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Published: 2003/12/01
by Mike Greenhaus

Dark Star Orchestra, Irving Plaza, NYC- 11/24

Just because Dark Star Orchestra packs clubs, doesn't mean they play concerts. The most original, and some might argue popular, tribute act to emerge during the Dead's wake, Dark Star Orchestra have certainly earned honors at the San Francisco school of psychedelic rock and roll. But that doesn't mean they aspire to be rock stars after graduation.

In fact, concertgoers should start paying attention to the group's moniker. Like a classical orchestra, Dark Star stage recitals, not concerts. With that in mind, judging an event's merit isn't about finding a performance's most musically ambitious moments, it's about gauging if the group nailed passages with conductor approved precession. While the group's occasional original set-list offerings might seem a bit smug, those shows are akin to an orchestra selecting highlights from Mozart or Beethoven's canon. For, as their tagline articulately states, Dark Star Orchestra aim to "recreate the Grateful Dead experience"-not simply flashback to certain performances. But on the opening night of their three-day Irving Plaza stand, Dark Star Orchestra weren't the only one's staking claim to the Dead experience. Deadheads showed up in mass to relive their concert-going past and prove that they've memorized DeadBase.

These days, The Dead market is actually a bit over saturated. Before the year's end, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh will both have breezed trough New York City's Beacon Theater, and The Dead made the tri-state area a frequent stop on their Summer Getaway Tour. Combined with an endless array of Grateful Dead-kin and offspring, it seems like there is always a place to hear the Dead's canon come alive in New York. With so many courses to choose from at Grateful Dead University, many of the Dead's younger fans actually elected to wait for Phil Lesh and Friends' upcoming four-night run or Thanksgiving weekend's jamband stuffing. Leaving only the diehard, and truly dedicated, in attendance, most fans at Irving Plaza had already seen their fair share of Dead recitals. So, those who came weren't hoping to hear more psychedelic readings of Dead numbers (ala Phil and Friends) or jazzy selections of Weir's canon (ala Ratdog) they wanted to hear what the Dead sounded like during their youth and reminisce through friendly competition.

Composed mostly of thirty-somethings who initially saw the Dead in the late-1970s and 1980s, Dark Star Orchestra's crowd acted as if they were attending a high-school reunion. The guessing game began early. Given the absence of "Mickey Hart," and the appearance of "Donna Jean," it was obvious that Monday's set-list originally took place sometime post-Pig Pen, but pre-hiatus. With three years to choose from (1972, 1973, 1974), one sect of fans argued for the group's 1973 set on Ken Kesey's Farm, while another group remembered a similar sounding tape from November 1972. Despite these fans' mental set-list encyclopedia, it was hard to gauge early-on exactly when this early 1970s show took place. For, while early 1970s Grateful Dead concerts differed night-to-night by way of musical improvisation, set-lists tended to draw from a similar collection of songs. Simply guessing shows by set-lists isn't going to get most fans within less than three-years of an exact date. Instead, careful observers must judge the group's pacing and precision, an element of the Dead's persona Dark Star Orchestra are apt at exploring. Not only does the group aim to recreate set lists, they also try to recreate the mellow, yet aggressive, vibe that made a Grateful Dead show an enlightening, party experience.

Choosing a show from November 1973, Dark Star Orchestra found themselves tackling some of the most coveted material in the Dead's canon. Concentrating early on the Dead's cowboy songs, such as "Me and My Uncle," Dark Star Orchestra nailed the psychedelic fried California rock that colored so many of the Dead's first sets. Playing short, spirited covers, Dark Star Orchestra sounded enough like The Dead to appease most fans. Sure, lead guitarist John Kadlecik has a slightly lower voice than Garcia, and keyboardist Scott Larned hasn't quite nailed the jazzy piano skills of Keith Godchaux, but the group recites the Dead's canon better than any cover band currently touring. For most fans this slightly scratchy jukebox of hits is enough to keep the party rolling into the night although given the band member's talents some listeners do occasionally wish the group would run with the Dead's material into an entirely original place.

Running through a healthy number of songs, Dark Star Orchestra stretched their first-set out for over an hour and a half. Coming off their most fertile writing period, The Dead had a fine selection of songs to offer in the early 1970s. Numbers like "Jack Straw," "Looks Like Rain" and "Weather Report Suite," showed Weir at his finest, while Jerry Garcia carefully dissected the beautiful "Brokedown Palace" and the "Sugaree" with a careful delicacy. In many ways, Dark Star Orchestra nailed these numbers like the best concert soloist: each performer accented their skills before fading back into a collective orchestra. It's a communal vibe that suits the Dead cover band well, even if the group is reciting some of rock's loosest selections. With Kadlecik conducting, the DSO paced themselves in a decidedly Dead-like manner, slowly meandering their way through songs and solos. Even Lisa Mackey's vocals shrieked with the occasional Donna Jean-like annoyance, providing that Dark Star Orchestra aren't trying to rewrite history.

As expected, towards the end of their first set, the group began to dive a little deeper into psychedelic waters. Like the Dead, Kadlecik's high-pierced notes fit smoothly within of the group's consciously cluttered sound, with Rob Eaton's rhythm parts sandwiched between the lead guitarist and bassist Kevin Rosen. Given Irving Plaza's relatively intimate setting, Dark Star Orchestra's performance lacked the grandeur one would find at a full-fledged Dead show. But this club setting made each song a bit more tangible for fans and band members alike. The second set stretched things out a bit, with a long, loving "Half Step" starting things off on the right note. A long segue between concert staples like "Playing in the Band," "Wharf Rat," "Truckin" and many others also gave the set a sense of conceptual unity. But, the Dead in general were using this period to layer their sound with elements of Americana and jazz, condensing their country influenced nuggets into workable songs and jams. Dark Star Orchestra managed to feel their hands around these well known compositions, stretching things out when they needed to be and playing it safe when the group would.

While few fans picked the exact date of Dark Star Orchestras' show (11/21/1973 Coliseum, Denver, CO) that's part of the fun, as it only adds another element, even as DSO breathes renewed life into classic songs and arrangements.

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