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Published: 2003/06/09
by Dan Alford

Dark Star Orchestra, Irving Plaza, NYC- 6/4

I've never heard anyone say anything negative about a Dark Star Orchestra concert. I've heard a lot of complaints about the idea of the Dark Star Orchestra, but never a one about an actual show. Those who have misgivings about the band generally fall into a similar argument. It's seems strange to pay $20 plus for a cover band, they scoff. And where's the originality? Why make your living off of someone else's work? The problem is, such critics are entirely missing the point of DSO, and if they were to attend a performance, they would go seeking flaws, not transcendence. The name Dark Star Orchestra was not chosen frivolously, just to capitalize on the song title and all its psychedelic weight. If that were the case, the Dark Stars would have been equally, if not more, effective. No, the key to the title is Orchestra. Years ago, while Phil is relatively mellow in terms of making the music happen, doing a few shows with Steve Kimock and guests in the Bay Area, there was talk of using the Grateful Dead songbook as a body of work he would use to create a symphony- a sort of highly controlled musical flashback. When PLQ took off (a band sorely missed in its nearly year long hiatus, despite the unequivocal success of the last Other Ones-become-Dead tour), he talked of the songbook as a body of open-ended concepts to be interpreted in infinite ways.

It is with such a mindset that one must approach the Dark Star Orchestra; that is, one must consider the Grateful Dead's music more in terms of the music created by a great composer rather than that created by a band. Surely no one would question attending a performance of Beethoven's works by a skilled symphony orchestra because Beethoven was not some how involved in the performance. Indeed one might especially seek to attend a performance of a particular composition, or body of work from a specific time period. Just so with the DSO; they skillfully treat audiences to performances of the music that fan! s know and love so well. And they don't simply play songs from albums. They get at the heart of the Grateful Dead's music by playing their true compositions: their concerts. They are, conceptually, an orchestra that's real skill lies in interpreting a seemingly endless body of music, doing so with love and attention to detail, but also attention to the idea behind the music, that of improvisation. Thus, a DSO show can upstage an actual GD show in terms of actual performance. And why shouldn't it? Certainly the motivation behind the band is not to be adopted lightly; they have to play their best every night before such a knowledgeable and critical audience. I'm reminded of a show in 2002 at The World in NYC when the band played 10/9/76, a show that showcased the Dead's originality and supreme musicianship, a show that was one the first in my tape collection in the late eighties, and had thus become part of the way I have always thought about the Grateful Dead, and a show that! the Dark Star Orchestra played better.

All that being said, however, there are also those nights when DSO simply cuts loose and uses their skills to forge an original set list, a set list that could have existed in a particular era or one that is entirely fanciful. Such was the case for the second night of a two night stand at Irving Plaza. Opening with an environmentally appropriate Cold Rain and Snow, Lisa Mackey (Donna) joining, the night was primed with potential. The tune was fairly mellow, but thrilling in its chill, and decorated with slick organ riffs. The following pairing of Me and My Uncle > Big River was early in the set, and was followed by a fantastically snakey Jack a Roe. An old style version, the song was grooved out, with big broad bass steps and great rhythm work from Rob Eaton (Bobby). The middle jam opened up and John Kadlecik (Jerry) worked a sweeping, fluid lead, but it unfortunately crumbled at the end due to a sudden bassy buzz in the PA.

With the problem fixed, the band regaled the crowd with the awful Tons of Steel (it was awful when Brent did it; it's awful when Warren does it; it's just an awful song), confirming that this somewhat peculiarly structured set was an original. That knowledge quelled the "Do you know it?" between song chatter, and allowed many to relax and immerse themselves in the music. The rest of the set did lack a cohesive feel though, with few transitions and no truly open-ended songs like Birdsong or Cassidy. Offered instead were a couple of very rare nuggets, including You Ain't Woman Enough and the following Brother Esau. The Bobby tune, while a bit dated lyrically, is a spectacular song that never saw enough stage time in the eighties, and was a real treat to hear. The audience agreed, cheering at the opening and howling at the close. Other highlights included an incendiary Passenger, and brilliant, sterling Masterpiece > Touch of Grey to close.

The Dark Star Orchestra has been playing mainly mid to late seventies shows this spring, and the second set, despite a Women Are Smarter opener, was firmly lodged in that era, making for a more cohesive and satisfying set. Scarlet Begonias set the room on fire at its first note. Bodies were shaking and the already warm and humid room filled with sweat and steam as the lengthy transition jam developed. Loping and lingering in turn, the movement was greatly enhanced by Lisa's plaintive cries. By the time Fire on the Mountain climaxed with the third solo, that second set haze had settled in and everything seemed just right. For another treat, Lisa took the lead again with a majestic, spine-tingling Sunrise spliced to Uncle John's Band. Unquestionably the finest moment of the night, Uncle John's rolled with the lightness of the era, the spring step, and launched out on a wild jam. The band let go of the composition and the music swirled and spaced out, Kevin Rosen (Phil) doin! g much to guide the jam past the known borders. At the same time Rob's rhythm work, coupled with that of the drummers, kept the music moving forward, resulting in a free form, entirely energetic piece of improvisation. Eventually Rob began to hint at Supplication, and after another long, well-developed transition, the band crashed into the tune itself before giving way to Drumz.

Mark Greenberg, of Dickey's Betts' band, joined Rob Koritz (Mickey) and Dino English (Billy) immediately, taking to the backstage instruments and helping to cultivate a churning Rhythm Devils segment. The three drummers constantly moved around the stage, even switching who played the kit without letting the beat drop once. It was amazing that even the Drumz was pulled out of the late seventies, with its focus on traditional African style rhythmic barrages rather than screaming Beam work and MIDI effects. Also like a Drumz from 1978, the performance was very long and very danceable.

The band rolled out of Space to finish Uncle John's Band to the appreciative cheers of the crowd, and then moved into Attics, a rendition that surpassed Sunrise's sublimity. Majesty was the name of this second set. What the Dark Star Orchestra is able to do with the music of the Grateful Dead is nothing short of amazing. Do not deny yourself the pleasures, the wonders, they offer.

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