Dark Star Orchestra, Neighborhood Theater, Charlotte, NC- 2/10
While recreating The Grateful Dead’s epic November 17, 1973 performance at UCLA’s Pauley Pavillion on this chilly Charlotte evening Dark Star Orchestra honored the Bay Area giants in a way that cannot be planned or rehearsed. While DSO delivered the early-set “Deal,” crowd activity triggered a house fire alarm. This was a bit alarming at first. I guess it’s supposed to be. A couple of the band members were visibly taken aback as the flashes of harsh white light and brain-hammering, cacophonous sounds offered up in three-blast groups infected the vibe immediately. However, much like the boys themselves would have done, DSO stood tall and continued to perform, completely undaunted. This band, often ribbed for making a career out of performing the music of others, demonstrated a professionalism that other much-ballyhooed acts may very well not have. Curiously it seemed to fuel them, and there were even points when it seemed like the sirenic (yeah, it’s a word now) rhythm blended with that of the band, moving from cautionary to cosmic. Ok, these were fleeting, but they were there. As one might expect, the fear of an actual fire was ignored. “A fire couldn’t happen at a Dead show,” seemed to be the interior monologue of the collective consciousness. Even more curious was the fact that the audio portion of the alarm ended just as the band slammed down the last “Deal” chord AND while the piercingly white flashing lights (it’s pretty damn fun to shut your eyes at a DSO show anyway) continued through the ensuing “Mexicali Blues,” they too stopped in turn just as this song completed. Very strange indeed and the whole thing made me think that it might be a good idea to propose to the President of Fire Alarms that any bright lights associated with distress signals should be set so that if they are triggered, they alert people in rhythmic synch with any live music in the immediate area. Perhaps that’s asking a lot
Armed with a new appreciation for untainted music, band and crowd came together for a version of “Tennessee Jed” that was absolutely outstanding. Guitarist John Kadlecik (the Jerry Dude) and bassist Kevin Rosen (Phil guy, although he didn’t look like the guy on the DSO web site) locked in gorgeously, particularly during the extended instrumental when Kadlecik artfully moved from a psychedelic twang lead to muscular low notes and then on up to a guitar roll-fueled culmination that flat out rocked, just as ol’ JerBear may very well have done on that night. Rosen played a smart foil, juxtaposing the guitar lines with prodding counterpoint bass that was similarly familiar. The current incarnation of this band has become markedly adept at delivering the subtleties of Grateful Dead music. Rosen’s ever-melodic bass, particularly during “Looks Like Rain,” Kadlecik’s spectacular noodling behind the vocal of “The Race Is On,” or his rhythm guitar to augment the piano solo on “Big River,” Rob Eaton’s (Pocket Ace) sharp and angular rhythm guitar during “Brown-Eyed Women” are all examples of their subtlety and awareness. I have never seen the often overlooked, relentless, rhythmic beauty of The Dead replicated better than on this night.
Nitpicky, nerdball Dead Heads (I am one) have often been critical of DSO for being more about playing setlists then recreating shows. They will identify things like a “headlight verse” being too aggressive for ’73, or a performance of a section of an instrumental in say, a 1977 “Cassidy,” that was not added until the 80’s, or the Bobby character wailing Weir’s chant of, “that’s right, Saturday night” during a ’78 show even though this too is something the real Weir pretty much began to do in the 80’s. However, tonight they almost completely (see “Headlight” verse) stayed in the style proper to the era particularly during the transition between “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider.” Eaton was brilliant here, as he bridged the improvisation by deftly moving from a smartly clangy approach to an area from which the band could jump to the smooth rhythm of what many of us call the “Feelin’ Groovy Jam” that often popped up in “China>Rider” jams of this era. While it’s an adorable little progression, it derailed the energy a bit and made for an overly gentle transition. But hey, it used to do that to the parent band which is probably why The Grateful Dead would go on to drop the “Feelin’ Groovy Jam” sometime in 1974.and in turn maybe why one of the few ways the 80’s Dead was on balance better than that of the 70’s was with regard to the spirited nature of their China>Rider transition jams. But I digress.
