicate what the Grateful Dead did, the band improvises on its own.
“That’s really the spirit of the music,” Mattson said. “To copy that note for note would be incredibly labor-intensive and really counterintuitive to what the band is all about.”
DSO also uses instrumentation that matches the era of the show it is reproducing. For example, the group often features a female singer when playing a show from the 70’s, and is sure to have the correct keyboards and drum set-ups. The band’s members try to play in accordance with the skill-level and personalities of the Grateful Dead members they are replicating.
“Jerry’s playing evolved as he went along,” said Jeff Mattson, lead guitarist for DSO. “Something from the 80s would be more harmonically sophisticated, playing off the different chord changes, whereas in 1969 he played with more of an aggressive fire. It was intricate in its own way, but not as intricate.”
Instead of copying every note, the members of Dark Star Orchestra mimic the playing styles and technique of the members of The Grateful Dead.
“I certainly inject my own personality into it,” Mattson said. “But I do it in the style of Jerry Garcia so that it does sound and feel like a Grateful Dead concert.”
When DSO first formed, it quickly made a name for itself and the audience grew from around 50 people at its first performance to more than 200 at its third. The band began selling out shows throughout its tours, and gained recognition on the national music scene.
The Grateful Dead soon heard about DSO, and gave its support to the band. To date, it has performed shows with six members of the Grateful Dead, including a performance last October at in San Francisco with bassist and founding member Phil Lesh.
While DSO’s fan base continues to grow, success has not come easily and the band puts enormous effort into touring all across the globe. So far it has performed more than 2150 shows in 15 years.
“We’re out there doing it all the time. We do about 130 shows a year,” Mattson said. “And that’s just the shows, not including the days off on the road or the travel days. We spend about half our lives on the road.”
Among these shows are numerous appearances at music festivals nationwide including All Good, Gathering of the Vibes, Mountain Jam among others. Last year the band hosted its own festival, the inaugural Dark Star Jubilee, at Legend Valley in Thornville, Ohio, about 25 miles east of Columbus.
This year the festival will take place Memorial Day weekend, May 24-26. The initial artist lineup includes Yonder Mountain String Band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, The Wailers, The Werks, Greensky Bluegrass, Elephant Revival, The Pimps of Joytime, Rumpke Mountain Boys, two Grateful Dead Members in their own bands: Mickey Hart Band and Donna Jean Godchaux Band. The festival features 36 hours of non-overlapping music. Promoters are currently offering the only chance to obtain All Good Festival tickets at this time through an Early Bird package deal including camping, parking and entertainment for both festivals for $250, saving buyers more than $125 off the gate price.
“We’re looking forward to coming to Columbus on this tour,” Mattson said. “We always have a good time in Columbus, and we hope to see everybody out there.” _ The concert takes place Feb. 9 at the Newport. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance._