Dark Star Orchestra, The Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR- 3/7
The first time I saw the Dark Star Orchestra play was last summer in the darn near perfect setting of the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, Oregon. What better place for the best Dead cover band on the planet to perform the well-known and well-loved songs so many thousands of fans crave than the ultimate annual hippie gathering? The answer is none. No place. In the not-so-distant past, those very same Fairgrounds were immersed in the sounds of Jerry Garcia and company. The Dark Star Orchestra certainly seemed to channel the power of years gone by on that day as they played two strong sets of their own creation ("own creation" meaning they selected what Dead songs to play as opposed to playing an entire setlist from a past show verbatim). A warm day in a sunny fairground surrounded by hippies, freaks, and artists is the perfect place to see this band. Then there's the Crystal Ballroom in Portland.
Arriving at the Crystal on a Friday evening, I was happy I had already secured a ticket. There was a big mass of people milling around near the entrance, many of whom I knew personally. Most had their fingers in the air and were looking for an extra or even "a miracle." I couldn't believe it. It seemed like just another eerie similarity between DSO and the actual Grateful Dead. If you've read any of my past reviews, you know the Crystal is not that high on my list of preferred Portland venues (although, they have stopped the intrusive pocket frisks upon entering the last couple times I've been there). This goes triple when it's sold-out. We walked in half way through the first set and immediately decided to just stay put where we were, the very back of the room and just behind the merchandise table near the back bar. The place was oozing with all kinds of people. We could have tried to muscle our way to the entrance of the 21+ section and then waited twenty or thirty minutes in the alcohol line, but that just didn't sound like fun. So we hung out in the back and did our best to enjoy the set from there.
Of course, the sound wasn't great from the very back. But it was much better than usual. After doing some quick visual research, I realized why. Dark Star Orchestra had brought their own PA monitors and had them set up in front of the house PA. I wish more bands would do this as the Crystal. As we walked in they were playing Birdsong. The quiet and beautiful tune lost some of its effect on us. There were quite a few folks chatting it up (and why not in the back of the room on a beer-soaked Friday night?) and we were in the edge of the pathway where the late arrivers were walking by, so it was hard to really pay attention. The thing that struck me immediately is how closely the players in this band have the phrasings and styles of the Dead members down. They even look like the Dead. It's very strange and almost surreal to see.
After a mellow Birdsong, the band started up the song All Over Now. It was a very good rollicking version of the Rolling Stones classic. Rob Eaton, or as I like to call him "The Bobby Guy," has a great delivery that is shockingly similar to Bob Weir's. His body movements on stage are even the same. Then John Kadlecik, "The Jerry Guy," took over and delivered a deathly slow rendition of Must Have Been the Roses. I hadn't even thought about this song in many years, so I really enjoyed hearing it played. It was apparently a bit too slow for the drunken and talkative Friday night crowd at the Crystal, however. Most people just blabbed away as if it was some random PA music or something. Let it Grow began after Roses and their was a rush of energy in the place. The lights were intense pulsing blues and greens and DSO played a pretty rock solid version of the tune complete with the two drummers slamming away. Rob Eaton's rhythm guitar work was clinging and clanging a la Weir as John Kadlecik was soloing and riffing floaty bits of music that emulated Jerry Garcia's style. While it was a solid version of the tune to close the set, the jams never really raged to a point of frenzy. There was a peak in the jamming, but it was slightly subdued, never quite making it to that mystical point of no return. Set break followed.
We enjoyed the part of the first set we made it in to see, but the packed house had made it a struggle. As the break wore on, however, more and more room freed up on the floor. We edged our way closer towards the front until we were hugging the rail directly in front of the entrance to the 21+ section. From this dead-center vantage point, we would have much better sound and views. As set time approached, things filled in once again. The first familiar chords of Help on the Way rang out and a tremor of satisfaction rolled through the room. It was a fast-paced and energetic version. If I closed my eyes I could have sworn it was the Dead. Then I realized that wasn't quite accurate. Those bass lines just didn't sound like Phil's. And I can't decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Is bassist Kevin Rosen intentionally playing more of his own style than any one else in the band? Since the other players are emulating the members of the Dead so faithfully, Rosen's style, which openly differs from Phil's much of the time, threw me off every now and again.
Next was Slipknot and then Franklin's Tower, which were both played with energy and authenticity. Franklin's went over particularly well with the festive crowd as a gigantic sing along ensued. After that came Estimated Prophet and then Eyes of the World. Estimated was played well and Rob didn't ham it up as much as Bob probably did when the Dead originally played this show back in 1985. I never liked the 80's versions of Eyes as much as the jazzier '73 era, but they played it very well. There was a nice long drums section next and it was a highlight for me, just as it usually is at a Dead show. There was even a mini "Beast" set up in the back of the stage. The drums got raging into a pounding thunder before changing abruptly into high-pitched marimba jungle-rhythms. Then the rest of band came back on stage for a very brief Space.
I Need a Miracle was great and really packed a wallop. Rob Eaton delivered the lyrics forcefully and Scott Larned was reeling off organ solos that sounded very much like Brent Mydland's. He layered frenetic organ runs on top of one other and the energy built on itself into a serious crescendo. China Doll was next and it slowed things down while providing a much needed breather. Kadlecik's vocals captured the emotion of Garcia as he delivered the signature wails and cries of this exceptionally well-written song. After the slow, haunting ballad, the band stepped it back up and snapped us out of our trance with Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. It chugged right along and had everyone in the room grooving happily. They finished off the set with a kicking Good Lovin'. Rob Eaton was the highpoint of this show and he really let loose on this final song of the set. Everyone on stage and in the crowd seemed pretty psyched as the set ended and DSO left the stage.
They returned for the encore and immediately started playing Day Job. I never caught this song live when the Dead were still playing, so I didn't mind hearing it too much. But overall, I don't think it's any Head's favorite tune. They played it alright, I guess, but there just isn?t really that much to it. After they finished up Day Job, the band announced that they had just played a show that was originally performed in Springfield, MA on March 25th, 1985. They played one last song, The Weight, and we made our way out the door as it finished up. Even when the band plays a cover song they sound like the Dead covering it.
Overall, it was a great show. I wish I hadn't missed so much of the first set. It's amazing how well this band can play and look like the Dead. A sold out Crystal Ballroom is not the most enjoyable spot to see any show, but DSO kept me entertained enough that I didn't really mind a lack of personal space and not being able to drink. And as I drove home it occurred to me that the Dark Star Orchestra, being a young and energetic band, just might have played this show better than its original performance by the Grateful Dead back in 1985. I mean, Jerry wasn?t in the best shape by then and?.. Nah!!!