Dark Star Orchestra, The Rave, Milwaukee, WI- 10/17
Milwaukee, WI was treated to the refreshed, vibrant sounds of the Dark Star Orchestra on Friday, October 17. It was their inaugural show of their fall tour. Dark Star Orchestra, which had been off since early September, was in peak form from start to finish.
For those unfamiliar with the Dark Star Orchestra, their fall-tour promo flyer states, "Dark Star Orchestra: Recreating the Grateful Dead Experience." This is no easy task, given the vast differences and quality of shows from year-to-year, tour-to tour, even night-to-night. The vocals, the jams, the segues, the stage set-up; everything is tailored to mirror the Dead's original performance of that particular show. Fans never know what show is played until Rob Eaton (guitar/vocals) makes the announcement at the conclusion of each show. This leaves the crowd in suspense, often times rendering guesses based on stage set-up, song selection, band equipment, etc. Tonight, one obvious clue was the third microphone center stage. This signaled that it was a "Donna show," or in other words, Lisa Mackey would be singing Donna Jean Godchaux's part. Donna Jean Godchaux was a member of the Grateful Dead from 1972-1979. Although I have seen DSO multiple times in the past few years, this was only my second "Donna show."
Dark Star Orchestra hails from nearby Chicago, IL and frequently plays the Milwaukee area. On this evening they played at The Rave, a mid-size indoor club style venue. The sound is typically decent and there are no seats inside, which allows fans plenty of room to move around and dance. The Rave security tends to be overbearing, and tonight proved no different. However, security didn't appear to interfere with most people's ability to enjoy the show.
After an uptempo "Promised Land" opener, the band downshifted into the meandering "They Love Each Other." John Kadlecik, lead guitarist and vocalist, did an excellent job with the song's story-like verses, with Rob Eaton and Lisa Mackey adding soulful vocals on the refrain. Immediately after "They Love Each Other," Eaton started playing a fast country-like riff on the guitar and signaled the band to follow. The opening lyrics of the song indicated "Me and My Uncle," a rousing western story-song. The band then segued effortlessly into Johnny Cash's "Big River." Rob Eaton has obviously done his homework when playing Bob Weir's part as he nailed Weir's mannerisms and movements, with the customary Weir head-bob, and various motions to signify changes in the song.
Following the "Me and My Uncle," "Big River" pairing, Kadlecik cooled things down with "Candyman," a dark ballad off American Beauty. Eaton then took the controls for "Looks Like Rain." This was an early version of "Looks Like Rain," absent the song-ending jam, which the band developed in later years. "Ramble on Rose," the pairing of "Lazy Lightening" to "Supplication," and an upbeat "Might As Well" rounded out the first set.
The second set began with the expected instrumental noodling. The drummers (Rob Koritz and Dino English) then started playing that familiar, fast beat that would become "Samson and Delilah." The two drummers do a fine job pounding out rhythms and playing off each other, much like Mickey Hart and Bill Kruetzmann. Eaton was in obvious enjoyment while playing and the crowd grooved to the song. Following the poignant "Ship of Fools," the band then picked things up with "Good Lovin," but quickly brought them back down with "Sunrise." Although "Sunrise" allowed Lisa Mackey to show off her impressive vocal ability, the song has no extended solos or improvisation. To my mind it is better suited to the first set, with the opening half of the second reserved for exploratory pieces, and "Sunrise" certainly didn't fit that mold. When examining the Grateful Dead's song selection history, it's obvious the band felt the same way because the song was dropped out of the second set repertoire after a mere 30 live performances.
At its close DSO was now ready for some second-set musical exploration. An extraordinary "Scarlet Begonias" segued gracefully into a "Fire On the Mountain" jam for several minutes before Kadlecik sang the opening "long distance runner…" lyrics of the song. Kevin Rosen's thundering bass lines provided the foundation for this sweltering jam. Interestingly, this was the first and only time during the show that Rosen's bass could be picked out of the mix. Whereas in the Grateful Dead, Phil Lesh's bass would function as a lead instrument, I felt that Rosen was relegated to playing a quiet background rhythm instrument, which didn't mirror Lesh's lead-bass style. Even so, the "Scarlet" > "Fire" combination was a show highlight. Eaton then signaled the band into "Estimated Prophet" By now it was clear that given the setlist and the presence of Lisa Mackey (Donna Jean Godchaux) one could narrow down the possible show date to between 1977 and 1979.
A rather short "Estimated" led into the proverbial opening notes of "St. Stephen." The band was definitely "on" during "St. Stephen" and the grin on John Kadlecik's face during the crowd's response to the lyric, "can you answer?" was heartening. After the "St. Stephen" jam died down, Eaton again took the controls and through his body movements, signaled the band into "Truckin," The Rave was now completely consumed by the music. From "Truckin," the band charged into a rousing version of the Chuck Berry classic, "Around and Around" to end the set.
After a short break, the band returned and out of musical dabbles came the chords of "Terrapin Station." It was a thrill to hear the complete "Lady with a fan" into "Terrapin Station." The percussion pounded out the "Terrapin, I can't figure out" lyrics with resounding power.
Rob Eaton then announced the original show date, performed by the Grateful Dead on November 2, 1977. The date came as a surprise to very few, given the stage set-up and song selection clues. 1977 is widely regarded as a landmark year for the Grateful Dead, with countless stellar live performances. Tonight proved no different, especially the second set of "Scarlet Begonias" > "Fire on the Mountain", "Estimated Prophet" > "St. Stephen" > "Truckin" > "Around and Around." With every Dark Star Orchestra concert I attend, I am only further convinced that they have mastered the idiosyncrasies of the Grateful Dead's music, and most importantly the live Grateful Dead musical experience.