I was in attendance with a very dear old friend, in fact the same one who first played the music of The Grateful Dead for me sometime in the late seventies. He had come home toting a copy of a certain double album adorned with a rose-festooned skeleton inarguably the hippest and happiest bones I had ever seen. Our lives were changed and I would end up spending many hours listening to, and traveling for this deservedly legendary band. Today, my friend has a beautiful wife and two bright-eyed children three of the best reasons for not leaving the house that I’ve ever seen (and another child is on the way). My friend almost never attends musical performances anymore. I am the polar opposite, aggressively single and still seeking all that’s still unsung.sometimes seven days a week. A night out to see live music is as natural to me as going to the supermarket, and I was more than happy to drive up from Atlanta and dive back into that ol’ GD energy with a former fellow warrior of the musical road.
I had arrived early and (thanks to the help of Mike Kelly and Scott Flowe, each of Charlotte, each of whom would, as the night unfolded, repeatedly remind me of the spirit of The Grateful Dead as much as the band did) was able to procure three seats in the front row of the left side of the balcony pretty much center because the venue curiously does not use a whole separate area of the balcony just past the wall to our immediate left. I had seen shows in this room before, and I knew that this was the way I wanted my one-time musical mentor to experience his rare night out. If my buddy was gonna motivate to come revel, I had better motivate to make sure he had the best possible experience. He showed up just before show time, sad to report that his wife couldn’t make it but happy to drink some red wine. I pointed to the stage and told him that he should be able to narrow the show down to a 2 year period based solely on the drum kit (unless DSO had chosen to do an “original setlist” as they had done the night before in Asheville). His memory was hazy, and I proudly pointed out that they only had the single drummer thing from February of 1971 until the last run before the hiatus in 1974. I did not tell him that the exact dates were provided by aforementioned Kelly and Flowe.nor did I tell him that a fan of Umphrey’s McGee with the Internet name “Smallz” had recently corrected me that the Wall of Sound tour occurred in 1974, not in 1973 as I had suggested incorrectly.
Set break found us huddled with the folks in the row behind us, trying to determine what list was being played. During a gorgeously executed “Here Comes Sunshine” before the sirenic (see, somebody has used it again, so it is a word now) incident, my former music mentor leaned over to me and said, “’73.” I had guessed ’74 because of the “Me + My Uncle” opener and the fact that only one Wake of the Flood song had been performed during the lengthy first set. A very nice couple that was seated behind us discovered the list about midway through the break, so when the band returned we knew that “Row Jimmy” and “Jack Straw” (each delivered in almost disturbingly accurate fashion) were coming and that “Ramble On Rose,” would be the time during which we had to empty our bladders and fill our glasses as they were about to embark on an adventurous stretch of music.
They say that musicians have to clear their mind in order to play at their full potential. While watching DSO bring forth the palindromic (this too will debut in Webster’s next year) segment that was the centerpiece of the second set (“Playin’UncleJohn’sDewUncleJohn’sPlayin’ in “terspeak”), I couldn’t help but wonder if the removal of the burden of song sequencing allows them to engage themselves more deeply in the performance itself. The executions of these songs, and to a greater extent the transitions between them, were all extremely focused, energetic, and oh-so-’73 and seemed to bring a positive answer to this question. This night seemed, to me, to be an example of a DSO recreation, not a mere recital of a setlist.
Excepting an absolutely riveting “Stella Blue,” and a sprightly Filler Encore (additional songs DSO offers after they have completed the evening’s set program) of “Walk In The Sunshine” – a Weir tune from Ace that The Grateful Dead never performed live – everything that followed is a bit of a haze to me, overshadowed by this meaty, meaty stretch of ear massaging sweetness in the form of a palindrome.
I think of the great moments that have happened in the difficult GD years since Garcia passed. There were a couple of Shoreline dates on the first Other Ones tour in 1998, and Charlotte has hosted two big ones the power charged encore of the first Charlotte Furthur Tour play (1996), and the April 20, 2001 Phil Lesh Quintet show at Cricket Arena. St. Louis earned a sweet Kimock/Karan Other Ones show in 1998, but Alpine Valley had the best show of that run and the big, (at times brutally) sloppy 2002 reunion produced a moment of history (“Born Cross-Eyed” plopped into the middle of “Dark Star” with sublime grace) and of course those nights in the fall of 1999 when Phil sat in with Dylan. Even the last couple of “The Dead” tours in 2003 and 2004 had scattered moments of grandeur.
I now list this Dark Star Orchestra show with all of the above mentioned memories.