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Published: 2004/07/18
by Mike Greenhaus

Dark Star Orchestra, Irving Plaza, NY- 7/6

Dark Star Orchestra is no longer a novelty act. Seven years into their cover shtick, the Chicago-based Dead-tribute act functions like a well-worn touring band, taking their time between tunings and blurring their consciously off-key harmonies into a single, familiar unit. Like the Grateful Dead, Dark Star's set-breaks now stretch well past the thirty-minute mark, offering both band and fans a well-needed mid-show reprieve. Only forty shows shy of their 1,000th performance, Dark Star's songbook has also grown to include three decades of material, touching almost every era of the Dead's career. In fact, the only thing separating Dark Star Orchestra from any other road-steady jamband is that, while it's easy to forget, this sextet is a cover band.

Last time Dark Star Orchestra offered a multi-night stand at Irving Plaza, they arrived with a sense of triumph. One of New York City's most polished juke-joints, the Union Square watering hole has served as a launching pad for countless jam-acts; the final club accomplishment before bands like moe., String Cheese Incident, and the Disco Biscuits graduated into ballrooms. In fact, Dark Star Orchestra actually flirted with ballroom-size success two years back, selling out the 3,000-person Hammerstein. But it's in the crowded confines of Irving Plaza, that this pack of Midwestern Deadheads were truly able to cultivate their own crowd.

Eight months later, Irving Plaza remained almost empty until just before Dark Star's scripted start time. Yet, just as the band ascended to the stage, Irving Plaza's dance floor flooded with fans. In lieu of lines like "Dude, do you know these guys cover complete shows?," fans greeted each other like old-friends, while latecomers wondered in with a sense of ease. Seasoned veterans, fans no longer approach Dark Star performances as a stage show, but instead as a young, zealous touring outfit whose repertoire happens to draw exclusively from the Dead. With Bob Weir, Vince Welnick, Donna Godchaux, and Bill Kreutzmann among the sextet's recent guests, such theatrical lines have blurred even further.

Dark Star Orchestra has also used their age to expand their musical palette. Though stuck within the confines of the Dead's songbook, the sextet have dug deeper into their psychedelic lineage. While Dark Star once focused on the Dead's 1970s peak, as well as their late 1980s renaissance, the group now seems to offer a party-mix of shows from any number of years. In fact, last weekend, Dark Star dipped into the Dead's touring time with Dylan, while original set lists have become an increasingly regular occurrence. At this Tuesday evening's club show, Dark Star offered up a choice performance from December 28, 1986, an often-overlooked era of Dead history.

Opening with a few random chords from Jerry Garcia fill-in John Kadlecik, Dark Star kicked off their set in jest with "Cold Rain and Snow," before slowly moving into "New Minglewood Blues." Highlighted by a textured reading of "El Paso," Dark Star's orchestral interpretations remained true to the Dead circa 1986, though the eighteen-year old set list could have easily been drawn from 1977.

Oddly enough, the Dead's current touring ensemble have polarized their set lists. Drawing heavily from set-list staples like "Sugar Magnolia" and once "forgotten favorites" like "Operator" (which have since been reintroduced to the surviving band members during their post-Garcia experiments), the Dead have created a stock set of regularly played songs. While the revolving chair approach consistently interjects new blood into these classic cuts, the Dead are sonically a different beast. Not your typical urban hippies, the 1,000 fans which filtered into Dark Star's most recent Irving Plaza performance hoped to hear the songs and textures the Dead no longer offer. Offering a gentle take on "He's Gone" and "Row Jimmy," Kadlecik's soft falsetto managed to hit the high notes missing from the current Dead's trio of deep-throated singers.

The ultimate cover band, Dark Star Orchestra embraces the concept of nostalgia by interjecting patented styles with youthful energy, their own living, breathing canon of cover songs. But, as Dark Star Orchestra continues to age, it will be interesting to watch their evolution. As the group's 1,000 performance clicks closer, one can wonder if Dark Star will finally dip into the 1960s, a classic era left almost entirely untouched. Perhaps, the group will revitalize some of the Dead's more lackluster years with new energy? Or, perhaps, Dark Star will start to work more original set lists into their repertoire, aging into a truly great club band.

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